Q&A: the founders of London Mezcal Week on what makes the Mexican spirit so magical
What actually is mezcal and how do you drink it? Melanie Symonds and Thea Cumming, the founders of London Mezcal Week, give us the lowdown on their favourite spirit
By Lydia Winter
Published: Monday 4th September 2017
You've scoffed tacos, hoovered up mole and had your fair share of tequila shots. But now it's time to get your chops 'round another Mexican export: mezcal. Like tequila, it's made from agave – but that's just about where the similarities end. We've enlisted the help of Thea Cumming of Dangerous Don and Melanie Symonds of Quiquiriqui – founders of London Mezcal Week – to demystify the spirit and tell us why they love it so much.
What is mezcal?
Melanie: Mezcal is a category of spirits that are exclusively made in Mexico from cooked agave hearts. The word 'mezcal' derives from the Aztec words for 'cooked agave' – metl ixcalli. It's protected with a denomination of origin, which means it can only be made in specific states, using certain processes.
The term 'mezcal' can broadly be used to refer to any agave spirit, so it covers tequila and mezcal and more. They're all different depending on their type – traditional tequila uses only one agave in its production and uses brick ovens to cook the pina (agave heart). Traditional mezcal uses more than 40 both cultivated and wild agave and they cook the pina in underground, wood-fired pits. Industrial mezcal is a whole other category best left on the shelf.
Why has it taken so long to become more popular?
M: Before the DO in 1994, mezcal wasn't exported out of Mexico and if any did get out it was of debatable quality and often unregulated, so possibly dangerous. Once the DO allowed a quality control, export started slowly and mezcal started to grab the attentions of bartenders and spirit enthusiasts. This has steadily been increasing year by year, but mezcal, unlike tequila, is a handmade product and it's made in small batches by farmers in rural communities. These factors limit the commercial nature of the product.
How did you find out about it? Why do you love it so much?
T: I used to work at Pitt Cue restaurant where the menu had a focus on bourbon. About four years ago I decided to leave my job in London and travel the US. I wanted to end up in Kentucky so that I could explore all of the bourbon distilleries and learn more about the spirits I had been serving. I then travelled down to Mexico where I ended up in Puerto Escondido. This is where I really discovered mezcal. I was meant to be there for three weeks and ended up staying two months. I decided that I wanted to start a brand so that I could support the work of the industry at home in London. I came back, took out a loan and spent the next year between the US and London working out how to make the dream happen. Dangerous Don arrived in the UK in March this year!
M: I was in Mexico travelling down the Pacific coast and stumbled across a then-sleepy town called Puerto Escondido, where there's lots of surfing – and parties! At one such party I found myself heading into the jungle to try some mezcal. After an interesting chat with a dude in nothing but his pants and machete, I was given a jerry can and told to drink. It was the most delicious, amazing thing I have ever put in my mouth. It was a wild tobala mezcal made by this guy in the middle of nowhere. That was it. I was in love and on the jazzy path of mezcal forever.
I spent the next five months in Oaxaca learning about mezcal and its culture then I came back to London, quit my job as a TV producer and opened the UK's first mezcaleria under a kebab shop in Hackney.
How do you drink it? What's the best mezcal cocktail?
T: I drink mezcal straight as I want to taste every last bit with no complications, but the smokiness does work exceptionally well in a cocktail. Dangerous Don is distilled with coffee. We steep the twice-distilled espadin agave in Oaxacan coffee for two day and then re-distill it for the third time. It makes a particularly good coffee martini.
M: I drink it any which way it comes, whether that's neat with some orange and chilli worm salt or in cocktails. My favourite is a Mezcal Tommy Margarita – simple, but made well, it's the best cocktail on the world.
How does one mezcal differ from another? What flavours should people be looking out for?
M: Flavour preferences are personal, but what you should look for is mezcal made from single palenques (distilleries), not ones made from lots of different producers and then blended together. Mezcals should be above 45% ABV. That's the benchmark for traditional mezcals – I was told very early on in Oaxaca not to touch it if it's under 45% ABV because it's for tourists.
Mezcals that are 100% agave are a given. And where possible try and look for mezcal that support the communities they are made in and that have a social conscience. The best way to do all of that is look at the label – the more info it has about who makes it and where it comes from the more chance it fits into the points above.
Where's best to drink it in London?
T: Mezcal is popping up all over the place.Temper is doing an exceptional job at looking after the category. Emily who works there is half Mexican and is committed to representing traditionally made mezcals. She's created a cocktail that's a mezcal take on a pina colada but uses Dangerous Don, which is called the Don Colada. Pitt Cue also has a great list and only serves mezcal, rum or bourbon so it is great to see the team there pushing the category.
What would you eat with mezcal?
T: I love eating mole with mezcal. The smokiness of the mezcal cuts through the rich chocolatey mole and it's totally sensational. I love Mexican food and so drinking mezcal and eating tacos is a dream for me, although I think it works with plenty of other cuisines especially rich flavours and smoked meats.
M: MANY, MANY TACOS
What's happening at London Mezcal Week?
T: London Mezcal Week is happening 11-17 September and is dedicated to celebrating and supporting the agave category. The main event is a two-day tasting festival where guests are invited to try more than 28 different agave spirits.
M: We are aiming to showcase the diversity of traditional mezcal across the week's events, from pairing with food to discussing the future of the mezcal and how we as an industry can help support and protect it. We'll be celebrating Mexico Independence Day during the week and finishing things off with a two-day Mezcal Festival featuring the largest collection of mezcals ever in the UK, plus Mexican street food, live art workshops, a mezcal bar and amazing DJs, all in a carpark in Hackney.
What are your must-dos at the festival?
T&M: The tasting festival – we have more than 28 different agave spirits and food from Bad Sports and Temper. We also have an art exhibition, print workshop and DJs. It will be a proper Mexican fiesta.
Then there's the mezcal-pairing dinner with Santo Remedio on Monday 11 September will be awesome. Edson and his team are exceptional Mexican chefs and we are pairing each of the six courses with a different mezcal. They'll will have only just opened their beautiful new site so it is very special to have the opening dinner with them.
We are also throwing a party on the Friday for Mexican Independence day at club Makossa in Dalston which will be a great night. Underground super fun party vibes. Then the other things to do are eat plenty of tacos and drinks lots and lots of mezcal.
London Mezcal Week, 11-17 September; londonmezcalweek.com