In the UK, mezcal tends to be known as tequila’s slightly more mysterious, smoky cousin. But, contends Marcis Dzelzainis, we’re only scratching the surface of what the agave spirit has to offer…
Visiting Mexico’s mezcal-producing regions a couple of years ago was a defining moment for Michael Sager and Marcis Dzelzainis. The duo behind Sager + Wilde and the recently opened Fare strayed from the well-trammelled path to visit micro-batch family producers who’ve been making agave distillates for generations.
What they discovered was a world away from the mezcals that are reaching the UK's bars and restaurants. In fact, due to the rigours of the Conseljo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), most of the products they tasted can't even be classified as mezcal.
‘The CRM is important for maintaining standards, but they have some very specific criteria about how mezcal should be made – some of which seem fairly arbitrary in our eyes,’ Dzelzainis tells Imbibe. ‘There’re lots of small producers who wouldn’t fit the categorisation.
‘Additionally, it costs one hell of a lot to get certified – upwards of US$16,000 – which a lot of them couldn’t achieve in two or three lifetimes.’
What particularly struck Dzelzainis and Sager was the diversity they discovered – from the type of agave used to the production methods – compared to the high-volume products that reach these shores.
‘When you spend a bit of time out there, you realise that at one end of the village you get a "mezcal" that tastes entirely different to what they’re producing at the other end of it,’ says Dzelzainis.
‘There’s a real purity to the product they’re trying to achieve and the idea of blending them all together…’ he goes silent, before blurting out, ‘…It’s like going to Speyside and bunging everything from Balvenie to Glenfiddich in together and declaring “it’s Speyside!”.’
Beyond the idiosyncrasies of their well-honed production methods, the countryside surrounding Oaxaca varies markedly. You can go four hours in each direction and hit mountains, beach or desert all within the region.
For the duo, whose primary focus at Sager + Wilde is wine, this notion of terroir in the spirit was something of a revelation, encompassing not only the geography and climate, but also the culture and artisanal production methods. Their desire to bring these products to wider audiences led to the formation of El Destilado, in partnership with East London Liquor Compay’s Alex Wolpert.
Clearly a labour of love, they have no plans to attempt to squeeze the agave distillates through the CRM's regulatory hoops in order to be able to use the 'm' word. In all, the initial range comprises thirteen agave distillates, as they refer to the unclassified mezcals, and two sugar cane distillates. There will only be between 70 and 420 bottles of each.
‘Our whole ethos is not to change them at all. We’re working with these families and farmers because we think their products are already excellent,’ says Dzelzainis.
The expressions are presented in no-nonsense apothecary-style bottles and named after the agave plant and specific varietal used. On the front label, it also clearly states the name of the mezcalero – ‘because we think they're more important than us’ – the place it was produced, and very specific production details, covering cook time, mash, fermentation and still type.
Apart from one espadín guish, the range focuses on other agaves, and Dzelzainis describes the liquids as ‘very clear, linear expressions of each agave’.
‘[With the volume producers], what they do is throw the agave piña (heart of the plant) into the pits when the wood is still burning and that's what imparts the smokiness we associate with mezcal,’ he says.
‘With a good producer, they have rocks in there with the wood and they’ll let the fire burn, then cook off the residual heat from the rocks, and that’s how you end up with that very refined flavour.’
Dzelzainis is keen to stress that El Destilado isn’t a crusade against larger producers or espadín – the main agave used – but merely a personal mission to bring these under-represented products to a wider audience. Available in Fare, Bassoon Bar and Sager + Wilde, as well as through Speciality Drinks and The Whisky Exchange, he suggests tasting them side-by-side to showcase the differences between them.
‘Try Pichomel – to me it tastes like watermelon and lanolin – there’s almost no smoke whatsoever,’ he says. ‘Next try something like the Tobala, which has a more traditional, smoky characteristic coming through, but also a kind of pineappley flavour that sits alongside it. And the Madrecuixe is easy to recognise quickly, because it honestly tastes like peanuts.’
Alongside the agave distillates, two ‘rums’ found their way into the portfolio. The Aguardiente de Cana, is essentially a rhum agricole that’s been produced at high altitude, meaning it distils at a lower temperature for a more refined and ‘less punchy, boozy’ character than, say, Martinique or Guadeloupe rum. The Aguardiente de Panela, meanwhile, defies categorisation, containing both molasses and fresh sugar cane.
‘It has this really beautiful Liquorice Allsorts viscousness that works really well in cocktails such as a Daiquiri or Mojito,’ says Dzelzainis. ‘We stumbled across it when we were trying to buy mezcal – the family was distilling it and selling it to locals.’
Having launched the independent spirits brand in November, Dzelzainis says the team doesn't have a masterplan. They'll be embarking on a second round of buying in Mexico in January and are keen to explore the local offerings of Colombia and other Central American countries.
'I don't think we'll ever do huge volumes,' he says. 'It's more about finding these small quantities of stuff that we find interesting and poking people's interest in what's going on outside the main spirits categories.'