Mezcal purists like Karla Amtmann, founder and CEO of Santo Diablo Mezcal, will be the first to tell you, “mezcal is meant to be sipped and savored.” Why? Because, only in its unadulterated form can you truly appreciate the beautiful nuances of the land from which it originates, acknowledge its tumultuous history predating Spain’s occupation of Mexico, and respect the laborious process of making mezcal; a tradition passed through generations of mezcaleros, that’s behind this aguardiente (fiery water), which mystics say came from the gods.
But she and her fellow mezcal passion-istas will also concede that mezcal cocktails are a great way to introduce the smoky spirit to new audiences, “and that’s ultimately a good thing.”
New to Mezcal?
Here’s the good news—it’s easy to find and use! Most liquor stores will carry at least one, and it’s a great twist on any tequila-based favorites in your libation library.
But quality means a lot when it comes to mezcal, and the good stuff, those worth sipping straight, can cost you a pretty penny.
If you’re not into the strong smoky burn that we’ve come to know and love, stick to ordering mezcal when you’re out and about rather than investing in an entire bottle.
Or try it with a sweet citrus wedge (orange or lime) that will bring out the flavor of the agave. Mezcal is also good with Sal de Gusano, a smoky, savory salt made from mealworms.
For those looking to scratch that itch, Santo Diablo’s mezcal is softly smoked with a subtle sweetness, making it the perfect stepping stone into what I’ve come to know as “mezcal mania!”
Mezcal “the forgotton spirit” A Brief History
We had a chance to meet with Karla at the San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival and she gave us a proper introduction to Santo Diablo, her Oaxaca based small-batch mezcal distillery, and the mezcal spirit in general.
“It’s a forgotten drink,” she told us. “Originally called pulque, it was a liquor that came from toasting the heart of the agave plant, called the piña.” As the story goes, centuries ago a lightening bolt split an agave plant in two and the juices that ran from its heart were later turned into the “fiery water,” a nickname I always attributed to the burn in the back of your throat when you take your first sip, but I like her version more.
During Spain’s colonization of Mexico, the Spanish rulers taught the indigenous people how to distill the pulque properly using European methods, which increased the alcohol content and refined the taste. This new iteration is what became known as “mezcal” which comes from an Aztec word that loosely translates to “oven-cooked agave.” To give it an air of sophistication the Spaniards ended up calling it “Vino mezcal” and it became the most popular beverage in Mexico, even more so than the Spanish wines the king’s emissaries brought from home.
Some people say everyone was getting drunk off mezcal and productivity was low in the silver mines and society was on the decline. Others say it was Spanish pride that got in the way. Regardless, many historians will tell you there’s usually an economic reason for change and it’s probably the lost revenue from selling Spanish wine and declining silver exports that caused King Carlos III of Spain to apply pressure to his Viceroy in Mexico demanding a ban on mezcal production.
So mezcal distilling stopped altogether for decades until Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo was granted a permit from King Carlos IV of Spain to produce it again commercially in 1795. Cuervo’s permission was granted on the condition that it would not be sold as “Vino mezcal” but with another name. Since Cuervo’s agave ranch was in the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, they called it “Mezcal de Tequila” and later (in the 1890s) they dropped mezcal and just called it tequila.
Demand for tequila was on the rise, causing Cuervo, and the few additional producers granted permission to make it, to find ways to increase productivity and lower their manufacturing costs.
That meant various parts of the agave plant were used (not just the piña), younger plants were harvested because they couldn’t wait for them to mature properly, the slow roasting process was sped up and the stone grinding of the charred plant was performed less and less by hand, stone and donkey. This is how tequila veered from the path of its ancestral predecessor—mezcal—into what it is today.
Santo Diablo Mezcal
Santo Diablo Mezcal has only been around for a few years but Don Adolfo Martinez their maestro mezcalero (master mezcal maker) is the fourth generation of his family harvesting espadin agave piña, roasting, grinding, and distilling it in Oaxaca.
The plants they use take a minimum of 10 years to grow, with other producers using agave as young as 5 years. Some will use agave that is 15 years old, but that’s rare for a mezcal maker these days, because the cost of waiting that long requires a higher price point when it goes to market.
One plant takes 5-6 hours to cut properly and they transfer the piñas via donkey from the fields where they’re grown to the underground pits of volcanic rock and wood where it’s roasted for smoke and caramelization of the natural sugars, several miles away. The roasted piñas ferment for two weeks, the juices are pressed out, and it goes through a two-hour copper pot distillation process.
Karla is very proud of her small batch mezcal production and the attention to detail that goes into every bottle. She explained how they let the piña grow until its sugar content is 28, because this leads to a slightly sweeter mezcal.
Some of the sweetness also comes from the alkaline rich spring water they source from the rivers of San Juan del Río.
Santo Diablo is a lovely mezcal to sip on it’s own, but it can certainly be used as a base for many cocktails. If you love mezcal like we do, then get ready to explore a world of small-batch artisanal agave cocktails, because mezcal mania is here to stay.
“The Mezcarol” a Mezcal Cocktail with Mint & Aperol
This recipe was inspired by a mezcal-based cocktail the mixologists at MIHO catering created for a summer wedding I attended in San Diego. Since it was one of the signature cocktails (the groom loves mezcal) they pre-mixed the base and poured out the desired amount as needed, only adding a splash of soda and rimming each glass with Tajin classic seasoning to order.
Why the Tajin? It’s a spice blend of chilies, salt and lime, which is great for a tangy burst of heat. It’s also a nice play on the traditional margarita salt rim.
We’re calling this the “Mezcarol” because it’s primarily a combination of mezcal and Aperol liquor. This version is best when made to order (ie: not in a punch bowl) and I had the tough job of experimenting with trying different proportions of mezcal and aperol on a Wednesday afternoon, but hey—somebody had to do it!
Feel free to substitute tequila in for the mezcal if you’re not feeling it, but try it this way first, and then decide. The Aperol does a great job of highlighting the smoke of the mezcal without overpowering it. The fresh mint, lemon juice and agave nectar bring everything together into the perfect summer cocktail that’s refreshing, a little sweet, a little smoky, and a beautiful shade of cantaloupe.
*makes 2 servings
- 4 oz of your favorite mezcal (we loved it with Santo Diablo mezcal but you can substitute another or even tequila if you’d like)
- 2 oz of Aperol
- 1 oz of fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1 oz of agave sweetener
- club soda (amount will depend on your taste)
- A few leaves of fresh mint and some extra for garnish
Muddle a few mint leaves with 1 oz fresh lemon juice and 1 oz agave sweetener in the base of a shaker. If you don’t have a muddler you can use either end of a wooden spoon.
Then add the 4 oz of mezcal, 2 oz Aperol and a few cubes of ice and cover.
Shake it like nobody’s business for 30 seconds.
Evenly pour the mezcal and aperol mixture through a sieve (you want to remove the bruised mint leaves) into 2 highball glasses filled with ice cubes stopping when you’re about ¾ of the way up each glass. Fill the rest of the glasses with club soda.
Stir a few times with a straw, garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and enjoy!
You have a favorite mezcal cocktail recipe you want to share? Leave it in the comments below.