Review: El Buho Mezcal

Made in Oaxaca, this mezcal is made from espadin agave plants and roasted with mesquite for a full week in a fire pit before being crushed (by a burro!) and pressed for the juice. The fermented mash is twice distilled in an alembic pot still before bottling, unaged.

The smoky nose reveals little about what’s underneath, but the first sip starts off with a surprisingly high amount of sweetness on the tongue. Very fruity, it offers mainly tropical notes — papaya and a bit of pineapple, backed with touches of lemon. The smoke returns for the finish, as is typical of mezcal, a bit sticky sweet, perhaps due to that mesquite coming through.

I like El Buho’s components a lot, but as is often the case with smoky spirits, the balance is a bit off here, with sugar and fire not quite coming together into the burnt/caramelized sugar character that you want to take away from the experience.

Nice as a starter mezcal.

86 proof.


El Buho Mezcal

Review: Zignum Reposado Mezcal

A new product from Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto, Zignum Mezcal is made from green Espadin agave. Silver and reposado expressions are currently hitting the market. An anejo will arrive later this year.

We sampled the reposado, aged more than two months in oak barrels. Very lively and fresh, the medium gold color looks too good to be true for a mezcal with just a couple months of age on it. The nose offers marshmallow, cedar planks, and burnt coal embers — just a hint that this is smoky mezcal and not tequila. On the tongue, more of the same: Bracing sweetness, balanced with more smokiness than you get in the nose.

Creamy and rich, this is a lush mezcal that counters the many thin and limp agave products on the market. With good balance and a long, pleasing finish, it’s quite a winner. Great value, too. Looking forward to checking out the anejo down the line.

80 proof. Kosher.

A- / $30 /

Zignum Reposado Mezcal

Review: Mezcals of Agave de Cortes

It’s not every day you meet a 6th generation palenquero (mezcal maker), but that’s exactly what Asis Cortes, pictured below in my kitchen, is. Cortes and his family make mezcal in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Some of it is only available in the country, and in addition to its own the company also exports a variety of other producers’ mescals to the U.S.

Cortes walked me through four of his company’s products, each representing a fairly different style and approach to the spirit. Thoughts follow.

Sacacuento Silver Mezcal – One of Cortes’s import products, a light, fresh, and fruity mezcal loaded with lemon and citrus notes. The smoke is subtle and delicate on the finish. Arguably my favorite of the tasting. Made from agave espadin. 80 proof. A- / $43

El Jolgorio Silver Mezcal – Made in tiny batches and released 600 liters at a time, this mezcal is available only in Mexico, where it is one of the company’s rarest offerings. Made from white madrecuixe agave grown in the mountains of Oaxaca, this organic mezcal is as different as you can imagine from the Sacacuento. A huge flavor bomb, this is a gut punch, full of aloe, lime, sugar cane, and incense character. Again, not much smokiness, but there’s no delicacy here, just raw intensity and a wild expression of agave. 92 proof. A- / 900 Mexican pesos

Sacacuento Anejo Mezcal – Age Sacacuento Silver in American oak barrels for a year and you get this light brown spirit, intense with earth and menthol characters. There’s old wood on the nose, almost funky in the way it comes across. But the body is something else entirely, smooth cocoa, butterscotch, and caramel notes, all quite lasting. Quite a dichotomy between nose and palate. It opens up over time, much like a good anejo tequila. 80 proof. B+ / $70

Agave de Cortes Extra Anejo Mezcal – Aged three years in French oak barrels, this espadin agave offers a beautiful nose of old rum and a fair bit of wood. There’s a surprisingly lightness on the palate, fresh and young with herbal characteristics, with the agave remarkably still coming through after all that time in oak. What’s left behind is caramel and orange peel. 80 proof. B+ / $120

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Review: Craft Distillers Mezcalero Release #2 San Baltazar Guelavila

First a primer on how most mezcal makes it into the U.S.: Some American gets on a plane and road-trips through Oaxaca, Mexico, tasting his way through artisan distilleries until he finds something he loves. That American then becomes an importer, and in the case of really good mezcal, sometimes only a few hundred bottles make it into the States.

Craft Distillers did just that with Mezcalero, now in its second edition, and available initially with less than 200 bottles allocated to our country, all in California. The company has just 60 bottle left on hand, so if this sounds at all interesting to you, now’s the time to act before it’s all gone.

Distilled from the wild tobala, wild tepeztate, and domestic espadin agave varieties by the San Baltazar Guelavila distillery, Mezcalero #2 makes no bones that it’s going to be intensely fiery and smoky. Where many modern mezcals rest of their smoldering smoothness, Mezcalero is a torrid heat-bomb. Smoke is overwhelming on the nose and on the tongue. Great mezcal can have lots of interesting secondary character, but aside from notes associated with the grill — black pepper, onions, maybe a touch of brown sugar on the very end — this one is lacking. The body lacks weight and there’s just no balance to the BBQ character. This is wholly drinkable, especially with water, but I’d hoped for more.

96.4 proof.

B / $84 /

Dispatches from Aspen Food & Wine Classic 2011

“Is this your first Classic?”

It was a question I’d hear more than once over the three days I spent in Aspen last month at what has become the pre-eminent annual food and wine event in America. Emphasis on food. In a single evening I encountered Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres (who personally prepared the salt-crusted grilled prawn I ate while berating someone for disturbing his onions), and Andrew Zimmern (who heroically saved me from a deadly spider).

A few weeks later, so much of the Classic, hosted by Food & Wine magazine and an event of absurdly high expense to those who pay to attend it, is now but a blur. Is it the Aspen elevation? The long days of seminars and tasting sessions? Or simply the mountain of business cards I now have to follow up on that makes the whole thing seem so daunting in retrospect?

Structurally the Classic sounds like an easy-to-manage thing. For two and a half days, the schedule (basically) runs like this: Sessions (there are a dozen food, wine, or spirits-focused seminars to choose from) start at 10, then the grand tasting event (more on that later) is open for a couple of hours after that. The tent shuts down for a while to allow for more sessions, then it reopens in the afternoon, closing promptly around 6 o’clock so dinners can be had and the parties can begin. Depending on who you know there may be a half dozen to chose from each night.

Friday and Saturday are “full” days, and Sunday is a lighter one, as most people try to get home, fast (not an easy feat from remote Aspen, Colorado).

“The tent” — the grand tasting pavilion — is , for most people, the centerpiece of their experience here. Hundreds of exhibitors represent wineries around the world, spirits sellers, food merchants, kitchenware purveyors, restaurants, even countries hoping to get tourists, cruise ships, car companies, and just about anything else have a booth. Everyone is either pouring or cooking: A quick spin through a fraction of the tent will have you noshing on Korean noodles, sashimi, barbeque, chocolate, salad, root beer, and pork rinds — and probably in that order. While there’s plenty of supermarket brand stuff being poured here, a lot of it is upscale, sometimes extremely so. While there were many fabulous wines (including a whole sub-tent devoted to Spanish wine), I found the spirits purveyors to be the most rewarding: Casa Dragones tequila, private bottlings of all sorts of whisky from Samaroli (see pics), and Ron Cooper personally pouring just about all of his company’s Del Maguey mezcals, including the bizarre but fantastic Pechuga (which is made with a whole chicken breast), of which only 650 bottles were made. I probably looped back to Cooper’s table four times over the two days I was in the tent.

The seminars should not be underestimated. I attended two great ones: One tasting the audience members on old wines dating back to 1980, and another comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs of various vintages and regions. (Discovery: I liked southern California Pinot the best of these.) If you’re more into cooking, copious celebrity chef-led demonstrations are available, as are sessions dedicated to all levels of expertise.

Then there are the parties, and one finds that in the tiny town of Aspen, it’s easy to hop from a Macallan event to a tasting of two vintages of Penfolds Grange in a manner of minutes. (The 2006 Grange stands as my favorite wine tasted the entire weekend.) Everywhere you go, someone’s cooking a whole pig or three (as with the Wines of Spain party), or pouring something surprising (as with the “Magnum” party, where several dozen large-format bottles of wines are available to try — all self-serve).

I feel fatter just writing about it.

If you’re a gourmand and you have the means (all-access tickets are over $1,000, but tent-only consumer access runs under $400 for the weekend), this is worth an excursion once in your life. Some advice if you go: Stay as close to town as you can, over-prepare for the extreme altitude (various supplements were recommended to me), and get some rest before you arrive. You’ll need it!

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Review: Ilegal Mezcal

Puritans, be advised: Two Ls or three, Ilegal Mezcal is certainly legal, although the rustic labels and wax-sealed cork stoppers may make you think otherwise.

This small batch mezcal from the Oaxaca region of Mexico is hand numbered and produced in very small lots (typically under 2,000 bottles per lot). All 100 percent agave, of course, and all three are 80 proof. All three bottles reviewed below are part of lot #1.

