During a trip to Mexico City or Mazatlan you may remember sipping (or throwing back) shot glasses of mezcal accompanied by orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano, the savory seasoning blend made with pulverized dried worms, sea salt and chiles (trust us, it tastes way better than it sounds).
But spice-coated citrus is far from the only pairing option for the artisanal Mexican spirit. At SacBe Beach Shack, the toes-in-the-sand beachfront restaurant at the Marriott Cancun Resort, a new interactive experience dubbed the Mezcal Lab proves that on the table, mezcal might just give wine a run for its peso.
First, let’s get a few things straight about this often-misunderstand regional potable. Like Tequila, mezcal is also made from agave. However, while the blue weber variety is used for Tequila, up to 50 different species grown in all kinds of soil at different altitudes can be used for its cousin. This means that mezcal’s style, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and overall style can vary wildly from bottle to bottle, making it expressive of terroir and food-friendly with a wide variety of cuisines and dishes — not only enchiladas or moles.
Finally, though mezcal can taste smoky — since the hearts of the agave plants (called the piña) are roasted in underground wood- or charcoal-fueled pits instead of cooked or steamed in ovens like for Tequila — it doesn’t always; don’t be surprised when you come across bottles with nary a whiff of smoke. All of these influences and characteristics mean that mezcal actually might have more in common with wine than with Tequila — it’s no wonder it works so well with food.
“The span of aromas and flavors of mezcal is wide,” according to chef and master mezcalier Benjamin Nava. “Instead of brands, try to get to know the organoleptic [sensory] profiles of the different agaves.” Espadin is herbaceous, madre cuishe is fruity, tobala is spicy, sierra negra is mineral-driven, and jabali is floral. Before buying a bottle, read the label or do a little sleuthing online to find a producer putting out the style you like or wish to partner with an appetizer, entree or dessert.
While you might shy away from serving such a high-proof beverage with food, Nava says that since mezcal is so pure, you shouldn’t be afraid of that ABV. (Hey, whiskey pairing dinners are a thing too, right?) Plus, keep in mind that you will only be serving an ounce or so per course, versus a whole or half glass of wine.
Speaking of glassware, set out stems that have a wide enough bowl so you are able to swirl and sniff to release those nuances — white wine glasses or coupes work well. You can also use the traditional copitas, shallow cups made from hollowed-out dried gourds, terra cotta, ceramic or wood, which will lend an authentic vibe.No matter the vessel, mezcal is best served at 64F°to 68F° to allow it to truly express its bouquet.
As with wine, when you are creating a mezcal pairing menu, consider the basic flavors of a dish — bitter, acid, salt, and sweet, being mindful to minimize excessive spiciness, acidity and saltiness — as well as ingredients and cooking method. Taste the mezcal first by itself, identifying the aromas and flavors that linger above or below any inherent smokiness. “Now the complexity begins,” Nava says. “Trying to enhance and balance the food and drink in your mouth.” Take a bite, sip the mezcal again, and see how it changes or augments both.
Brooding, dark, smoky expressions will obviously work with smoked brisket, roasted oysters and grilled rib eye, and Mexican fare is a no-brainer too. Try mole poblano with mezcal tobala, pork carnitas tacos with mezcal cupreata from Michoacan and grasshopper (or crispy shrimp) tacos and guacamole with mezcal salmiana from San Luis Potosi. But don’t stop there, Nava says. “Sushi and mezcal espadin has been a hit at home, as have dark chocolate truffles with mezcal tobala, or a cigar with mezcal tobasishe.”
At a recent mezcal dinner at SacBec, guests sampled combos like Yucatan-style grouper with the herbaceous, vegetal Las Marias, octopus chicharron with rustic roasted tomato sauce alongside the spicy fruit and floral-scented El Viejo Manuelon Mezcal and a habanero chocolate brownie with the cooked agave and honey notes of Benavente Mezcal. Just as eye-opening though, was the opportunity to happen upon an unexpectedly synergistic bite and sip. The SacBe tasting experience is done blind, with an ever-changing menu and featured mezcalier guiding and curating the evening. The price for the five-course Mezcal experience is $1,500 MXN, which works out to $73.49 per person, including the dishes and beverage pairings.