Good drinks tell a story... and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
A pre-Hispanic Mexican myth holds that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it to release the juice at its heart or piña. Mezcal and tequila, which we derive in a similar though less magical process, might then be seen as lightning in a bottle.
Like a square is a form of rectangle, tequila is in fact mezcal, just with added specifications. They're both agave spirits, made by harvesting the piña of agave plants. The juice is extracted from those hearts, which form in the center of 7 to 15 year old mature plants.
Once collected, the piñas are cooked for around three days, in the case of mezcal, usually in oven pits over hot rocks to imbue a smoky, distinctive flavor. The piñas are then crushed and mashed, a task traditionally performed by a stone wheel turned by a horse. The juice is left to ferment in large vats or barrels, water being added.
You could also say that tequila is the champagne to mezcal's wine, in that it must come from a specific region near the city of Tequila. There, blue agave flourishes thanks to red volcanic soil. By contrast, mezcal may be distilled from 30 varieties of agave, many of them wild, for a wider range of tastes.
The natural place to learn about these spirits was La Urbana, where bartender David DeRinzy had just lost count of how many bottles belonged to the bar and restaurant's premium mezcal collection, the largest in California at over a hundred. DeRinzy made another distinction you can taste, noting that "Tequila's aged in wood, where mezcal is distilled in copper pots." Tasting both, the smokiness was a key difference.
And yes, the "worm" that you can find in some Tequila bottles. As DeRinzy explains, it's more specifically the larva of a moth, Hypopta agavis, that can infest the plants. That's how they got in there in the first place, it's likely, but these days they're added mostly as a gimmick to the spirit during bottling.
DeRinzy, who also purveys his own simple syrup line, isn't shy when it comes to the downright delicious off-menu drink he slings at the bar. "It's the best drink in the neighborhood," he says, and now, it's yours.
Oaxacan Old Fashioned
2 oz Mezcal
.5 oz Ancho Reyes
.5 oz habanero simple syrup
2 dashes angustura
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes chocolate mole bitters
Stir over large ice cube and garnish with orange peel.
Learning To Drink Vol. 1: Shaken Or Stirred?
Learning To Drink Vol. 2: Punch Drunk
Learning To Drink Vol. 3: Bubbly
Learning To Drink Vol. 4: Bitters
Learning To Drink Vol. 5: Sours And Daisies
Learning To Drink Vol. 6: French Brandies
Learning To Drink Vol. 7: Who Is Tom Collins?
Learning To Drink Vol. 8: The Martin(i/ez)