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The Spirit of Mezcal

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Top: At Tobalá, a traditional mezcal set-up of clay copitas, orange slices and sal de qusano, a traditional Oaxacan spice that includes toasted and ground agave worms. Bottom: Hand-blown glass copitas at King Bee, a souvenir from the owners’ recent trip to Oaxaca.

WALK INTO ANY CRAFT COCKTAIL BAR, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a drink featuring mezcal on the menu. Often called the grandfather of tequila, but maybe better described as a much hipper uncle, mezcal is having its moment in the United States — and particularly in Austin.

It’s a “moment” that’s been happening for centuries in Oaxaca, Mexico. There are conflicting accounts about when mezcal was first created. Some historians believe the spirit is 200 years old, while others place its origins as far back 500 years, when the Spanish conquistadors first came to Mexico and brought with them distillation techniques.

Like tequila, mezcal is distilled from the agave plant. Unlike tequila, which can only be distilled from a Blue Agave plant, mezcal can be distilled from any of the estimated 200 agave species that exist in Mexico, which results in a broad range of flavors. Often mezcal has a smokiness to it (it comes from roasting the piñas — the soft fruit at the center of the agave — in underground pits), but, much like scotch, it can taste peaty, floral, earthy or sweet, too. “People that get really excited about small batch and single barrel whiskies or vintages of wine … mezcal is [like] that,” says Billy Hankey, co-owner of King Bee and a major mezcal enthusiast. “The big difference is that some of these productions are [only] 42 to 150 liters.”

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Billy Hankey and Colette Dein behind their bar at King Bee, where they stock around 40 mezcals.

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(From left): Mezcal cabinet at Tobalá, stained glass window at Techo, an effigy of the Mayan god Maximón picked up by Scranton Twohey in Guatemala.

Making mezcal is incredibly labor intensive. The process starts with searching for agaves which, because they can’t be grown, can require some serious foraging. Once found, all of the leaves of the plant are chopped off by hand, and the piñas are roasted before being pulled back out. The juice is then extracted from the piñas with the help of a horse-drawn wheel before fermentation begins.

“There’s no spirit as handmade as mezcal,” says Edgar Torres, who, along with his wife Christina Torres, opened up Techo, a cozy mezcaleria above Mi Madre’s last November. It’s a big reason for the spirit’s surge in popularity, he thinks. “More people are doing craft, and asking, ‘What’s the beginning of things?’... Mezcal has been doing that forever. It’s very old world.” Matthew Ross, the general manager of Tobalá, a candlelit mezcaleria above Whisler’s, puts it this way: “Tequila is like your Walmart, mezcal is like your mom-and-pop shop.”

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Top: Edgar and Christina Torres designed and furnished their mezcaleria Techo themselves, pulling many of the pieces from Torres’ hometown of Saltillo in Coahuila, Mexico. Bottom: Scranton Twohey mans the bar at Tobalá, while the bar’s two (stuffed) bobcats, Arroqueño and Tepextate, look on.

“It’s not a trend that’s coming back. They’ve just been doing it,” says Colette Dein, who along with Hankey carries around 40 mezcals at their bar near the corner of 12th and Chicon streets. Says Hankey: “That’s why I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s not like you’re going to have these hundreds of thousands of people who have been doing this for thousands of years suddenly go, welp, I guess we’re not trendy anymore!”

Travel to Mexico, and you’ll probably hear something along the lines of “Mezcal for everything bad — and everything good, too.” Pop into Techo, Tobalá or King Bee in Austin, and you’ll hear that same sentiment echoed. The bars are different, but the spirit behind their mezcal programs are the same. “We’re trying to make this thing that people have worked so hard at ... nice and beautiful and something that people appreciate,” explains Christina. Expect to have some fun, too. “You know when you drink champagne you get that giggle buzz?” asks Scranton Twohey, Tobalá’s owner. “Mezcal gives you that giggle buzz, too.”

CREDITS

Photographs by Hayden Spears | Illustrations by Hallie Rose Taylor

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