Agave plants are prepared for their painstaking cooking process in earthen ovens.
On a recent trip to Northern California friends took me to a hip Oaxacan restaurant in downtown Oakland, the new foodie’s mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area. Having lived in Oakland for 40 years prior to relocating to San Diego, I was ready to celebrate the city’s culinary renaissance with a serious margarita at this new Mexican restaurant. I discussed the tequila options in detail with the waiter, and settled on a middle of the road quality from their list of >200 tequilas. The drink I received blew my mind.
While I am a wine expert, my knowledge of tequila is somewhat limited. Having grown up on Mexican food and visited Mexico close to 100 times, I’ve had my fair share of margaritas, however, I’ve never seriously analyzed tequila. While I’ve developed a killer margarita recipe (one of my most requested), I’ve concentrated more on the ratios involved, and complexity using a mélange of different citrus. The margarita I was served at this restaurant changed forever changed my future margaritas.
I knew the tequila in my drink was something completely different from what I have ever experienced. What I tasted was a complex layering of something smoky. Could I have mistakenly ordered a very old tequila that had been aged in wood which had a high toast on the barrel? (Do tequila makers even use toasted barrels?)
I called over the waitress to confirm my order and she affirmed that the margarita she had brought me was indeed the one I had ordered. With further questioning she added that drink’s tequila was a young one and there was no wood influence. I next asked her to bring the bottle. Expecting a deep- colored tequila (from wood aging), the alcohol was perfectly clear. Still perplexed, I asked if I could smell it. Removing the cap, I found a neutral smelling liquid that was not even remotely related to what I smelled in my margarita. I knew there had been a mistake with the tequila. The waitress suggested sending over the restaurant’s tequila expert. Perfecto!
I struck, gold with the tequila guru. He began explaining the tequila that was used in the drink and he, too, confirmed that it had never seen wood. I handed my drink for him to smell. The very first whiff he turned to me and said “You received a margarita made with the wrong alcohol. Your drink is made with mezcal.” He then proceeded to explain the difference between the two liquors, both made from the agave plant.
Mezcal is different from tequila in 3 ways:
1. The biggest difference is the manner in which the two are made. Premium producers of Mezcal roast the agave in underground pits over wood. These earthen “ovens” cook, smoke, and carmelize the agave imparting a complex layering of these flavors. This is exactly what I had tasted in my margarita.
2. Another difference is that tequilia and mezcal are made from different types of agave. By law tequila can only be made only from Blue Agave, however, mezcal can be made not only from the blue plant, but from more than 30 varieties of Agave.
3. The last difference has to deal with laws dictating geographical constraints. Tequila can only be produced in 5 specific regions, whereas mezcal has 9 distinct regions in which it can be made.
The knowledgeable staff person immediately brought me the correct margarita, however, after tasting the mezcal concoction the tequila margarita tasted dull and insipid. Next, the staff expert brought a margarita made with half tequila and half mezscal (one of the favorites on the restaurant’s drink list.) This was perfection! A subtle hint of smokiness was present, but did not over-power as it had done in the original margarita I had been served. This last one was the best of both worlds, laced with complexity but with only a whisper of a smoky profile.
Cinco de Mayo is around the corner. Go buy a bottle of high-end mezscal and a good quality tequila. Experiment. Enjoy. (And, if you should ever be in the Bay Area, don’t miss Calavera restaurant in Oakland).