If you’re like many Americans, you may have gotten into tequila late in the game. Maybe you were scarred by your first tequila experience, some blur of Jose Cuervo over-mixed with chemically sweet, plastic-bottled margarita mix. “It’s really taken tequila a long time to get its name back,” said Salazar beverage director Aaron Melendrez. “If we think about early tequila, it was almost a racist marketing of what tequila really was. It was advertised by men with sombreros and big mustaches and girls in bikinis on the beach in Mexico. That’s not what tequila is. It’s labor, it’s love, it’s hard work, it’s patience, it’s time.”
Fortunately times are changing, and more people are finally giving agave liquor the attention and respect it deserves. “People should look deeper than the Cuervo they got drunk off in college,” said Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria beverage director Michael Lay. It seems that people are looking deeper as tequila and mezcal gain not just popularity but overdue respect, too. Angelenos are blessed with a wealth of opportunities to drink great agave spirits, from designated tequila bars to fine dining restaurants. If you’re late to the tequila party, you have some catching up to do, so we checked in with industry experts to get a crash course on mezcal and tequila.
First of all, tequila and mezcal are not necessarily the same thing. The term mezcal covers spirits made from agave, whereas tequila must be made from blue agave specifically. Tequila is usually produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and most mezcal is made in Oaxaca. The blue agave plants that make tequila are cooked in a steam oven, while mezcal’s agave is roasted underground.
Beyond the distinctions between tequila and mezcal, there are different styles of each that you’ll notice on spirits menus. “There are different categories which can be as different in taste from one another as are a scotch from a whiskey,” said AJ Gilbert, owner and operator of Pata Salada, a new Mexican restaurant focused on food from Jalisco. Gilbert's referring to the categories that tell you the age of what you're drinking. Plata, silver, or joven tequila or mezcal is straight from the still (sometimes mixed with older distillates). Reposado varieties have been rested for at least two months, and añejo has aged in a wooden barrel for at least a year, resulting in a golden color.
But looks can be deceiving. “Some large brands are marketed as 'gold' tequilas. These are most often a silver tequila which has been colored with caramel or another coloring agent to change the color from clear to gold,” Gilbert said. You don't just have to skip to añejo in order to find a good drink, though. Older doesn’t necessarily mean better in the mezcal world. “It’s one of the only spirits that comes right off the still interesting, without any barrel-aging influence,” Lay said.
While the age of the liquid itself changes the taste, so does the age of the plant (not to mention the plant type). “The flavor profile and experience of mezcal differs with the age and type of maguey, or agave, and distillation heritage,” said Elliott Coon, co-founder of GEM&BOLT, a mezcal distilled with damiana, a storied Mexican herb often championed for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities. “Much like terroir is relevant in choosing your wine, the soil and water source of each region is distinct and affects the final product a lot.”
Price is also an important factor. If you find cheap mezcal, that should be a red flag — not just on a flavor level, but an ethical level. “What people don’t understand is that there’s no such thing as cheap mezcal because someone is getting dicked over one way or another,” Melendrez said. “People might get cheap mezcal, but that just means someone down the line is getting the bad end of the deal. There’s a family in Oaxaca not eating right somewhere, there is a producer who is not getting his fair share. There’s something wrong. If you want good agave, you have to pay for it.”
At the end of the day, enjoying tequila and mezcal is a totally subjective experience. You don't have to be an expert on the stuff to sip it happily.
“Be adventurous. Try it straight first, then have a cocktail if you prefer,” Coon said. “But [I] always like to know my mezcal straight. Savor it. Never shoot it. This beautiful agave has been sitting in the sun for eight years and has been hand-crafted in small batches. It merits savoring.”
“I love a margarita. My rule is, if blended is ever an option, drink a blended margarita,” Lay said. “Drinking it neat is just as fun. I like the more complex flavor of a reposado, served neat.”
Where to Drink Tequila and Mezcal in LA:
Las Perlas – 107 E. Sixth St., Los Angeles; (213) 988-8355.
Salazar – 2490 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles; (858) 352-7737.
Pata Salada – 672 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 988-3744.
Broken Spanish – 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; (213) 749-1460.
Bar Ama – 118 W. Fourth St., Los Angeles; (213) 687-8002.