Mezcal: Getting to Know the Unknowable

This article was published in the April 2016 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

One of my guilty pleasures is the deep-fried, cinnamon and sugar encrusted churro, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about the cocktails I drank while eating the churros. Mezcal cocktails. A Mexican spirit derived from the agave piña that I was not familiar with before a cold Friday night in March.

At Mezcaleria Las Flores in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, the mezcal cocktails arrived in creative containers: a Mexican beer bottle turned drinking glass, a round dried gourd perched on a woven stand, and a tiny ceramic jar with room for one finger to slip through the handle.

The flavors hit me all at once as I tried the “Baseworld Paradise,” a mix of Mayalen Wild Cupreata mezcal, Victoria beer, pineapple, lemongrass, Dolin Genepy, fresh lime and chile Tajin. The sour tartness zaps you in the nose, but the sip ends with a mellow fizzy finish with the citrus lingering around the edges of your mouth. I was hooked.

In talking with Mezcaleria’s owner, Jay Schroeder, I learned that mezcal is a complicated, mysterious spirit (which explained my initial hesitation in attempting to describe the flavors and feel of the drink). “The experts are the people who make it,” he says. “The amount of expertise that goes into operating the stills, to working with the produce, to making this thing happen in a beautiful and consistent way is where the true talent lies and where the praise is deserved. I just want to know a lot about it.”

I wondered how, if the spirit is so complicated, he choses the mezcals that eventually end up at his bar. Quality and ethical concerns come first, according to Schroeder. He relies on the distillers to confirm the quality of the ingredients and commitment to ethical work practices.

“Certain things go into the production lines that are unknowable, particularly because of the remoteness of the production,” Schroeder explains. “You see a lot of trucks stacked to the brim with agave piñas three, four hours from Oaxaca.”

Some may disagree, but Schroeder believes looking for terroir in agave spirits from source material is “like trying to tell me where the corn in Maker’s Mark comes from.” The reasoning behind his assertion lies in the fact that mezcal is a commodity product.

Schroeder’s dive into all things mezcal happened gradually; he describes his career path as “climbing a ladder as it’s being built.” He was also fortunate to become involved with spirits as one of Chicago’s first craft cocktail bars opened – The Drawing Room – as part of the resurgence of sprits in the late 2000s. Schroeder refers to this time as the second golden age of the cocktail, a term used by Dale DeGroff, master mixologist. The first golden age occurred in the 1920s.

The speakeasy feel of the craft cocktail bars around Chicago is hard to miss, but Schroeder balks at the question: Why don’t you just pour spirits? Mezcaleria breaks from what traditional cocktail bars serve. Even the bar décor turns away from the speakeasy feel, respecting instead the roots of the space which was at one time a flower shop, hence “Las Flores” (the flowers) in the bar’s name.

“The modern cocktail bartenders are all generalists and the field of mezcal is so convoluted and complicated that I have a distinct advantage. I have been able to focus on mezcal, to start to crack the code on the chaos of mezcal production”

But he says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be a mezcal expert.”

I turn to the next mezcal concoction sitting in front of me, “Shook Ones Pt 1,” and wonder how I’ll be able to grasp the hints of this mysterious spirit before they slip away to become something unknowable.

“The saga with mezcal continues…”

Mezcal cocktail

The “Baseworld Paradise” at Mezcaleria Las Flores in Chicago’s Logan Square neighbourhood.

 

Recipe  

Illuminati Handshake

(courtesy of Jay Schroeder)

1 dash Angostura orange bitters

¾ oz fresh lemon juice

½ oz rooibos syrup

¾ oz Lustau Olorosso sherry

¾ oz Old Overholt rye whiskey

1oz Mina Real mezcal

rimmed with gran mitla sal de gusano

rooibos syrup: combine 3 tea bags of rooibos tea with 6 ounces of water. Steep for 5 minutes then remove. While still hot, stir in 5 ounces of sugar until dissolved.

Illuminati Handshake is a mysterious drink. Splitting the difference between rye whiskey and a mezcal without smoke, two powerful forces combine, leaving the spice of the whiskey and the citrus of the mezcal. The rooibos and sherry continue down the same warm, dark path as the rye, and the gran mitla sal de gusano rounds out the drink with an ingredient so insidious and unctuous as to make one’s presence known to any fellow scion of the New World Order.

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