It’s vegan, gluten-free and backed by George Clooney – what more could you ask for?
If you wind down the window of your rental car on federal highway 91 in Oaxaca, Mexico, you can smell it. Agave hearts, known as piña, being roasted in underground pits, the first stage of making mezcal. The smell has been likened to barbecue sauce, but it reminds me more of the time after I accidentally left a baked potato in the oven, then roasted a chicken and then, later, grilled a pie. It is a rich, burning smell: peaty, evocative of both the landscape and the anxiety of having left the oven on by mistake.
Mezcal is the parent drink of tequila. Whereas tequila is made from one type of agave, mezcal can be made from 30 types and can taste of almost anything – sweet, smoky, sometimes leafy – which is perhaps why it has eluded the buffs. Still, it is being tipped to be the drink of 2018. To be fair, it has been tipped since the mid-00s but this is definitely its year, something we know because a broad but reliably prophetic trio are making it happen: vegans (it’s vegan); illegal reptile hunters (this month, a market in Oaxaca City was raided by the federal office for environmental protection after trying to sell 15 bottles of mezcal containing blood pythons and whip snakes in lieu of the worm); and George Clooney (who discovered it while on a tequila recce in southern Mexico and is now launching his own version, Casamigos Mezcal, this April).
In Oaxaca, it is sold on the roadside near small Zapotec towns, usually in large glass vats the colour of swimming pools. I first tried it in a bar, but still went native and had it with a side of worm salt, which is exactly what you think it is and fine provided you don’t think about it too much.
Its appeal says a lot about where we are now. As well as being vegan, it is also gluten-free, and good for people – let’s call them massive babies – who don’t like tequila. It doesn’t give you much of a hangover – although I can’t vouch for this as I was pretty jet-lagged when I tried it. It is also made in relatively small quantities, in a relatively rustic way, which feeds the bucolic fantasy of people who like to know the personality of their lamb and so on. But if it takes off, we can probably thank Clooney: an Oscar-winning actor who – given his last role was in Nespresso: Comin’ Home – clearly knows which side his quesadilla is fried on.