Smoke 'em if you got 'em
This was a saying often bellowed by the doorman and manager at our bar in NYC, Brite Bar. Whenever a guest would go outside to smoke you’d hear Joe’s booming baritone voice shout: “Smoke 'em if you got 'em!” I’ve been thinking about Joe and this phrase a lot this Summer. Not because I’ve taken up smoking but because I’ve been drinking a lot of smoky mezcal.
Mezcal is much different from tequila and most people think without trying it (like anchovies) they don’t like it. Like a lot of spirits consumed without guidance, mezcal can be overpowering. Our palates are trained at a very young age. Hand a preschooler a Coke and they’ll chug it; hand them tonic water and they’ll probably throw it at you. Most people don’t start with Laphroaig 10 year single malt scotch as their first. We need to train our palates and be guided on what to expect. If we didn’t, most of us would assume that all single malts taste like smoky band-aids that have been soaked in peat. But if you start with a luscious, supplely smooth single malt like Balvenie 12 year or Scapa 16 year with a drop or two of water, you’ll understand the basics of single malts and slowly grow to love the soaked band-aids. The same goes for mezcal.
So what is mezcal? Is it tequila? Yes, sort of.
By law tequila can only be made from Blue Agave, while Mezcal can be made from over 25 varieties of agave. The most common agave used are Blue and Espadin. Tequila production is very industrial. The agave look like huge aloe plants, until the leaves are sheared off using a coa de jima and then look like giant pineapples; this core is called the pina. For tequila the pina are cooked in giant stainless steel pressure cookers and then fermented, etc. But for mezcal the pina are cooked underground. A large cone-shaped pit is dug and lined with volcanic rocks. A wood fire is started at the bottom and once the rocks heat up the pina are added, covered with earth and left to cook for several days. This chars and caramelizes the pinas and gives a rich smoky flavor to mezcal. After baking the pina are crushed or pressed by a giant stone wheel called a tahona, and the juice is fermented and distilled. So this age old craft is the reason you see mezcals costing upwards of $75 a bottle. You’re paying for a truly hand-made process with little intervention from machinery. There’s more machinery used in the distribution than in the process of making mezcal.
If you want to experience what smoke is like in a spirit, give Mezcal Union Uno a try. As a sipper with just a small piece of ice will be a great way to appreciate its nuances. You’ll also be supporting 30 small families that have produced this delicious spirit.
Union has a mild smoky quality with an earthy vegetal flavor profile that’s not overbearing. I’ve been mixing 1.5 ounces with blood orange juice and sparkling water and enjoying this delicious cocktail outside. This weekend I might try mixing some into white sangria just to give it a kick of smoke.
I really wanted to add a timely cocktail to this post called “The Donald” but no one had a glass big enough to fit 20 billion ounces of pompous ego. So instead I give you a recipe from Union’s website:
2 cucumber slices
20 ml of lime juice
20 ml of natural syrup
Fill the rest with Sprite
1 1/2 oz of Mezcal Unión
Substitute soda water for a less sugary cocktail.