Step away from the shot glass – at least until you read our guide to pairing mezcal with food, by Ella Buchan
In the Oaxaca region of Mexico, a popular saying translates as, “For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, mezcal.”
Basically, mezcal is a match for any situation. And, it turns out, the roasted agave spirit is also a match for almost any food.
Best known for its smokiness, this potent artisanal alcohol can also be sweet, fruity, earthy, herbaceous, spicy and even chocolatey. Made in nine regions of Mexico, the flavours and finish depend on the choice of agave, climate, terroir, and the distillation process.
And that variety makes it an ideal match for a wide range of foods – as long as you choose the right bottle.
Jim Wrigley, bar operations manager for bar and restaurant consultants Bourne & Hollingsworth, believes mezcal is akin to whisky or wine in its complexity.
“When you start getting into different mezcals, the range of flavours is incredible,” he told World Travel Guide. “People think it just tastes like smoke, but there are so many variables. There could be a mezcal for almost any food.”
Here are some expert suggestions on how to match mezcal with different foods.
Mezcal is best enjoyed with good company and good food, so what better match than a cheese and charcuterie board with friends? Wrigley recommends experimenting with a couple of small-batch mezcals that will stand up to strong, aged cheeses and rich, smoky Ibérico ham. Try: Del Maguey Arroqueño (pictured) and Del Maguey Ibérico, Oaxaca. Arroqueño has floral, fig and vegetal notes to pair with cheeses, while Ibérico is distilled with a leg of Ibérico ham. £111.77 ($147) and £154.66 ($203) for 70cl, masterofmalt.com
Robust dishes like aubergine parmigiana or a rich, creamy mushroom risotto will stand up well to smokier mezcals. But to really complement a dish packed with grilled vegetables like green pepper, tomato and courgette, go for something complex with a balance of fresh and earthy notes. “I would go for something smooth and fruity with a little pepper to finish,” suggests Melanie Symonds, who runs Quiquiriqui Mezcals, a producer of small batch mezcals handmade in Mexico. Try: Meteoro Joven, Oaxaca. Bright, bold and subtly smoky. £44.95 ($58) for 70cl, mexgrocer.co.uk
Even delicate white fish has a mezcal match. Something like a grilled sea bass will zing with the right sipper. Symonds’ recommendation is “a bit briny like the sea and a bit citrussy”, while the tobacco notes add depth and emphasise the charred flavours from grilling. Try: Marca Negra Espadin, Oaxaca. Pronounced smoke with hints of tobacco, fudge, mint and lemongrass. £59.74 ($79) for 70cl, masterofmalt.com
A mezcal with “subtle smoke and delicate spice” works wonderfully with ceviche, says Wrigley. He suggests tuna marinated in lime juice, pepped up with chilli, onion and coriander and served with tortillas and fresh avocado. Try: Ilegal Joven, Oaxaca. Green apple, citrus and white pepper. £42.95 ($56) for 50cl, oxfordwine.co.uk
Symonds suggests smokier mezcals for meaty pasta dishes like spaghetti bolognese, to complement and cut through the richness. For creamier pasta dishes such as carbonara, choose something “fruity, dry and light on the smoke”. Try: Derrumbes San Luis Potosi, San Luis Potosi. Liquorice root, minerals, papaya and parmesan, subtle smoke. £43 ($56) masterofmalt.com
Juicy ingredients like tomato, avocado and spring onion drizzled with chilli and lime dressing are complemented by “fresh and clean” mezcals, like this “well balanced and not too heavy” selection by Symonds. Try: Papadiablo Especial, Oaxaca. Pineapple, olive and summer fruits. £87.08 ($115) for 70cl, gpbrands.eu
“Go for something big, bold and unapologetically full of classic mezcal flavours,” says Symonds. Something with characteristic smokiness will go especially well with a juicy steak or a fat, homemade beef burger. Try: Quiquiriqui Matatlan, Oaxaca. Smooth with herbaceous, earthy notes and a green pepper finish. £36.45 ($48) for 70cl, thewhiskyexchange.com
“There’s a strong link between chilli, chocolate and mezcal going back to the Aztecs,” says Wrigley. He recommends pairing quality dark chocolate and sea salt caramel with this single agave, joven (young) mezcal “bursting with toffee, tropical fruit and vanilla with a long honeyed, tobacco finish”. Try: Corte Vetusto Tobala, Oaxaca. Toffee, tropical fruit and vanilla with a long finish of honey and tobacco. Available from October at selfridges.com and whiskyexchange.com
In Oaxaca, vials of the agave spirit are often sipped with orange slices – an infinitely more sophisticated variation on tequila slammers. A bright fruit salad pairs well with honeyed mezcals. Or try grilled pineapple – the perfect sweet foil to the chipotle notes of this mezcal, as recommended by Symonds. Try: Mezcal Vago Elote, Oaxaca. Infused with roasted corn before the third distillation, with smooth notes of honeycomb, papaya and mint. Only at mezcalvago.com
Think the perfect partner to a sticky toffee pudding is a cuppa or glass of sticky dessert wine? Classic English steamed puds match marvellously well with agave spirits, especially where there are subtle hints of coffee and chocolate. “Many mezcals are natural partners to anything sweet,” says Symonds. Try: Dangerous Don Coffee Infused Mezcal, Oaxaca. Cacao and espresso, with a smoky kick. £57.93 ($76) for 70cl, masterofmalt.com