Mezcal is quickly becoming one of the United States’ favorite spirits. According to a market research report released by Technavio in July, the mezcal market is expected to grow by nearly $430 million from 2022 to 2027, driven in large part by the rising demand for premium spirits. If you’re unfamiliar with this agave-based parent of tequila, there is a lot to know, but you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it—or travel to Mexico, although I recommend it.
Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant. Agave has been intrinsically linked to Mexican culture for centuries as food, fiber, and pulque—a fermented agave beverage drunk by Aztec royalty—which is still found in Mexican bars today. The archeological evidence is disputed, but agave distillation appears to have become widespread after the Spanish conquest when conquistadors brought enslaved Filipino people to Mexico and this community shared their distillation methods with indigenous peoples.
There are three types of mezcal produced today: industrial—the most common—artisanal, and ancestral. Like cheese, I believe it is important to find and support artisans who not only make high-quality products but also help sustain small communities and preserve long-standing traditions.
Mezcal production begins with growing agave. In stark contrast to the ingredients used for other spirits—grapes and grain, for example—agave plants are not harvested annually. Espadin agave, which is used for the majority of mezcals available in the US, takes five years to mature, while other varieties, such as madrecuishe and tobasiche, can take 10 to 15 years.
To produce artisanal mezcal, agave hearts are slowly roasted in a pit or above-ground masonry ovens; the hearts are then crushed, transferred to a wooden vat, and mixed with water. The vat is left open to allow wild fermentation to occur, and distillation is done in wood or copper stills. Ancestral mezcal is made much the same way, except that clay pots must be used for fermentation and distillation. Industrial mezcal can be produced using stainless steel tanks and modern technology.
Both artisanal and ancestral methods result in mezcals strongly impacted by terroir. In my mind, this makes mezcal more like fine wine as opposed to other types of alcohol, and like wine, its incredible subtlety and complexity are ideal for pairing with cheese. Since the first cheese made in the New World was made in Mexico, you could say that the history of pairing mezcal with cheese predates American cheese and drink pairings.
GOING TO THE SOURCE
The southern coastal state of Oaxaca is the heart of mezcal production in Mexico. On a recent visit, I met up with my friend and mezcal expert, Eusebio Villalobos Cortés (Chebo), in the capital—also called Oaxaca—to find inspired pairings for five of my favorite Oaxacan mezcals.
The city’s most famous market is the centrally located Veinte de Noviembre, but I like Mercado Merced, which is not as well known, yet still frequented by tourists. (Chebo spotted celebrity chef David Chang there last year). It’s closer to Chebo’s house, so that’s where we picked up some cheeses from one of my favorite stalls. They specialize in quesillo, beautiful little balls of string cheese, often called queso Oaxaca in the United States. We also bought Chontaleno Ahumado—a smoked cheese—and fresh goat cheese made in Ejutla.
Next it was on to chocolate. Chocolate is a classic mezcal pairing, especially the darker, less-sweet Oaxacan variety, which brings out agave’s natural sweetness. At a third-generation shop called Corazón de Cacao, owner Iris Isabel Angelina Carrasco put out a tasting spread featuring a wide variety of local chocolates. All her chocolates are made from cacao grown in Oaxaca. They include little-to-no sugar and zero milk, with hints of vanilla and cardamom in a few of them to bring out the natural flavor. I bought one of everything, plus fresh cacao fruit and roasted cacao.
Our last stop was El Escapulario, a restaurant downtown, to pick up chapulines—roasted and seasoned grasshoppers. We chose this particular restaurant because the insects are made to order, which is important—nobody likes eating a stale grasshopper. The sour, spicy, and savory pan-roasted chapulines are perfect for snacking after a few sips of mezcal and are often featured at Mexican mezcal tastings and in cantinas. Grasshoppers are also one of the most environmentally sustainable sources of protein.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to visit Oaxaca City and taste this amazing food and drink, and I am honored to work with producers who continue the multi-generational cycle of making artisan goods. Whether you are traveling or simply making a cheese plate, cocktail, or meal at home, it is vital to seek out small producers, not just because the flavors are wonderful, but because the decisions we make as consumers matter so much to the people who pour their lives into these products.
Unlike tequila, which is made with one variety of agave, mezcal can be made with as many as 50 varieties. The ones I love and spotlight here are easy to find in Oaxaca and are becoming easier to find in the US. I tried to choose those that represent the agave flavor profile they’re known for, however all mezcals are different, and just because certain agave varieties tend to have specific flavor profiles does not mean that my perfect pairing will be the same as yours. Mezcal is like wine in that the varietal is simply the flavor backbone; each maker will impart their own distinct and complex flavor to the final product.
