Beverage Director, Amanda Reed, like so many of her colleagues in this industry, has a love affair with mezcal. It’s no surprise, given the recent upsurge in the potent Mexican potion, which is distilled from any of a variety of agave species.
While mezcal may be the lesser-known agave spirit—tequila is the better known version—it is no shrinking violet. This complex spirit has a wide range of flavors, it can be floral, vegital, fruity, spicy and more commonly expected, smokey- mezcal picks up where tequila leaves off. It’s artisan, carefully crafted, and unique from producer to producer or even town to town. While tequila comes from one type of agave, mezcal can be made from over 30 different varietals, each unique in flavor, “As a category, I often compare mezcal to wine more than any other spirit. The complexity of aromas and flavors are vast and delicate and are very representative of the varietal from which it is made” says Reed. If tequila is for margaritas, mezcal is best appreciated neat, or perhaps in a carefully crafted cocktail.
Tequila—is a type of mezcal that must be comprised of at least 51 percent blue webber agave to be called tequila (although any connoisseur or quality bar would not drink or serve anything that wasn’t 100 percent) and made in the Jalisco town of Tequila—is typically bright as a pipe whistle. Straight mezcal, on the other hand, is typically full of a range of delicate aromas, including some smoky notes. That’s because, when making mezcal, the hearts of the agave plants are cooked over wood fire, then crushed and combined with water, transferred often times to wooden vats and allowed to ferment with natural yeast. Once fermented, it is double distilled and then bottled right away or aged in clay. While mass produced mezcal has begun to enter the market, for the most part mezcal is still handcrafted by small producers based on recipes and methods passed down through generations.
Reed knows all of this and more. She’s been sipping mezcal, and incorporating it into cocktails, for years. So, imagine her delight when, a couple of years back, she won the Northwest Tequila Cocktail Competition and with it a trip to Mexico. In May of 2015 she set forth for the state of Oaxaca—where the majority of mezcal is produced—and got an education of a lifetime.
“It’s amazing in Oaxaca. The art and the beauty of the place were breathtaking. It’s one of the most beautiful places. The people are warm, it’s an agricultural center, and the food is amazing,” says Reed.
For years, this part of Mexico and its mezcal production houses—the palenques—were largely ignored. The children of producers left for college and didn’t return to run the family business. It wasn’t enticing. It wasn’t profitable. But then, something changed and mezcal hit its stride. Maybe that’s because restaurateurs such as Phil Ward of Mayahuel in Manhattan, began creating entire concepts around mezcal and tequila, or because places such as Seattle’s Mezcalaria Oaxaca, Barrio, and Liberty Bar all began dedicating serious shelf space to the spirit.
“In 2013, I had heard that Seattle was the highest mezcal consumption, per capita, in U.S.,” says Reed. (It may just be rumor, but Seattleites do love their mezcal enough to support multiple bar libraries across town.) During her time in Oaxaca, Reed was fortunate enough to visit several palenques, and fell even deeper in love with the magical spirit.
Naturally, Heartwood Provisions has a diverse collection of mezcals. Although Reed plans to create revolving flights in the near future, they offer half pours of all spirits, so you can create your own flight or have one curated for you by Reed or one of our knowledgeable bartenders. If you’re lucky, Reed may even regale you with a palenque visit story.