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Lane Harlan, owner of Clavel, pours a shot of Mezcal into a glass. Harlan traveled extensively through Oaxaca, a state in Mexico where mezcal is made, to learn about the popular liquor.
Lane Harlan, owner of Clavel, pours a shot of Mezcal into a glass. Harlan traveled extensively through Oaxaca, a state in Mexico where mezcal is made, to learn about the popular liquor. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The best way to learn about mezcal, the smoky spirit made with the roasted fruit of the agave plant, is to hop on a plane to Oaxaca, Mexico, rent a car and drive around until you see smoke.

But if a trip south of the border isn't in the cards, don't despair. Mezcal's rapidly growing popularity means that here in Baltimore, there's a lot to explore.

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Lane Harlan is likely Baltimore's foremost mezcal expert, and Clavel, the Remington mezcaleria she co-owns, is a good first stop for those who want an education on the spirit. Harlan developed her knowledge with multiple trips to Oaxaca, where she explored the countryside, visiting mezcal producers big and small.

"An easy way to approach mezcal is to differentiate it from tequila," she said. "The first thing to know is that anything distilled from agave is a mezcal, so tequila is a mezcal." But not all mezcals are tequila.

Technically, tequila can only be made in five Mexican states, while mezcal can be made in eight states (including Oaxaca, where much of the liquor is produced).

Part of the extensive collection of mezcal at Clavel, a restaurant in Remington. Mezcal is a liquor made from the agave plant.
Part of the extensive collection of mezcal at Clavel, a restaurant in Remington. Mezcal is a liquor made from the agave plant. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

"Another big difference is that tequila is made from the blue agave," Harlan said. In contrast, mezcal can be made with many different types of the plant. "Think about it in the sense of wine — you have different grapes. With mezcal, you're looking at the agave type."

Mezcal can be made with wild or cultivated agave plants and may be made with a single type of agave or multiple types.

The two spirits also differ in flavor. Jonathan Levy, lead bartender at Wit & Wisdom in Harbor East, offers an analogy. "Mezcal is to tequila like gin is to vodka," he said. "It has a lot of similar applications but a little more character."

That character comes from a production process that can be on the quirky side. According to Harlan, many small producers have been making mezcal the same way, with their families, for generations.

Though small-batch mezcal-making processes vary by producer, the basic steps are consistent, she said. After harvesting, the agave hearts are roasted in earthen ovens — "like a pit in the ground."

Then the agave is mashed with a stone wheel or even by hand and placed in a container to ferment.

"In lots of places, there are huge pine vats in the open air," Harlan said, noting that the flavors of the liquor are influenced by everything around the vat, from the animals kept nearby to the people tending the drink.

After fermentation, the mezcal is distilled twice in either copper or clay stills. The final product is typically between 45 percent and 55 percent alcohol by volume, said Harlan.

According to the Specialty Food Association, mezcal's star began to rise in the U.S. around 2010, and production jumped by 143 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Lane Harlan, owner of Clavel, pours mezcal into a glass. The liquor generally has a smoky flavor.
Lane Harlan, owner of Clavel, pours mezcal into a glass. The liquor generally has a smoky flavor. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore, mezcal sales are still climbing.

"Sales are definitely on the uptick," said Dominic Vasold, owner of The Perfect Pour liquor store in Elkridge.

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Vasold carries about half a dozen brands of mezcal at varying prices. "At this store, the mezcals people are buying aren't your inexpensive, $12 or $13 mezcal," he said. "They're buying the high end."

He attributes some of that interest to the cocktail boom that has swept the nation: "It's the mixology thing."

New York-based mezcal expert John McEvoy suggests several factors have contributed to the liquor's rise.

"In [New York] circa 2009, you rarely saw mezcal on a cocktail menu," he notes in his book "Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal!" "By 2011, you could barely find a cocktail menu without a sexy mezcal concoction."

McEvoy also notes that mezcal's popularity has coincided with increased cultural pride among Mexicans and more interest in small-batch, artisanal products of all types, especially among younger drinkers.

Mezcal is "quite anthropological," said Harlan. "It's about people and tradition."

Tequila, on the other hand, is mass-produced, with nearly all production done on a large scale.

Tequila has also lost some of its cachet among young, hip drinkers in Mexico, according to McEvoy. "It's what your father drank," he writes.

Steven Rivelis, owner of the soon-to-open Charles Street restaurant The Elephant, makes similar observations. "We know tequila now, but we didn't know it 20 years ago," he said. "It's an evolutionary thing that happens within the food world. Now, let's broaden the horizon. Mezcal's varieties and opportunities from a taste profile are phenomenal."

"There's a lot of variation," Levy added. "Some are very heavily smoky, some more citrusy. But all have smoke and the vegetable quality. It's very versatile but also distinct."

Levy encourages even drinkers who shy away from smokier liquors, like scotch, to give mezcal a try. "You can find ways to make mezcal more approachable," he said. "One of my favorite ways is to take any classic tequila drink and sub [in] mezcal."

At Wit & Wisdom, he typically features one or two cocktails with mezcal; right now, he's a fan of a drink called the Nevermore, which includes mezcal, amaro, maple syrup and orange bitters. "It's a fun drink because it's a little bitter, a little sweet and boozy, and the smoky quality from the mezcal is pronounced," he said, noting that it is a good choice for drinkers who like scotch or negronis.

Mezcal's recent surge in popularity has placed its producers in an interesting and potentially challenging position, said Harlan. They're trying to learn from some past mistakes of tequila makers.

A bottle of mezcal at Clavel is displayed with a tag detailing its origin and production. Mezcal is made in eight states* in Mexico.
A bottle of mezcal at Clavel is displayed with a tag detailing its origin and production. Mezcal is made in eight states* in Mexico. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

"The tequila industry is over-farmed," she said. "But mezcal brands have a group that is all about sustainability in the agave world." People are talking, she said, about how to responsibly develop agave production and how to fairly compensate the people making the spirit, all while preserving the culture that makes mezcal special.

Here in Baltimore, the staff at Clavel is doing their part by walking customers through tastings and the stories and flavors that make each type of mezcal unique.

"They all taste so incredibly different," said Harlan. "It's a beautiful thing."

Nevermore cocktail

At Wit & Wisdom, lead bartender Jonathan Levy mixes mezcal with bitter liqueurs and maple syrup for a drink that is smoky, bitter and sweet all at once. "It's a good drink … but not easy," he said, promising that lovers of scotch and negronis will find a lot to like about this concoction.

Yields 1 drink

1 1/2 oz. El Silencio Mezcal

3/4 oz. Gran Classico

3/4 oz. Averna Amaro

1/2 oz. maple syrup

Dash of orange bitters

1 drop saline solution

Combine everything in a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain over an iced sphere in a rocks glass, then garnish with a flamed orange twist.

*Correction: A caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly indicated where mezcal is made. Mezcal can be made in eight Mexican states.

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