Madrecuishe mezcal + queso de cabra + sal de cafe
Madrecuishe (also called madrecuixe) is a wild agave ubiquitous to Oaxaca. This mezcal is made by maestro Don Pedro Sanchez in the Oaxacan town of San Luis Amatlán. The madrecuishe is roasted over Huizache wood (the type of wood used for roasting is an important component of this mezcal’s flavor) and distilled in copper. The minerality and intense lactic notes in madrecuishe mezcal make it an excellent pairing for fresh goat cheese; the tanginess of the cheese brings out the spirit’s subtle sweetness. We added sal de cafe, a coffee-infused salt made by Chebo. The bitterness and salt rounded out the flavor of the pairing for a full and bright bite.
Stateside pairing: NETA Mezcal Madrecuixe Capon (available in some states) + Vermont Creamery fresh goat cheese or your favorite local fresh goat cheese + espresso to sip on the side.
Tobasiche mezcal and Luz de Luna Cardamom Chocolate + queso fresco + sal de rosa
Tobasiche is also a wild-harvested agave; It and madrecuishe both belong to the karwinskii family of agaves. The seeds are planted in the wild, and the extra care that goes into the plants over the long period before they can be harvested makes these mezcals more expensive. The one we tasted was made by maestro Don Juan Garcia in San Luis Amatlán. This was a pairing I did not expect to work. I thought the intensity of cardamom with nothing to soften it would be too powerful, but the heavy herbal and spice notes in the mezcal paired perfectly. I decided to include some flor de rosa to finish up this botanical bomb. It was a great reminder to always experiment with flavors you can’t exactly imagine working together. You never know what you might find.
Stateside pairing: Cuish Tobasiche Mezcal + Alp Blossom
Mexicano mezcal + Chontaleno + Luz de Luna Blanco y Negra Chocolate
If a holiday cookie could be reborn as a mezcal it would be Mexicano. With its sweet spice flavors reminiscent of cinnamon and nutmeg, this mezcal, also produced by Don Juan Garcia, is one of my favorites. We paired it with Chontaleno Ahumado (a smoked cheese similar to and inspired by smoked provolone) and blanca y negra chocolate (dark chocolate with vanilla added). The combo should appeal to any sweet tooth, but the smoke and residual bitterness of the chocolate, combined with the mezcal’s bite, makes it work for the savory lover as well. This pairing made me feel like I was cuddled up in a warm blanket on a winter day.
Stateside pairing: Agave Mexicano has not yet found a foothold in US markets. I recommend Chacolo Mezcal Brocha, a mezcal from Jalisco that is cooked in mesquite, giving it an incredibly sweet, almost barbecue sauce flavor. Pair it with Shelburne Farms Smoked 6-Month Cheddar or any good smoked provolone and a 70 percent or higher dark chocolate.
Tepextate mezcal + chapulines + cocoa fruit
Tepextate or tepeztate is maybe my favorite agave variety; It’s briny and has a bright verdant flavor. This tepextate mezcal was made by maestros Guillermo and Bulmaro Sanchez, the sons of Don Pedro Sanchez, and is a prime example of how knowledge of artisanal mezcal production—like artisanal cheese production—is often passed down from generation to generation. While most Oaxacan mezcals tend to have sweeter flavors, tepextate mezcal surprises with intense vegetal flavors and a hint of salinity—it has a freshness that reminds me of cucumbers and seaweed. (If I were sucking down oysters on a sunny day in some cold coastal region, I would hope that in my other hand I’d be holding a glass of tepextate.) Imagine if chocolate and melon had a perfect baby and that’s cocoa fruit—a common snack in the area of Oaxaca closer to the ocean. The sour-salty spice of the chapulines and the fresh, slightly tart, melon-like flavor of the cocoa fruit brings out all the cucumber notes in the mezcal. This was perhaps my favorite pairing of the day.
Stateside pairing: Rey Campero Tepextate + Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill + fresh melon
Cuish mezcal + quesillo + chai chocolate
This Cuish mezcal (as its name implies, the agave variety is very closely related to madrecuishe), was made by maestro Nicolas Garcia Gutierrez in San Luis Amatlán. I started each of these pairings with mezcal, but it would be wrong of me to finish with anything other than quesillo. I grew up with queso Oaxaca; I loved pulling the stringy cheese apart after school when I was a kid. I think, as a cheesemonger, I am expected to love fancy or sought-after cheeses, but this simple, and often overlooked, farmer’s cheese is something I could enjoy every day. This is why I had to pair quesillo with Cuish—a smaller Karwinskii-family agave that often goes unnoticed in favor of madrecuishe or bicuish—a botanically rich and delicious mezcal that deserves attention. We finished this pairing with an unsweetened chai flavored chocolate to round out our day.
Stateside pairing: Cuish Cuish Mezcal Joven + Queso Campesino Oaxaca Mini + Madhu Chocolate Masala Chai 60 Percent Cacao
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