If you’ve been to a cocktail bar in the last five years, surely you’ve at least seen the word “mezcal” by this point. Chances are, if you’re at all adventurous in making your cocktail selections, you’ve consumed some of it within the context of mixed drinks as well. Neat mezcal, on the other hand? That’s an area of spirits geekery that is still catching on, but as one of the fastest growing arenas within the world of liquor, mezcal possesses an exoticism and enthusiasm that few other spirits can match.
Let’s pause for a refresher, though: What exactly is mezcal, and what makes it different from its sister spirit, tequila?
In short, the two spirits are closely linked, both being the product of fermented and distilled agave, but there are also many differences. One area is the types of agave used: Tequila is produced exclusively from blue agave, where mezcal can be made from any one (or combination) of more than 150 agave species that are native to Mexico. Likewise, tequila and mezcal are produced in differing regions: Tequila is produced in Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and most famously in Jalisco, while mezcal is produced in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla and Oaxaca, the last of which is a major center for mezcal production. It’s also where Convite is produced, including the flagship Esencial, which is the area’s most widely consumed mezcal.
Types of agave and areas of production only account for a portion of the difference in flavor profiles between mezcal and tequila, however. An even bigger factor is how that agave is handled. In tequila production, agave is traditionally steamed in an oven before fermentation and distillation in copper pot stills. Mezcal, meanwhile, is cooked in a more aggressive way, inside earthen pits fueled by wood and charcoal. This is what gives mezcal its distinctly smoke-forward profile—as in Islay scotches, which are produced with portions of malt that have been dried via burning peat, the fermentables have absorbed some of that smoke/roast flavor in the cooking/drying process, which carries over after fermentation and distillation.
So now we know what mezcal is. Convite Mezcal Esencial specifically is a good example of your standard, unaged mezcal. It is produced from the most common agave for mezcal, Espadín, from plants with a minimum maturity of 8 years. It’s then fermented and double distilled in copper pots in Oaxaca, before being bottled at the baseline of 40% ABV (80 proof). It carries an MSRP of around $45, although it seems it can often be found significantly cheaper in the U.S. With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Convite Mezcal Esencial features light-to-moderate smoke and roast notes, meeting halfway with fresher herbal notes and a strong suggestion of savoriness/saltiness. This smells dry, earthy, grassy and somewhat smoky, although it’s by no means a smoke character that evokes, say, the peat bombs of Islay. It’s less “tarry rope and smoked meat,” and more “a woodfire in the distance.” There are hints of fruit as well, but they’re quite faint.
On the palate, this is indeed pretty dry, with a measured amount of mesquite-like smoke flavor. You can’t miss it, but it’s fairly gentle and not too intensely savory or overwhelming, and that’s coming from someone whose palate is more sensitive to smoke than most. This is salty and briny, with notes of dried herbs. There’s a twist of lemon, but I find myself wishing for more of a citrus profile and a greater degree of brightness to cut through the smoke, herbaceousness and earthiness. Likewise, a bit more residual sweetness might help to brighten this mezcal up. Ethanol, meanwhile, is quite low—there’s no real heat to speak of.
All in all, after tasting this mezcal neat and then in the context of a margarita-like cocktail, this spirit strikes me as a solid building block that could nevertheless probably be improved with the simple addition of a brighter fruit profile to balance out the more savory smokiness. Still, it absolutely works for cocktail applications, especially in drinks where you can modify sweetness and acidity to your heart’s content. I do appreciate its moderate, restrained use of smoke in particular, and it makes me wonder if the more premium iterations of Convite Mezcal might wrap everything up into a more perfectly harmonious whole.
Distillery: Convite Mezcal
City: Santa María Atzompa, Oaxaca
Style: Unaged mezcal
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $45 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.