Although mezcal is gaining in popularity in the United States, it’s still mostly unknown (or misunderstood) by the average consumer. This is a shame, as mezcal is a wonderful spirit with a great deal of potential.
To the extent that most Americans have heard of mezcal at all, they think of it as “that booze with the worm in the bottle.” This is, for the most part, wrong. There have been a few companies in the past that have sold their mezcal “con guisano” (with a moth larva in the bottle). But that was nothing more than a marketing gimmick. It has nothing to do with the spirit itself.
Mezcal is similar to tequila in that it is distilled from the agave plant — a succulent, by the way, not a cactus — and can only legally be made in certain regions of Mexico.
Most mezcal is made in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and it is made from a variety of different types of agave, including espadin, tobala, and arroqueno. Tequila, on the other hand, is made in western Mexico, mostly in Jalisco, and must be made from Weber blue agave (agave tequilana).
An even more important difference between tequila and mezcal is the way that the agave is cooked before distillation. With tequila, the agave piñas are traditionally cooked in ovens (called hornos) using steam. With mezcal, the agave is roasted in a pit over a wood fire (usually oak or mesquite). This process imparts a smokiness to mezcal that to many is the trademark of the spirit.
(Note that not all mezcal producers produce their spirit in this fashion. Some utilize methods to minimize the smokiness of their distillate, while others dispense with the roasting altogether. Similarly, not all tequila producers cook their agave in hornos. These are matters of some controversy in the agave spirits community, and for good reason.)
Like most mezcals, El Buho is made from espadin agave in Oaxaca. It is roasted using mesquite wood, something that is immediately evident when you open the bottle. An initial smell of salt and pepper gives way to lots of wood smoke. A deeper inhalation leads to brininess, along with the expected ethanol.
For those who aren’t used to drinking mezcal, the flavor is quite unique. El Buho has a strong earthy taste of mesquite smoke that is complemented by scant sweetness and tropical fruit notes, and some roasted chili as well. There is almost a burnt tire quality to it — which sounds unappealing, but really isn’t. The finish is long and smoky, with the briny quality from the aroma returning.
El Buho is an excellent mezcal to start with, given that it costs quite a bit less than most on the market. It may lack some of the balance and nuance of the more high-end expressions, but it represents a very solid example of the genre.
Although El Buho is fine on its own, it would also be welcome in a variety of cocktails, including the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned.