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Mezcal: Not just for drinking

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:06AM

Everyone knows tequila (some of us, too well). Less known is mezcal, which like tequila is made from agave, a desert succulent that looks like a giant aloe vera plant.

Tequila is made of blue agave, mezcal of green. The green agave “bud” of mezcal is cooked in a fire-pit before distillation, and this gives the beverage a deliciously smoky flavor. Chef Patricio Sandoval of Mercadito describes mezcal as offering “a balance of herbaceous, slightly peppery taste from the agave and smoke from the mesquite or oak used to cook the agave.”

In June, on the drive from Huatulco to Oaxaca de Juarez, I visited Matatlan, the self-proclaimed “Mezcal capital of Mexico.” Matatlan’s streets are lined with small mezcal producers. Unlike tequila, which is frequently produced by huge manufacturers with highly recognizable brands such as Jose Cuervo and Don Julio, mezcal seems largely the product of mom-and-pop distilleries, many along dusty roads in small towns in Oaxaca.

At Logan Square’s hip and happening Scofflaw, barman Danny Shapiro appreciates the “depth and character” he finds in “high-quality, single-village distillations.” Because mezcal is usually produced by smaller distilleries, there’s much pleasant variation among “brands.”

But mezcal is not just for drinking, and its full flavor potential is just starting to be realized as it moves from cocktail menu to dinner ingredient.

Brian Runge, formerly of Premise, pickles Serrano peppers in Mezcal; at Red Door, Troy Graves makes a mezcal-lime sorbet to top oysters on the half shell, and at Frontera Grill, Zachary Steen uses mezcal to flavor black barley on beef with black mole, telling us “the sweet smoke supports the sauce and brings Oaxaca alive.”

All this got us thinking how we could make mezcal a key ingredient in a main course.

So we wood-smoked lush Skuna Bay salmon and made a sauce of mezcal, mayonnaise, lime and hot sauce with maguey worms (which live in agave and are sometimes seen at the bottom of Mezcal bottles). Mezcal plays well with seafood and heat, and our cream sauce provided piquant acidity to slice through deliciously fatty fish, the smokiness of fish and sauce amplifying each other with wonderfully complementary flavors.

Mezcal. Not just for drinking. But you can do that, too.

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