Poor, misunderstood mezcal needs a better PR firm. In spite of Robert Earl Keen warbling to the contrary, “a nightmare of mezcal” isn’t as likely to land drinkers on “Sonora’s Death Row” compared to other kinds of hard liquor. Let’s clear up some misconceptions about this south-of-the-border spirit: The name is not short for mescaline, so tossing back a glass won’t conjure up psychedelic hallucinations of Pancho Villa riding a panther in your backyard. Quality bottles should not have a double-dog-dare-you-to-drink-it dead worm inside. And, this is the most common fallacy about the Mexican liquor, it’s not just rotgut tequila made for drinkers with a death wish.
In reality, mezcal is not a type of tequila at all. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, made only from the blue agave plant in the area around Jalisco. Mezcal, on the other hand, may originate from one of the hundreds of other types of agave plants. It is produced across eight states, making the terroir a legitimate talking point with this product, much like soil and climate affect wine production. Artisans dubbed Maestro Mezcaleros craft the liquor in copper pots, clay stills, or underground pits, imparting the product with a smoky, complex, and varied tasting profile. Because “Mexican moonshine” is a genuine example of a small-batch artisanal craft spirit, bottles prices may range from $25 to $350.
Here in North Texas, finding mezcal is becoming far easier, as local establishments are finally seeing a demand from the savvier imbiber. If you are new to this spirit, I’d recommend your first stop be Tortaco (910 Currie St, 682-990-0735), as the West 7th-area restaurant’s selection is the most comprehensive I’ve found in a local bar. There are two different price points: a $3 “sip” and a $7 “shot” for standard-grade bottles and $6 and $14 for premium offerings. An excellent bang for your buck, Del Maguey Vida is an affordable single-village artisanal mezcal that is light and smoky without being overpowering.
But if you want to splurge at Tortaco, check out the Del Maguey Chichicapa. It has a rich mouth-feel, pulling chocolate, mint, smoke, and vegetal notes that would make an ideal nightcap in the smaller pour. If a mixed drink is more your style, try Tortaco’s house variation on the margarita, the terribly named Dirty Sanchez. The sweetness of the oven-roasted pineapple balances the smokiness from the Espadin Joven mezcal nicely. The Sidecar is also a simple but exceptional choice if you lean toward that classic cocktail’s flavor.
La Perla Negra (910 Houston St, 817-882-8108) features a mezcal-mule that utilizes Gracias a Dios as the base spirit mixed with ginger beer, lime, passion fruit, agave, and cucumber. The downtown eatery also offers the Del Maguey Vida, along with Mezcal Joven and Gracias a Dios by the glass.
After a short walk north, Wild Salsa (300 Throckmorton St, 682-316-3230) serves five different by-the-glass options. Del Maguey Vida is also served here, plus Ilegal Joven, the oak-barrel aged Los Nahaules Reposado, Montelobos Joven, and Sombra Blanco.
But if you are looking for something to try at home or give as a gift, Total Wine (5200 S Hulen St, 817-292-2503) has the most varied liquor store selection available, with more options to ship and pick up in-store via the website. I recommend the Del Maguey Crema, which earned a 91 from Wine Enthusiast for its balanced and smooth notes of vanilla, pineapple, almond, and coffee, with a light, smoky finish. Sadly, the East Coast currently has the easiest access to my other favorite brand, Los Amantes Joven, and the nearest store that carries it in Texas is 400 miles away. Maybe we should remind them down south that you always want to make friends with the neighbors first and drop a few bottles our way.