If the thought of drinking tequila brings back memories of all-night fraternity parties and spring break binges or you suspect your friends have never actually tasted a good tequila or mezcal, it's time to offer everyone a bit of enlightenment. After all, entertaining is the most fun when you not only share recipes, but experiences with loved ones. Make it count and spice up your next fiesta with a formal (but fun) mezcal or tequila tasting.
Since mezcals and tequilas are similar in many ways, it's possible to conduct a tasting of each spirit the same way. Here are the basics: Both tequila and mezcal are agave-based spirits -- though tequila is exclusively blue agave while mezcal is defined by green agave varieties -- and both classifications come in silver, reposado and añejo styles. The main taste difference between the two is the intense smokiness of mezcal, which comes from extracting juices from agave that has been cooked in earthen fire pits. Last, all tequilas are mezcals but not the other way around.
Looking for some guidance, TLK asked Selene Estrada, director of U.S. marketing and sales for Zignum Mezcal, how to host an educational and fun tasting that will help guests better understand and appreciate these Mexican delicacies:
Choose your tasting structure. You can arrange the tasting two ways, but never feature more than three spirits, as the brain will get exhausted and begin “making up” aromas that your mouth doesn't necessarily confirm, Estrada says. You can either choose a silver, reposado and anejo (always 100 percent agave, rather than a mixto) from one distillery to demonstrate the difference in the ages, aromas and complexities using one producer as an example; or choose one age of 100% agave (preferably silver or joven) from three different distilleries to demonstrate the nuances between house blends of the same style. Since every distillery may use a slightly different production process, you will notice subtle differences in products. For example, Zignum extracts agave juices before cooking the plant, rather than after cooking in earthen pits, so its varieties are much less smoky. Research mezcals you present so that at the end of the tasting you can explain to guests what drives the flavor profiles.
Taste from youngest to oldest. Because tequila and mezcal can be harsh on a newbie's palate, the former method could be an easier way to identify differences and gradually ease your guests' mouths from the most robust to the least. But no matter what type of tasting you choose, taste from youngest to oldest, arranged left to right. Silver tequilas and mezcals are the purest agave expressions with the richest taste. Reposados and añejos are more tame from resting in wood barrels over time.
Set the tone. Show guests you know your stuff by providing a professional atmosphere. Riedel makes a tulip/fluted glass for tequila and mezcal tasting, but wine glasses will suffice as a way to concentrate the flavor and aroma and emphasize specific characteristics, Estrada says. Set three glasses at each place. Hold the tasting away from the kitchen, flowers and candles to keep those smells from tainting your senses. Serve appetizers before the tasting begins with enough time to properly cleanse your palate before your first sip. Keep white bread, corn tortillas or plain crackers on the table with water as a palate cleanser in between tastes.
Follow all the steps, and think about what each means. Conducting a mezcal or tequila tasting follows similar guidelines to a wine, whiskey or brandy tasting. Help guests understand the spirit with specific, step-by-step instructions and questions following them:
Keep it authentic. Once the tasting is complete, incorporate the spirit's heritage into the festivities. When the tasting is over and you've poured the first glass of your guests' new favorite mezcal, for example, encourage them to practice the Oaxacan tradition of spilling a little bit of mezcal on the earth before finishing. It signals thanks to nature for the drink. Or serve the first pour in a glass rimmed with worm salt* and a few slices of orange, as Oaxacans do, Estrada says.
*How to Make Worm Salt
Worm salt – or sal de gusano – is a popular condiment in Oaxaca and Guadalajara.
Made from salt, ground chiles and powdered worm, worm salt is usually taken with mangoes, citrus, melons and peaches. A mezcal glass is often rimmed in sal de gusano – a sour, sweet and spicy twist on the traditional salt rim. Since a powdered worm can sound a little scary to guests (not to mention a tad hard to get in the U.S.), make it sin-worm by grinding one half tablespoon sea salt and one tablespoon Mexican chile powder from a Latin market.