What is the proper way to drink mezcal? This is by far one of the most common questions we receive when hosting tastings and mezcal education events.
While there are no hard and fast rules – we at Erstwhile Mezcal believe you should enjoy your mezcal in any way that makes you happy – we can suggest and share some basic principles of how we like to enjoy mezcal. For people who are new to mezcal, we hope you find our suggestions helpful as you set forth on your personal discovery of this remarkable and complex category of artisanal sprits.
First, kiss it, don’t shoot it! A good mezcal is complex in flavors, layers, and finish. It is meant to be savored and sipped, not guzzled. Moreover, mezcal is a strong spirit with most expressions in the 40-50+% ABV range. It is wise to get in the habit of introducing it to your palate, and to your body, slowly and gradually.
Second, use a copita! Mezcal is traditionally served and sipped in small shallow cups, or copitas. Copitas come in many forms, and can be made from ceramic, glass, or wood among other materials. They have a wide opening on top, great for getting your nose in there up close and picking up the complexities of the mezcal’s aroma.
If you are serving mezcal and do not have a copita handy, any small cup with a wide opening will do. A cordial or shot glass, for example, is better than a champagne flute.
In Oaxaca, jicaras are commonly seen and used to serve mezcal. Jicaras are hollowed out, halved gourds of fruits from the Calabash tree. They come in different sizes, and many are about 2 – 3 inches in diameter and about 1-2 inches deep.
Because they are made of natural plant fiber, jicaras tend to absorb the flavor and aroma of any liquid content. For that reason, we recommend you wash your jicaras with only warm water and skip the dish detergent. Unless you like the taste of soap and artificial flavorings in your mezcal!
We recommend that you try mezcal served in a jicara at least once. They are inexpensive and commonly seen in markets and souvenir shops all over Oaxaca. That said, our personal experience is that many jicara copitas, once taken outside Oaxaca, do not adjust well to overly air-conditioned homes and/or dry winters. A more robust copita, such as one made from glass or ceramic, might be a more permanent investment.
Suggestions for How to Drink Mezcal
- Start by taking in the mezcal’s aroma. Stick your nose in up close to the copita. Don’t be shy. Just like wines, brandies, and whiskeys, different mezcals have unique noses that significantly impact the overall taste experience.
- Another way to enjoy the aroma is by dabbing a few drops on your palms, rubbing your hands quickly, and sticking your nose into the cup of your palms.Essentially this stirs and heats up the molecules, and gives you a more activated sense of the mezcal’s aroma.
- Take a small sip whenever you are ready. Do not swallow immediately. Instead, hold the mezcal in your mouth for a few moments and swish it around, as if you are “chewing” and aerating the mezcal. This first sip is a primer, mostly intended to get your palate ready for mezcal. Neutralizing anything you might have eaten recently, and acclimating your palate to the high alcohol content of mezcal (which can be a bit shocking at first!).
- The mezcal will open up and come to life, as you take a second and more sips. No need to rush.
- Take note of the flavors that come to mind, and your reactions to them. What did you like, what did you dislike? Take note of the finish, and anything else you find unusual or interesting. Did the flavors linger, or disappear quickly? There is no right or wrong answer, as different people naturally gravitate toward different kinds of mezcal. But these observations will make you start to understand your palate better, and make you a more thoughtful, intentional consumer of mezcal in the long run.
Neat or Mixed?
We serve neat pours of mezcal at room temperature by default. We encourage you to try mezcal this way at least once, before adding water, ice, or any other ingredient. Ultimately you should enjoy mezcal however you like it best, subject to your personal preference.
On a hot summer day like today, sometimes we like to serve mezcal neat but slightly chilled. This does not exactly improve the mezcal’s flavor in our experience, but is pleasant for the same reasons that we crave chilled food and beverages on hot days.
We love mezcal cocktails as well. Check out Erstwhile Mezcal’s cocktail recipes online if you ever need inspiration.
While some purists frown upon mezcal in cocktails, it is a fantastic and versatile base for most cocktails, especially for cocktails that traditionally call for gin or whiskey. Try taking a cocktail recipe and sub out the base liquor for Erswhile Mezcal’s signature Espadin– you almost always end up with a better, more interesting cocktail.
For those who like mezcal’s unique flavor profile but do not enjoy strong spirits, mezcal cocktails are a wonderful alternative.
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Kevin Brown, Co-founder of Erstwhile Mezcal