I recently started hosting Mezcal tastings at De Noche. It’s been almost two years since the last time we hosted a class on the subject. Going back to it felt like riding a bicycle; not much has changed in that time. The history of it hasn’t changed, the process of it is pretty much the same, and even the way people want to monetize it remains just as predictable as it was two years ago. I was introduced to Mezcal about eight years ago – nothing compared to how long this spirit has been around. I was once a big bourbon drinker, which, in the US, is a lot easier to collect than good bottles of Mezcal.
Part of our goal in opening República was to change that, to build the greatest Mezcal program in the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to create an experience rivaling that of Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca or even Bósforo in Mexico City. Now, let me just say that nothing I ever attempt can ever be as good as those two places for many reasons, mostly because of availability and proximity, but also because drinking mezcal in Mexico just tastes different than drinking Mezcal elsewhere. Even drinking mezcal in Oaxaca is different from drinking the same product in Mexico City. It will never be as good as at the source. Trying to build this program was difficult for many reasons. Mezcal outside of Mexico is expensive, and not for the right reasons: not because of quality or fair pay for producers. It’s expensive because of the amount of work it takes to bring it here. Additionally, in Oregon, restaurants only get 5% off of retail cost for liquor. That means a bottle that costs you $100, costs us $95. Not much in terms of savings. But that isn’t even the biggest issue, the biggest issue is availability of product.
When I was trying to get this thing off the ground, I went to nine different liquor stores in Portland. I would bring a list of brands available to the state of Oregon and ask whoever did the ordering at the liquor store if there was any way that they would be open to getting any of these for us. We could not promise to buy the entire case, we could only buy one, possibly two at a time. So imagine this: you are a shop owner with the choice of buying a whole case of Tequila for $480 or a case of this thing that not too many people have heard of and you may not be able to sell… say a Tepeztate Agave from El Jologorio …for $2,100 per case. As you could guess, not very many people were willing to take that chance. But there was one shop that trusted my recommendations, in fact one day I walked in and one of the owners said something to me like, “got any more skus? Keep them coming.” I’ll never forget that. So I did. Any time I saw something I wanted, I asked them to bring it in. Sometimes it took months for them to get approval from the OLCC. Anyway, that group was 11th Avenue Liquor, and I will forever be grateful to them for this. So did we build it? The best mezcal experience Portland has ever seen? We did. That experience eventually became part of what made República one of the best new restaurants in the country. The thing is, curating this experience was never about the actual bottle selection. I know because since we built this, we’ve watched others trying to do the same by buying expensive bottles and offering more selection. For us it was and always will be about the experience. How much knowledge can you take away from one tasting? How much can we share with you in one seating? Tasting notes and vernacular are important, but knowing the story of these producers has always been more important to me than knowing the names of the brands.
Anyway, I fear that if I keep going you’ll end up with a 10,000-word piece on the history of Mezcal, so I’ll leave you with this instead: When drinking mezcal, drink it from Jicaras or Veladoras, never drink from ceramic. Veladoras are the beautiful candle holders you find when you walk into most catholic churches in Mexico. They are distinguished by the cross at the bottom of the glass.
Always sip it, never shoot it.
Don't try to pair it with food. In fact, if you're a restaurant or a bar and you are serving it with a side of orange wedges and salt & chili powder you are already doing it wrong.
Make sure the glass is fully dried; any droplets of water can drastically alter the taste.
Never repeat that "arriba abajo al centro" toast, or anything else that resembles it. That goofy shit comes from resorts catering to tourists. If you are going to toast to anything, make it meaningful and don’t forget to make eye contact with the person across from you.
Never compare it to Tequila.
And never, under any circumstances, name your drink a "Oaxacan Old fashioned" or a "Oaxacan Negroni"... or a "Oaxacan Manhattan"... or any other cocktail name where the main spirit is replaced by Mezcal and "Oaxaca" added to the name.