Mezcal: A Tire Fire To Warm up To This Fall

As cooler weather spread across the US, the autumnal transition of our dinner table ebbs from bright, grilled dishes to heartier, soul-soothing fare. Just as we put away the Daisy Dukes and dust off our thermals, we're probably also reaching past lagers and margaritas for those beverages that go well with roasted root vegetables, braised meats, and wool sweaters. For this reason, darker, deeper wines like Gigondas, nebbiolo, shiraz, and even cabernet tend to become more popular in the 4th quarter. And after a long summer, some of us might welcome the change. But this year, another change has quietly been peeking though our supply chain woes: mezcal's moment - and just in time for when we are looking for something to warm our toes and spirits.

Just two years ago, experimenting with mezcal outside of major cities meant choosing between Del Maguey Vida's entry level bottling and another bottle that should probably have been stocked in the industrial cleaning section at the hardware store. No mas. Even here in Ohio - a control state where employees of the Department of Liquor Control decide what goes on the shelf - the selection has exploded. Today, there are 31 different mezcals available across the state, ranging from $18 to $290, including 6 of Del Maguey's bottlings.

If you're lucky enough to live in a city where restauranteurs take Mexican cuisine seriously, you'll likely find at least as many on a single menu. A recent visit to Chicago's excellent Leña Brava restaurant was an agave-lover's Christmas dream come true. Eight of the nine pages on their agave spirits menu are dedicated to mezcal. But you don't need 200+ options to discover the singular diversity and character mezcal has to offer.

Thanks to its often smoky flavors, mezcal is sometimes compared to scotch, but the similarities don't stop there. In the same way that scotch flavors vary by the island or region in which its made, mezcal's character swings not just with the state, altitude, and climate of its origin, but also the family's methods. For a primer on this, check out Mezcal 101 from earlier this year. The irresistible intricacies of the after dinner spirit at Leña Brava reminded me of a tire fire, to which my wife replied, "Yeah, but this is my kind of tire fire."

Because preferences on spirits are so individual and variable, anyone looking to experiment with will be well-served to head to a well-stocked bar on a quiet evening before loading up at the liquor store. Befriend a bartender and tell them you're trying to learn what you like in mezcal, and see if they'll pour you a flight. Bottlings like the unusually vegetal and peppery Vida de los Muertos (pictured above) will delight some, yet turn off others. Same goes for the highly variable (and pricier) offerings from Vago, Illegal, and others. Best to look before you leap.

But if you want to skip ahead and get right into some of the most interesting, high-quality, and reasonably-priced mezcals, you have no further to look than Xicaru's lineup. While you can't go wrong with any of their bottlings, their joven (reviewed here) is a story unfolding like a tale amongst friends told over years, and the 95 point reposado (reviewed here) is among the very best I've had. And for purists looking for some extra hair on their chests, the Xicaru Silver 102 is absolutely extraordinary.