I’ve never met Nick Zukin in person, but through Facebook I feel like I know a little about him. As the Owner at Mi Mero Mole, a regular on many of the Best Mexican Food lists of Portland, Oregon, Nick doesn’t shy away from potential controversy. Most recently he found himself knee deep into the cultural appropriation wars reverberating across that funky northwest city. I like that kind of boldness in someone.
When I asked Nick for his 5 Mezcals, or Tequilas to Experience as part of our ongoing series, he was very gracious with a quick yes, but with a twist. He wanted to open it up to include some of the other spirits of Mexico.
So here are Nick Zukin’s 5 Mexican Spirits Everyone Needs to Experience, in no particular order.
Mexico has a much more diverse history of distilling spirits than most people realize, even tequila aficionados. Tequila, which started as mezcal de tequila, ie, mezcal from the town of Tequila, was only one of many competing spirits, some made from agave, but many not. Rum, fruit-based liquors, various infusions and aperitifs and digestifs, all have long histories in Mexico, some from long before the Conquest.
Below I offer five of my favorites, each unique and among the very best booze of their kind in the world.
Fernet-Vallet – How do all those hipsters get so hairy? Drinking Fernet Branca. The minty liquor that tastes like Listerine laced with cyanide, however, is not the only, and definitely not the best, of those spirits called “Fernet”. If you lack hirsuit aspirations, try Mexico’s Fernet-Vallet, a remnant of French colonialism. It has a bitter undertone balanced by clove and cardamom, a great way to give aroma and balance to cocktails.
Ancho Reyes – Ancho chiles, the dried poblanos used as the foundation for so many moles and other Mexican sauces, have a deep raisiny sweetness with a little bitter cocoa and just enough heat to keep the taste buds alive. This liqueur captures all of the chile’s depth without giving into the temptation to make it candy-sweet like some of those cinnamon whiskeys so popular as shots for the bros and hoes crowd. Substitute ancho reyes for the Campari in a negroni or the vermouth in a Manhattan and you have an entirely new and delicious cocktail for those who like a bit more zip in their sips.
Fortaleza Blanco – While our restaurant has over 100 tequilas in stock, there are a few that our bartenders love and recommend over and over. And among those, Fortaleza is nearly every bartender’s favorite at Mi Mero Mole. Each bottle is made of hand-blown glass, has a piña-shaped stopper, and an old timey label – yet none of those cool features really matter. It’s the taste: green grass, agave nectar, jalapeño, and sea shell, all in wonderful balance. That’s what happens when a family with 140 years of experience decides to make artisanal tequila, ground with a stone wheel, cooked in brick ovens, fermented in wood, and distilled in copper pots. And while I tend to prefer unaged agave spirits, their reposado is as good as any out there, even the ones two or three times the price.
Almamezcalera Michoacan Cupreata – Erick Rodriguez is the Indiana Jones of mezcal. He goes into the wilds of Mexico, finds the hidden gems, and then works with small mezcal makers to bottle and distribute the best. The mezcals he sells come from all over the country using dozens of different varieties of agave. Each is unique. I’ve tasted 20 in the same tasting and not one could be confused with another. And yet all are special. Only a couple brands even come close to competing on quality. Rich, leathery, but with just enough sweet and grassy agave to keep it from being too brutal, the Michoacan Cupreata he currently offers is great for those drinkers who love washed rind cheeses, tripe, and lamb head barbacoa. Most of his product has to be purchased from him directly in Mexico City. However, Wahaka Mezcal does distribute his booze under the name Vino de Mezcal in the U.S. And Erick occasionally does tastings at bars in the United States. Follow the link above to connect with him on Facebook.
Almamezcalera Sotolito – Erick’s booze is so good, he has to be on here twice. It’s too hard choosing between one of his many exquisite mezcals and his sotol. Sotol is a cousin of agave that mostly grows in the north of Mexico and the southwest United States. The one Erick currently offers, only 20 bottles in existence, comes out of Puebla and has a rich mouthfeel and flavor of smoked brisket wrapped in fresh hay seasoned with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and spicy jalapeno. Scotch will seem like such a girly drink after you try this sotol. The flavor lingers on your palate long after, like the aroma of a cigar on a smoking jacket. I’ve been giving tastes to mezcal lovers at Mi Mero Mole since I brought back a bottle and the expressions on the tasters’ faces has ranged from the shock of learning that you were adopted and your birth mother is Madonna to losing your virginity to Monica Bellucci. It’s going to be really hard to get your hands on a bottle so if you want to have a glimmer of how good this juice is, Don Cuco’s Sotol Tradicional is quite tasty, available in most states or by mail order, and relatively inexpensive.
Follow Dave Miller’s Mexico on Facebook for lots of great pics from our ongoing travels and adventures across Mexico.