Getting in the Spirit

Mezcal offers a world of flavors — and a way to appreciate culture.

By Ashley M. Biggers I Photo by Douglas Merriam



Santa Fe New Mexican


Mezcal offers a world of flavors. Learn how to sip and savor. “ Iknow a lot of people who stopped drinking tequila in college — but they aren’t that person anymore,” says Carley Callis, beverage manager for Paloma, where the menu overflows with around 50 mezcals and even more specialty cocktails. False assumptions and hazy memories follow mezcal, which encompasses the entire category of agave spirits and can be made from many different types of plants native to Mexico. Many of the plants are still wild harvested, and that’s particularly true of those used to make the mezcals Callis selects for Paloma's menu, where the mantra “rarified” guides her choices. Callis likens mezcal appreciation to wine connoisseurship. “Mezcal has terroir. And so much of the taste is controlled by the distillation process, which is highly influenced by the village, the neighborhood, and the person creating it. That’s why they often print the maestro’s name on the bottle,” she says. This level of expression creates a wide variety of flavors and alcohol-by-volume measurements. “People tend to think that mezcal is stronger than tequila, which it is not inherently,” says award-winning mixologist and author Natalie Bovis. “Many people have tried smoky-tasting mezcals and assume all of them taste like that, which is not true. There are lovely light, floral mezcals as well as the smoky flavors.” The type of plant used and whether the mezcal is single origin (made from one plant, such as espadin, which Callis says tends to be accessible) or an ensemble (made from multiple agaves) can affect flavor. Distilling methods, with vessels ranging from clay pots to animal hides, and different lengths of rest can affect taste. A particular technique creates mezcal de pechuga: the maestro redistills the spirit with fruits, grains, nuts, and protein (usually chicken or turkey) over the still. The ingredients cook in the vapors and impart their flavors into the mezcal. Callis says she’s sipped a particularly memorable pechuga that tasted of lamb. Navigating that breadth requires tasting — and tasting some more. “Ultimately, the best mezcal for you is the style you enjoy the most,” Bovis says. Callis interviews Paloma patrons about their likes and dislikes to build custom flights; however, a sip of Neta, a small batch distiller out of Oaxaca, is often among her selections. During tasting sessions, small sips of water can open up the spirit, Bovis advises. Callis keeps glasses filled and small slices of oranges on hand; they often smooth the experience for novice taste testers. Callis says regardless of what they taste, she hopes patrons approach sipping sessions with openness and respect. Because, as Bovis points out, “to truly appreciate mezcal, people must have an appreciation for Mexican culture and history. Mezcal — and the agave plant — is intertwined with food, religious ceremony, and celebrations.”