Mezcal – No Longer About the ‘Worm’
Growing up, all I knew about mezcal is that it came with worms; I remember the “ugh, trae gusanos…” (it comes with worms) expression of my mother. But mezcal was not common in the house, nor tequila, with my dad being strictly of the beer-drinking variety, so I grew up thinking of mezcal as something slightly foreign and containing plump drunken worms.
They’re not actually worms though, but rather the larvae of a moth that infests Agave Americana, the type of agave, or maguey, primarily used to distill mezcal throughout central and southern Mexico. The heart of a mature espadin agave, as it is commonly known, is cut out of the plant, slowly roasted for three days in stone lined pits, with the resulting mash allowed to ferment. It’s then twice distilled into a smoke-filled liquid, often consumed neat, sometimes with a pinch of salt and citrus slices or occasionally with a splash of citrus soda.
The larvae in the bottle are thankfully not common in the bottles found in the american market, with only one on the shelf, along with a scorpion-infused brand. What has thankfully become common are fantastic single-batch mezcals, produced in traditional palenques–roasting houses–mainly in the state of Oaxaca, resulting in a smoke-forward liquor with a stomach-warming roughness far more complex than tequila brings to the bottle. Companies like Del Maguey are importing single-producer mezcals to the United States, offering a variety of traditional fruit infusions, different agave varieties and a crema de mezcal variety, which combines the earthy sweetness of agave syrup with the mezcal. Another favorite is Sombra, a young 100 percent organic espadin agave, beautifully packaged in recycled hand-blown glass bottles, heavy in smoke and with a shadow of Oaxacan earth left on the palate.
While Mexicans consume mezcal neat, sometimes from plastic bottles bought from unlicensed distilleries, Americans are taking advantage of its ability to play well with others. The smoke in mezcal takes to sweetness and fruit well, and serving it on the rocks creates an even more interesting cold smoke effect long after the liquid has been consumed. However you choose to drink it, take the time to say as it is said in cantinas before the first drink: arriba, abajo, al centro y pa’ dentro. Up, down, center and in.
Mezcal is particularly suited to this lightly sweetened fruit infusion due to the smoky taste of the liquor. Tequila, rum or vodka may be easily substituted, but will be part of the taste. This recipe uses only the skin and core of the pineapple; enjoy the remaining sweet flesh over the days as you wait for the infusion to be ready.
2 piloncillo cones, or approximately 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 cups water
1 – 750 ml bottle of mezcal
1 large very ripe pineapple
1 – 2” piece of cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
10 black peppercorn, crushed
Place the piloncillo, or dark brown sugar, in a small saucepan with the 2 cups of water. Simmer gently until the sugar cone has completely dissolved. Allow to cool completely.
Wash the pineapple well. Cut off the top and the bottom, removing any usable pieces of skin. With a serrated knife, and the pineapple standing up on a cutting board, cut off the skin in segments, along with a generous amount of the flesh. Cut the pineapple into quarters. Lay each quarter on its side, and cutting at an angle, remove the core.
Place the pineapple skin and core in a food processor and pulse until very roughly chopped. Place the chopped pineapple skin and core in a clean and dry preferably glass container. Add the cinnamon, kosher salt, crushed black peppercorn and cloves. Pour the mezcal and cooled piloncillo syrup over it, stirring gently.
Cover, and allow to infuse for a minimum of 10 days, or up to a month. When ready, filter through a fine mesh strainer, using a funnel to fill the original mezcal bottle, as well as an additional container due to the increased liquid volume. Store cold, and serve over the rocks, with a splash of soda water if desired.