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"Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también." So goes the Oaxacan refrain (a rough and rhyme-less translation: "for all that's bad, mezcal - and for all that's well, as well"). It might as well be the state's mantra - head to an early morning festival, and you'll be handed mezcal with your coffee ("They say in Oaxaca ... they drink coffee with mezcal," sings Lila Downs); bump into an evening parade and someone will thrust a bottle and a slim bamboo shooter in your hand, and you'll find yourself suddenly chirpy and marching along.
Mezcal is made from the maguey, a type of agave plant (tequila is made from a different type of agave). The heart ("piña") of the plant is extracted and cooked in a pit over hot stones for days (this roasting gives the mezcal its characteristic smokiness). After cooking, the piña is mashed and then placed in a vat or barrel with water to ferment. Sometimes, chicken breast is added to the mix - this creates "mezcal de pechuga" which has a richer, deeper flavor, more rounded and less smoky (although nothing, as one might think, like chicken); other times fruits or herbs are added to the fermentation process to slightly alter the taste of the mezcal. After fermentation, the mezcal is left to distill for months or years. Aged mezcal is called "añejo" - frequently this mezcal will have a darker, more layered and intense flavor.
While mezcal has made inroads in upscale bars and local cantinas along the West Coast, and you can find it in the occasional Mexican hipster joint in Chicago, it has yet to make a solid appearance in the wider U.S foodie scene. That slushy, swirly green monster that calls itself a margarita still dominates, the same ol' Latin cocktail with the same ol' fake lime taste and sticky sea salt around its edges.
The mezcalini knocks the wind out of a margarita in the way a devastating woman in black sweeps into a room of dull, fumbling men. It's smoky, it's fresh, it's innovative, and it's as smooth as it is dangerous.
I came to know the mezcalini at Casa Oaxaca, a Oaxacan hotel and restaurant which does the town's only knockout cocktails. If we're feeling particularly self-indulgent, Jorge and I swing by the bar with its plush brown leather chairs and order two mezcalinis - sometimes, the tamarind, sometimes, the xoconoxtle, sometimes, if we're feeling daring, the grasshopper (yes, roasted, chile-rubbed, grasshopper). Otherwise, we make them at home. Once you find the ingredients, they're shockingly simple to make. Below, I've included recipes for ginger and basil and tamarind mezcalinis, courtesy of El Universal and Casa Oaxaca.
Ginger and Basil Mezcalini
Juice of 2 limes
5 basil leaves
1 spoonful of shaved ginger
2 oz. jarabe natural (this is a sweet syrup made from distilling natural fruits and leaves in Mexico - if you can't find it at a supermarket, you can substitute agave syrup)
1½ oz. of mezcal reposado
3 ice cubes
Sal de gusano (worm salt, made with the worm that feeds off of the maguey plant. If you can't find this at the supermarket, try to find chile salt - sal de chile. You can always make your own sal de chile mixing grainy salt with chile de arbol powder, available in the spice section of most supermarkets)
Place the lime juice, basil leaves, ginger, and syrup in a cocktail shaker and shake well. Let sit for a moment. Shake again. Let sit. Add ice and mezcal and shake again. Slightly moisten the edges of a martini glass, turn it upside down and swirl it gently on a plate of sal de gusano. Serve the mixture into the martini glass. Garnish with a thin slice of lime.
Juice of ½ lime
1½ oz. jarabe natural/agave syrup
½ oz. tamarind pulp (to get tamarind pulp, soak tamarind in warm water for about a half an hour. Once tamarind is soft, rub it gently with your fingers until it has loosened up and dissolved, and the seeds no longer contain any pulp. Run the mixture through a strainer to remove seeds and pulp, and use the strained liquid in the recipe).
1½ oz. mezcal reposado
3 ice cubes
Sal de gusano
Place lime juice, jarabe natural and tamarind pulp in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Let sit for a moment. Add ice and mezcal, and shake again. Rub the top of a moistened martini glass in the sal de gusano, and then pour the mixture into the martini glass. Serve with the thin lime slice.
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