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Mezcal: What to know about the smoky sister of tequila

A white Negroni made with mezcal is a

A white Negroni made with mezcal is a way to ease into the smoky spirit. Credit: Newsday / Corin Hirsch

A drink writer’s inbox can sometimes be out of step with the world at large. For instance, I receive so many emails about new mezcals that it sometimes seems like the Mexican-made, smoky sister of tequila is taking over the world.

Out there in that real world, though, visits to liquor stores to find mezcal can elicit blank stares. And order a mezcal cocktail, and this cautious question might follow: “Have you tried mezcal before?” That’s because mezcal can wallop some first-time drinkers, such as a nearby diner who recently winced after she took a sip of a mezcal old fashioned. A knowing server whisked away the drink for replacement.

Legend holds that it was created many moons ago when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, and singed its heart, or piña. A super-smoky spirit was born, one whose character is now replicated by baking the piñas — which look sort of like pineapples, once their fronds are cut off — in the ground before they are mashed and fermented.

That’s the Cliffs Notes for a complex process that varies from village to village. While tequila is made solely from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be produced from different species of agave in seven regions of Mexico, giving rise to an array of styles that make tasting mezcals side by side akin to tasting scotch. In some, you might detect citrus, or peatiness; in others, thyme, honey or chili.

Despite that complexity, mezcal can sometimes clobber a cocktail — even a margarita, where it’s often used. The best way to ease into its world, I think, is to sip some straight, either at a bar or poured from a hard-won bottle (Wines by Nature in Wading River carries at least three mezcals). If all systems are go, try this: Equal parts mezcal, dry vermouth and Lillet Blanc stirred over ice and strained into a chilled coupe glass. This thrice-removed form of white Negroni mellows mezcal’s aggressive edges, but still has enough smokiness for the season.

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