Ilegal Mezcal Joven – Far less smoky than most mezcals, this is a smooth and velvety mezcal that could easily pass for a slightly brash tequila. Zesty with huge agave character up front, then a tangy lemon and citrus finish. The body is moderate and a touch hot, but it’s refined and easygoing. If you like your mezcal on the smoky side, I expect this won’t strike your fancy. Most of you will love the hell out of it. A- / $60

Ilegal Mezcal Reposado – After 4 to 5 months in new oak, Ilegal takes on a whole new character, buttery in the body and showing more smoke, with a butterscotch, creme brulee-like tone to it. Actually too sweet by quite a bit, I appreciate the attempt to balance savory smoke with sweet candy, but it comes off as a bit wild and unbalanced. B+ / $80

Ilegal Mezcal Anejo (pictured) – Spends a full year in oak, and the characteristics of the Reposado are amped up even further. More smoke, and more sweetness. Almost bacon-like with the blend of sweet and savory. This has a bit more balance but its richness is almost too decadent. A very powerful and unique mezcal, and pricy. B+ / $120 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS!]

Review: Monte Alban Mezcal

Monte Alban is perhaps the most widely available mezcal on the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s rotgut.

Monte Alban may lack sophistication, but it’s a fine entry point into the mezcal arena. Briny and with the distinct smell of sweat, it comes across as hot. But a little judicious sipping shows that Monte Alban has more to it than that. The palest gold in color, its smoke character is moderate, not overdone, with some fruitiness in the finish. The salty character remains throughout, but it’s not as biting as the initial approach would lead you to think.

80 proof, and every bottle includes a worm — even the 50ml minis.

B / $23 /

monte alban mezcal

Review: Oro de Oaxaca Mezcal

Nothing about Oro de Oaxaca Mezcal screams “premium.” It’s got a cheap bottle (with plastic cap), primary-color logo, and mystery bag of “chile” attached to the neck (more on that in a moment)… and of course it’s also got a worm sunken to the bottom of the bottle.

Ignore all that and tuck into a glass.

Intensely smoky on the nose and the palate, Oro de Oaxaca is one of the biggest mezcals around. If you’re into the smoke thing, you’re going to love this stuff — it’ll knock you down like you’re firing up a pipe.

Beneath the smoke, there’s a bit of fire — some alcoholic heat, a touch of sweetness, and green pepper notes. Pleasant overall, really, with that smoke laced throughout.

Oro de Oaxaca is light gold in color but it doesn’t indicate (nor can I discern) how long it’s been aged, if at all (that is, whether caramel color plays a large role here). I wouldn’t guess it spends long in barrels — maybe a few months. What wood is here is washed out by the smokiness, anyway.

Oh, and about that little bag of chile: It’s salt, ground chile pepper, and ground-up roasted maguey worms. Hey, hey — come back. It’s not that gross. The flavor is actually pretty good, salty/spicy just as you’d expect, and not too hot nor too wormy. There are no instructions included for its consumption, but I presume it’s a substitute for the salt in the traditional salt-booze-lime shot combo. If you’re the kind of guy that pounds his tequila/mezcal, well, you could do worse than having a little ground-up worm in your salt. That’s protein, folks.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 /

oro de oaxaca mezcal

Review: Maria Mezcal Anejo

Mezcalapalooza continues with this mezcal, a 100% agave anejo, aged one year in oak, and bottled at 80 proof, sans worm or other insect.

Maria’s “Mezcal de Oaxaca” is quite unique. Though it offers traditional aromas of smoke laced with agave, the body is something else. Tart like a cherry, it is both sweet and sour and extremely fruity — more than any mezcal or tequila I’ve ever tried. Not sure where all that fruitiness comes from, though, as there’s nothing outrageously different about the way Maria is made. Smoke raises its head again on the finish, but that cherry taste lingers for quite some time.

Is it good? That’s a matter of personal taste, but I find Maria a little too far “out there” for easy enjoyment. Conceivably better in some cocktails, perhaps?

C+ / price N/A / no website


Review: Mijes Mezcal Joven

No other way to put it: Mijes’ (also known as Mixes on some bottles, see below) mezcal bottles are unmistakeably eye-catching, shaped vaguely like a drunken snail or perhaps a brain that’s been run over by a truck.

Inside, Mijes’ premium joven (a blend of new and old spirit, filtered back to clear) mezcal/mescal (100% agave, 80 proof, no worm in the bottle) is clean and lightly smoky, a classic expression of blanco style mezcal, with fresh agave character followed by sweet, barebecue-like smoke finish or lingering cigar notes.

A very warming mezcal, this spirit is extremely smooth, though one can’t help but wonder: If the blanco version is this good, how must the aged versions taste?

A- / $57 / no website