Mezcal has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps it’s becoming the kale of the spirits world.
I recently had the good fortune to attend a "mezcal dinner" at Sonny’s in Portland. Misty Kalkofen, who represents Del Maguey, introduced us to the rich history and variety of tastes of mezcal.
I asked Misty when she realized that she wanted to be involved in the mezcal business.
“To a certain degree, as soon as I tasted it!” she said. “When Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, world class artist and James Beard Award winner, introduced me to mezcal, he shared all of the ways in which it is involved with the culture of the people who make it and the ritual ways in which it is used in Mexico. As someone who studied spirits, the quality and the complexity grabbed me. As someone who has a Masters of Theology, the culture and history of it intrigued me as well. I knew I would be an advocate for the spirit, but I didn't know how deep my involvement would become.”
Misty currently works with four different families (Del Maguey actually represents 12 different families; 11 in Oaxaca and the other in Puebla) — mezcal production appears to be a family business. How mezcal is distilled very much depends on where it is distilled and the family doing the distilling.
We cannot begin without a simple explanation of the agave nectar: agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is most often produced from the Blue Agave plants that thrive in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. Agaves are large and spiky. They resemble cactus and yucca in both physical likeness and geographic surroundings. What many do not realize is that the agave plant is a succulent, closely related to aloe vera and similar in taste to honey.
The moqueca custard with coconut, chile, and octopus, pairs perfectly with mezcal.
In the distilling process, the agave is harvested and returned to the palenque (a small, family owned distillery). The agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in an earthen pit over stones that have been heated by a hardwood fire. This roast is covered with earth and can stay in the ground anywhere from five to 30 days. Once roasted, the piñas are milled either with a horse-drawn stone called a molino or by hand using heavy wooden bats. Once milled, all juices and fibers are put into open-air fermentation tanks with a small amount of the locally occurring water. Fermentation can last anywhere between five to 21 days depending on the location, climate, weather, etc.
Tradional vessels used for drinking mezcal.
The majority of the mezcals Misty sells are distilled twice. First, distillation occurs with all of the roasted agave fibers; the second takes place without the fibers. Different types of stills and variations in methods produce different flavors and textures.
According to Misty, more and more restaurants and bars are featuring mezcal, especially if they have a progressive bar program. In addition, the use of mezcal in raw or cured seafood dishes such as ceviche, is gaining in popularity. Her passion for mezcal was clear when I asked her what made mezcal different from other spirits.
“First, mezcal is an agriculture product. The raw material matures in seven to 35 years depending on the type of agave. Secondly, after the plant is mature, it can still take two and a half months or more to harvest and ultimately complete the process of making mezcal and getting it into a bottle. Also, each mezcal has a specific flavor representative of the family who produces it. The techniques of how to create the flavor and style of your family are passed down from generation to generation. When you drink mezcal, you are drinking history and culture.”
There were three featured mezcal drinks on the day of the tasting. My personal favorite — and I admittedly had one too many — was the Diablo, which had mezcal (of course), chili-infused tequila, cassis, lemon, ginger beer and cardamom. This cocktail was a great pre-dinner drink; definitely awakened my palate. There are others, too — however, you’ll have to visit Sonny’s to taste them yourself.
Chef Paul Tuck cooks up excellent Mexican inspired dishes at Sonny's.
Chef Paul Tuck is very excited about featuring Mexican food at Sonny’s. All seven dishes we sampled were paired with a different mezcal. The moqueca custard, coconut, chili, and octopus was very tasty and had a nice spicy kick — though I’m not sure why it was called custard it was creamy, smooth and broth-like. Dinner ended with a beautifully plated mole dessert made with almond, tortilla, smoked chocolate, fruit nixtamal (from the Nahuati word meaning "unformed corn dough"), and paired with a final mezcal called Tobala.
I’m pleased that Sonny’s and Chef Paul are bringing us these Mexican-inspired dishes and offering up some fine mezcal. For a city filled with outstanding food from all over the globe, excellent Mexican food is difficult to find in Portland.