We all know that tequila is big business — to the tune of $8 billion a year. According to Allied Market Research, the tequila market is expected to triple in the next seven years. And while tequila is challenging vodka and whiskey for overall domination (No. 1 and No. 2, respectively) of the market, its cousin (or forebearer) mezcal is coming on strong.
At $250 million in sales in 2022, mezcal might not be on the same playing field as tequila, but it’s certainly dominating in cocktail culture chic. Oaxacan Old Fashioneds and Mezcal Manhattans are appearing on cocktail menus everywhere. The combination of smoky and bitter is making headlines. How long will it be before someone combines the two in one product?
“Mezcal, as you know, is very hot right now, as well as amaro,” says Oaxacan restaurateur, ultra-high-end premium mezcal maker and former Marin resident Joseph Gilbert, who was inspired to branch out. Gilbert produces rare small-batch agave distillates under the Cinco Sentidos brand as well as a deliciously smoky spicy chili liqueur under the Alma Tepec brand, both of which he serves at his El Destilado restaurants in Oaxaca.
“At my newer restaurant, we have started test runs of our own amaro. There are so many cool and interesting ingredients here to work with, that it makes it a lot of fun,” Gilbert says. “We do not use mezcal as our base. We are using a high-proof agricole-style rum from the Canada region in Oaxaca. We have talked about using mezcal made with the espadin agave as a base, but so far have not started the trial runs yet. This is done on a very small scale with no desire to ever export. We just sell bottles in our store, use them for cocktails here at the restaurant and sell to our friends who have bars here in Oaxaca.”
Bitters – amaros are regional Italian bitters – have been used as medicine for centuries. Digestive bitters can still be found at most health food stores.
“As far as bittering agents go, there is a long history of different herbs, spices and barks used for ailments and cures for various types of sickness and disease,” Gilbert says. “Curanderas (folk healers) have been using them for centuries.”
You’ve likely heard of Fernet Branca, an amaro that has been a Bay Area food scene staple for decades. (Fernet is a style of bitters, Branca is a company name.) But it may surprise you to know that Mexico, too, has a long history of bitters. Fernet-Vallet has been produced there since 1860. Now, some companies have begun using mezcal as the base for their bitters.
Mezcal is typically strongly smoky as a result of the agave coming into direct contact with the smoke of the cooking fire. Tequila’s blue weber agave is insulated from that smoke in sealed ovens. That pronounced smoky taste difference can be a steep hill to climb in cocktails. (You’ll find a similar problem with cocktails using Islay scotch; the big powerful smoky flavor is quite dominant.) One way this has been mitigated is by mixing mezcal with tequila 50/50 in traditional citrus cocktails (like Margaritas or Palomas) or by using mezcal in classic cocktails that use lesser proportions such as in a Negroni (instead of gin) or in an Old Fashioned with healthy dashes of bitters and sugar.
One of the more interesting mezcals making its way to market is made by a Mexican company called Mezcal Amarás (not to be confused with amaros), which produces four distinct spirits. All are less smoky and lightly bitter, a combination long sought after in cocktails. It makes for a well-balanced, satisfying drink right out of the bottle.
Three of its products use the heavyweight of mezcal agave, espadin, harvested at a younger age (eight years) and one uses cupreata, which takes 12 years to mature.
Mezcal Amarás’ products are lighter than one would anticipate, with more of the fresh green smoked vegetal flavor typical of mezcal, but accented with a perfumy, flowery bitterness. Expect to see more of these products on the market soon.
“If it tastes great, is actually 100% agave, and the people bottling and selling the final product are taking care of the people and the communities making the mezcal, then I am all for it,” Gilbert says.
And so are we.
Find more information on Mezcal Amarás at mezcalamaras.com.