Friday, July 9, 2010

softly through the shadow of the evening sun

For a long time, I thought the reason tequila is so much more expensive in NH than domestic spirits was because of the difference between state taxes on liquor (which NH has less need for since it runs the liquor stores and therefore has a hand in the till anyway) and federal tariffs on imported liquor (which therefore wouldn't be reduced by a state situation).  That may still be relevant, but there are other factors, which I think also answer the question of "why isn't there an American tequila yet?"

Legally an American tequila couldn't be called tequila, but if it could be made and sold cheaply enough, I don't think that would be a barrier.  I'm sure some New York based company would do just fine marketing Jose Pepe Agave Shooters or some fucking thing.  But it can't be made cheaply, that's the problem -- tequila is as expensive as it is despite the cheapness of labor and resources in Mexico, so imagine how much more expensive it would be to produce on this side of the border, especially for a small-time operation that doesn't benefit from economies of scale.

It all comes down to the ingredients.  Both tequila and mezcal (also spelled mescal, no relation to mescaline) are made from the agave plant.  Now, while the sugar cane, grains, and grapes for rum, whiskey, vodka, and brandy are planted and harvested every year, the agave plant isn't harvested until it's 8 to 10 years old, at which point the pina (pineapple-looking fruit) of the agave is pressed for its sap, which is fermented into a spirit.

That's a lot of time.  A lot of waiting around.  Waiting is always relevant in spirit pricing, and rum and whiskey producers have the option of selling young versions of their products in order to generate revenue while the alpha dogs rest in the wood.

Maybe because of that, as much of the agave plant is put to use in Mexico as possible.  The leaves and roots are used for tea.  The fiber is used to make thread, not only for Mexico but throughout South America and Spain, a holdover of old Colonial trade ties. 

Agave syrup is used as a sugar substitute (with some growing popularity in the US).  When fermented, it becomes pulque, a thick opaque beverage dating to the pre-Colonial period and eventually mostly displaced by the beers of European immigrants.  When pulque is distilled, it becomes tequila or mezcal.

The differences between tequila and mezcal can be significant.  Tequila must by law be made with at least 51% blue agave, one of the three main agave species, and every liquor blogger in the world will tell you to only drink 100% blue agave tequila, which is basically every tequila on a shelf higher than your shin.

Mezcal can mean two different things.  For a long time, Americans were familiar with it only to mean "a distilled agave spirit which cannot be called tequila" -- any agave spirit, in other words, that is not at least 51% blue agave.  This meaning remains valid.  It is also this mezcal, not tequila, which is sometimes sold with a worm -- not because it adds anything, but because frat boys and tourists have heard about the worm and want in on it.

It can also mean an agave spirit which is distinctly different from tequila: one in which the pina of the maguey (agave americana) is roasted (in a wood-burning oven or over charcoal, typically).  If you've ever had my roasted pineapple, well, you understand how profound the difference can be between a thing and a thing roasted.  Okay, that's true of anything, pineapple just came to mind because of "pina."

Lately, this second kind of mezcal has become easier to find in the United States, thanks to a small number of devoted importers.  The Del Maguey single village mezcals, for instance, have hit the cocktail scene hard, and Del Maguey has recently introduced Vida, a blend which sells for about half the price of the $70-80 single village bottlings.  I also hear good things about Ilegal.

But the first mezcal I'm trying is Sombra, which is cheaper than Del Maguey's single village mezcals but still premium-priced.  It immediately answered my question of why so many mezcal cocktail recipes call for, for instance, only 1/2 oz of mezcal and 1 1/2 oz tequila: this stuff is strong.

I don't mean "strong like firewater," like it's going to knock you flat.  I mean the flavor is huge.  It's smokey like an Islay Scotch, but where smokey Scotches always remind me of smoldering wet haystacks, Sombra reminds me of a barbecue pit -- my first thought when I open the bottle is of that smell, driving up to a barbecue joint, that smokiness that permeates everything.

What are we going to make with it?  Well, you can substitute it for tequila, which would make a very smoky margarita.  But today I'm making something on Last Word proportions, though I backed off the maraschino at the last minute and used double Aperol: 2 oz Aperol, 1 oz mezcal, 1 oz lemon, shaken, over cubes of frozen watermelon juice.


It's not as sweet as you'd think, with that much Aperol, and the flavors of the mezcal emphasize the bitterness of the Aperol, which makes me wonder how it'd go with Campari.  All in all: cold.  Good.  Bracing.

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