“Like Embracing Mother Earth”: A Master’s Guide to Drinking Mezcal

Drinking mezcal could be described as “kissing mother earth”. At least that’s what Edmundo Farrera thinks. Jonathan Brookes sat down with the mezcal expert to learn more about this mysterious drink.

I recently sampled some mezcals at La Fuente, a mezcal and wine bar in central Auckland. Owner Edmundo Farerra explained that from one sip to the next, a good mezcal can be kaleidoscopic.

“First you taste the valley where the agave was grown, then the land it comes from, then taste the cosmos and time.”

I was convinced that I needed to spend more time with the mezcal and with Edmundo, so we sat down to chat.

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Edmundo, what is mezcal?

Mezcal is the original spirit of the Americas. Its origins predate the arrival of Spanish colonization.

There are two starting points for mezcal. One is the natural fermentation of the agave plant, where the juice will emerge from the core of the plant through the leaves, then ferment very lightly with the heat of the sun. You can drink it straight from the plant and it’s delicious. The Aztecs used agave for several purposes, gastronomically and ceremonially, they understood the deliciousness of this juice.

They call it aguamiel (honey water). You can go to Mexico City and still drink that today straight from the agave. It’s beautiful, like embracing mother earth.

The second origin came with colonization and the introduction of distillation. Soon after the Spaniards arrived, they brought with them slaves from the Philippines, and the Filipinos brought with them rum made from bamboo and distilled in copper stills. This is the very origin of the modern production of mezcal, which distills the fermented juice of the agave plant.

What are your first memories of mezcal?

I come from a small town called Nanchital in the Mexican state of Veracruz. But many people from Oaxaca, which is the homeland of mezcal, emigrated there to work, including my grandfather who helped raise me. I have very old memories of old clay bottles wrapped in a net, and the smell of mezcal.

Mom gave me my first mezcal when I was 7, but just like half a teaspoon. She was a foodie, biologist and Spanish teacher. She enjoyed the natural world and handcrafted things. Everything in our house was from native artisans, especially Oaxacan people, she was really into that culture. So it made sense that she wanted me to taste the mezcal.

With this taste, she flipped the sommelier switch on my 7 year old mind. I just couldn’t understand how something could be so beautiful and powerful, like pyrotechnics exploding in my palace.

So why should we drink mezcal?

Recently a group of us were celebrating. I served mezcal, and that’s what lifted us all up and got us on the night horse. There is a euphoria that emanates from it. It’s as if your human energy and the energy that the mezcal captures in a bottle become one and do something a little bigger for a while. It’s quite special, I love it.

Is it a drink that is becoming increasingly popular around the world – and why?

It’s super popular. Americans have long popularized Mexican food and drink. American foodies, and sommeliers in particular, have been coming to Oaxaca for ages. They are fascinated, even more than us, by these agave spirits. They get into it, they study it, a good percentage of American sommeliers, like with wine, can recognize different species of agave in a blind tasting of mezcal. They catapulted the international appreciation of mezcal simply by the pleasure of drinking it and sharing it.

That’s the thing, you like to share mezcal, I drink it with my stepfather, you drink it with people who are close to you, who matter to you. It’s a drink that accompanies all aspects of life, we drink it at the birth of a baby, or at a funeral, it sorts out everything, it puts you back in the center of yourself.

You go to the best restaurants in Mexico City now, and when the drinks cart comes back at the end of the meal, there’s no more tequila. It’s all mezcal. It’s funny, when I was a kid, mezcal was for the poor, and wine and tequila were for the rich, now it’s all about mezcal.

What’s the best way to serve it?

A true mezcal drinker will never touch a cocktail. A true mezcal drinker will always have it clean and sip by sip. Mezcal is so complex. The best producers will say that you only taste mezcal on the second sip, the first sip awakens and primes your palate, then each sip changes, it’s quite dimensional.

Then you also get variation and evolution in the bottle. Especially with a specific species of agave called Mexicano, which is a total mutant. When chilled you get riesling character, there are herbs and green peppers, and wonderful texture and vibrancy. Six months later, there’s a veggie character, then the veggies get sweeter, then all of a sudden you taste like roots, and then you get mother earth, and then it just keeps changing, and no lot is entirely predictable, it’s quite incredible.

Edmundo’s recommendations:

1. Ilegal Joven, Espadin, $110. Great introduction to mezcal tasting – smoky, earthy and great texture.

2. Gracias a Dios, Coyote, $160. One of the most fascinating species, it’s a mutant, it will vary from green chilies and herbs to mild veggies and will continue to evolve into deeper earthier notes.

3. Marcanegra, St. Maarten, $188. It’s what I drink the most – gunflint, amazing mineral texture, greens and herbal spices.