Mezcal or Mescal: Either Way’s Delicious

By on 23 June, 2014 in Bars, Food, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Montgomery’s drinking scene has changed so much in the six years we’ve lived here. Free the Hops put together an astonishingly-effective political movement that’s opened up so many new beer options. Shops like Filet and Vine and Ted, the Wine Guy continue to educate residents about all kinds of wines. Fairview Homebrew was a trailblazer, and now you can even buy legal Alabama-made spirits at your local government-owned ABC store.

Always the trailblazer, El Rey has got something new at the bar – small batch mescals. We headed over last week to give them a try. Like many, we had some ignorance and preconceptions about the stuff. First, we weren’t totally sure what mescal was. We learned that it’s made from the agave plant, like tequila — tequila is just made from a specific kind of agave and in Jalisco, Mexico. Mescal is more free-range, and evidently a bit more of a DIY-type liquor. Evidently, small-batch mescal has been quite the trend in Mexico for some time. This article in The Guardian warns that small batches of the kind we tried at El Rey are about to be taken over by big distilleries, as the liquor gets more popular outside of Mexico.

Also, we were interested in the worm. We kind of assumed that most mescal came with a worm in the bottle. We weren’t totally sure about all of that, and had always found it odd when people bragged about “eating the worm.” Three things we learned. First, it’s not a worm. It’s an agave butterfly caterpillar. Second, not all mescal comes with a caterpillar. Third, if you drink mescal with the caterpillar in it, even if you don’t actually eat the caterpillar, you’re still consuming it. Thanks, science, for figuring that out!

So we rolled up to the bar ready to try the three mezcals El Rey has in stock right now (they’re trying to get more, but it’s difficult). They have Monte Alban, a golden liquid complete with caterpillar, and two varieties from a company called Ilegal Mezcal. We tried samples in little clay cups, as is evidently customary. We ordered some chips and salsa and water on the side.

First up was the “younger” variety from Ilegal Mezcal. It was smokey, smooth, and clean. It had not been aged as long and more than anything conveyed the sense of smokiness associated with the liquor. For many folks, the closest comparison on the flavor palate might be the way that mesquite can infuse something with that sense of a long-ago smoldering fire. The clay cup, almost a tiny bowl, added more to the experience than some kind of cultural gimmick. It actually seemed to fit with the flavor as you put it to your lips. It’s a somewhat close taste akin to tequila, but clearly in its own league, a cousin with less baggage and more refined opportunity.

The older variety was even better, a great sipping liquor that competes with the very best tequilas we’ve had. We were very impressed. If you’re thinking about doing a tasting (and you probably should be), it’s worth it to try both the older and the younger version of the spirit. The extra time aging in the casks makes a difference that enables you to appreciate the comparison. It tastes ancient and a little mysterious.

Then it was time to try the cheapest mezcal, something in a bottle that looks like it might have been purchased by a tourist who went to Cancun on a cruise. Before we ventured into that stuff and the floating larva at the bottom of the fluid, we got to have a little glass of something bartender Jeremy called “sangrita.” It is simply not to be missed the next time you’re at El Rey. It’s a mix of tomato juice and citrus juices, a perfectly balanced palate cleanser. Evidently this is something they will gladly serve you on the side when you order tequila from the bar. Good to know!

Finally, our novice palates were prepared for the low-end mescal. There was simply no comparison – it was like the difference between bottom shelf tequila and Patron. More accurately though, like the difference between a bad whiskey and a fine bourbon. We were glad for the education, and we’d encourage adventurous drinkers to at least try the stuff while it’s there to give yourself a sense of just how good the Ilegal is.

Evidently mescal is still very hard to get in Alabama. Part of that is because people are still catching on to the allure of the micro-batch high-end stuff that is becoming popular in bigger cities. Part of it is also because the good stuff is expensive – if you order it at El Rey, expect to pay $12-$14 for a shot of the premium stuff. And evidently it’s also hard to procure. As big cities collect all the small batch spirits they can get, smaller cities (especially in states with labyrinthine liquor laws) are left to fend for themselves. El Rey reports that they are awaiting a village specific mezcal from Del Maguey to enter the state any day and hoping for a Pierde Almas mezcal one day.

But mescal is worth it, not just as a curiosity on a night of whimsical celebratory drinking. This is a fine thing to sip, not at all the kind of crass tequila shooting spring break throat scorching. We could genuinely envision spending way more money than we should on a regular basis to knock back a few clay cups of mescal and walk home.

We’re not in much of a position to do much of anything to solve the challenges faced by the Mexican farmers and producers making mescal, but we know we’re lucky to live in a place that now has access to one of the tastiest new experiences we’ve had in quite some time.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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