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What is mezcal, and why you should pay more attention to this agave spirit?

Tequila always had a bad reputation, having been associated with too many salt-rimmed shots and a killer hangover from heavy drinking college days. But these days, small-batch and artisanal tequilas have been slowly enjoying more air time, hand in hand with its agave sibling mezcal. In fact, last year, the Distilled Spirits Council reported that Mexico’s mezcal sales grew from less than 50,000 cases in 2009 to approximately 360,000 cases in 2017. It’s safe to say that we’re going to see more bartenders using this agave spirit in cocktails this year.

At the forefront of this trend is Jay Khan, bar veteran and founder of COA, a Mexican bar in Hong Kong focusing on agave spirits. He was in KL recently and took on a guest shift at Three X Co bar with a selection of his agave-based cocktails. But before he began rolling out the drinks, we spoke to him about the rising popularity of mezcal in the world of alcohol. “A lot of people think that tequila and mezcal are spirits meant only for fun and not to be taken seriously,” he begins. “But it’s not true. They need more respect than just shots, lemon, and salt. Mezcal and tequila are no different than enjoying a glass of whisky or cognac — they just have to be enjoyed the right way.”

Jay Khan is a bar veteran and owner of COA, an agave-focused bar in Hong Kong.
Jay Khan is a bar veteran and owner of COA, an agave-focused bar in Hong Kong.
'(Mezcal and tequila) need more respect than just shots, lemon, and salt,' says Khan.
'(Mezcal and tequila) need more respect than just shots, lemon, and salt,' says Khan.

One of the reasons, he surmises, is because people today care more about sustainability and transparency. “There’s no other spirit in the world that could be more craft than a mezcal,” he declares. True enough, ancestrally-produced mezcal is as artisanal as it gets. Unlike tequila which is only made from the blue agave plant, several varietals of agave can be used to create mezcal, as long as it’s 100% agave.

Ancestral-grade mezcal

Upon harvesting the agave — which take over seven to eight years to mature — its spines are cut off. The remaining heart (the piña) will be roasted at the bottom of the roasting pit and covered with agave leaves, an assortment of fibre, straw mats, and left to roast for four days. This process will help the agave release its natural sweetness. Later, the roasted agave is brought to a special grinding mill where it will be crushed with a stone wheel pulled by a horse or donkey. The fermentation process then begins in animal hide, wood, earth and stone pots with maguey fibres still unfiltered. The extraction process is later done by putting the fermented agave through clay stills. It’s an extremely traditional way of making mezcal which gives the spirit a unique silky and creamy mouthfeel that only a clay still can yield.

Of course, there are other ways of making mezcal that is more profitable, but recent regulations by the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), also known as the Official Mexican Standard have required that mezcal makers put a label on their bottles to determine if the spirit is Mezcal, Artisanal Mezcal, or Ancestral Mezcal. “Mezcal” alone refers to industrially-made mezcal, while “Artisanal Mezcal” falls somewhere between industrial and ancestrally-made. They use traditional methods but with modern technology, such as machine shredders.

Khan’s cocktail the Coconut Milk Punch is made with Alipus Mezcal.

Sipping on mezcal

However, Khan cautions on first-timers trying out mezcal, as it can be a very acquired taste. “I’d always liken mezcal to trying raw food for the first time,” he says. “My first sashimi experience was not nice because I found that it had a weird texture and flavour. But the more I tried it, the more I liked it. Mezcal is just like that.”

Once you get used to that alcohol strength, smoky flavour, and intensity, Khan says, you’ll really love it. Traditionally, mezcals are bottled at 45% ABV but there are also softer variants out there that are bottled at 40% ABV. There are also different levels of smokiness, ranging from gently smoked to incredibly smoked. “Sometimes, extremely smoked mezcals are not an indicator of a good mezcal because they may want to cover some of the flaws in the product,” he advises. As a bartender, Khan usually eases first-timers into trying spirits bottled between 40% and 43% with a gentle smokiness level.


“You can also try something aged because it’s more mellow — the wood softens the spirit,” he recommends. Some aged mezcals even taste similar to a whisky or cognac. From thereon, you can work your way down to the younger spirits that are not aged. During his guest shift at Three X Co, Khan made one of his signature cocktails — a clarified Coconut Milk Punch — using Alipus Mezcal which can be purchased from Wholly Spirits. It’s an artisanal mezcal made from a single variant of agave — espadin — and has the right amount of smokiness, perfect for a first timer.

One final word

For those planning on purchasing their first bottle of mezcal, Khan advises on one rule of thumb: avoid bottles that contain a worm inside. The worm is actually a moth’s larvae that are often used in Mexican cuisine. The marketing gimmick started in the 1950s and blew up in the United States. “There was a whole drinking game where if you were the last one to drink from the bottle, you’d have to eat the worm,” he says. “It became a really big thing for fun and jokes, but generally it’s safe to say to not opt for mezcal that has a worm inside.”

“It mostly tastes horrible because the larvae give you a strong umami taste that will mask the flavour of the mezcal. It becomes so salty and savoury that when you drink it, all you can taste is the saltiness.”

(Photography: Kai/Three X Co)

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.