Meet Mezcal, The Spicier Cousin To Tequilla

The time is ripe to savour one of Mexico's lesser-known imports, worms and all.
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From chic cocktail bars to cooler-than-thou speakeasies hidden in basements with stocky men demanding passwords before you can enter, there's no lack of places for Singaporeans to quench their thirst.

So it was only a matter of time before these bars moved on from fancy cocktail equipment to shining the spotlight on delicious spirits beyond whisky and gin (not that we have a problem with either of these, really). Junior, a cosy pocket bar that is the latest concept of the people behind Proof & Company, is doing just that with its focus on artisanal spirits, the first being a celebration of the craft behind agave spirits.

To be sure, mezcal is like the lesser-known cousin of tequilla, a spirit most of us would be well-acquainted with if we ever set foot in a club when young. The key difference between the two lies in how the spirits are made. While tequila uses only one type of agave — blue agave — its spicier relative can be made from over 200 species of agave, and is usually a blend of a few different kinds to produce different flavours.
The agave pinas (hearts) are fermented, then cooked in pit ovens over three days and turned into mash using a stone wheel.
The agave pinas (hearts) are fermented, then cooked in pit ovens over three days and turned into mash using a stone wheel.
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What is mezcal?
Discovered nearly 500 years ago, when the Spanish invaded Mexico and brought with them their knowledge of distilling spirits, mezcal is now made by over 9,000 manufacturers and produced in specifically nine states in Mexico. The agave pinas (hearts) are fermented, then cooked in pit ovens over three days and turned into mash using a stone wheel. It is then distilled in clay or copper pots and left to age.

"Mezcal is usually aged in bourbon oak barrels, which mellows the agave spirit and develops notes of vanilla and spice," says Peter Chua, co-head barman at Junior.
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Don’t be alarmed if you spot a worm in your bottle of mezcal, either — though touted as a bit of a marketing gimmick, certain mezcal producers add in a worm (the parasite that feeds on the agave plants, and is dug up during the agave harvest) in their bottle as proof of the spirit. The worm in the mezcal does not alter the flavour profile of the spirit, but bartenders have found fancy ways to serve up this little creature.

"The worms are made into salt, and blended with some chillies and spices, then served sprinkled over oranges or cucumbers," says Chua. The slices of orange or cucumber are usually placed at the side of a mezcal shot, for bar-goers wanting to enjoy their mezcal neat.
Spirit with fire

But not many would choose a neat shot of mezcal for their first time sampling the spirit. Though mezcal might be from the same agave spirit family as tequila, its taste profile leans closer towards whisky, with its smoky, spicy flavours. "A good way to ease into the drink is through a cocktail, something that showcases the flavour of the spirit while adding familiarity to the drink with other elements," says Chua.

At Junior, a popular mezcal-based cocktail is the cheekily-named Hanky Panky. While the traditional drink is made from gin and sweet vermouth, the bar's riff on the cocktail uses a wild mezcal to show off the versatility of agave spirits. "Because mezcal is spicier and stronger, we use lesser of the spirit (the original recipe calls for two parts of gin) to one part of vermouth, and added orange bitters," says Chua. Consider this a wise choice to wash down Mexican bar bites of fresh guacamole and tacos.
The Hanky Panky at Junior bar is a spicy riff on the traditional drink made from gin and sweet vermouth.
The Hanky Panky at Junior bar is a spicy riff on the traditional drink made from gin and sweet vermouth.
You can't tame a wild mezcal

While most mezcals fall into the category of cultivated spirits, there are the wild ones that are made from agave types that couldn't be farmed. These hardy agave plants produce a nectar that is sweeter than their cultivated family, a result of the reaction to the 'stress' put upon the plant by the climate and weather conditions where it grows.

Yet Chua is careful to note that this doesn't mean wild mezcals are sweeter. "It really depends on how it is distilled and fermented," he shares. "The taste of mezcal can change easily, no matter how you try to control consistency. A three-degree drop in temperature, or even the minerality of the water, can change the flavour of the agave spirit."

His best tip: "If you find one mezcal by a certain producer that you like a lot, buy all of it, because the next bottle definitely won't be the same."

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Photography by Wong Weiliang.
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