Mezcal is an agave distillate produced in Mexico. Tequila, with which we are more familiar, is a sub-category of mezcal produced within a certain part of Mexico from a particular type of agave. But typically when we refer to mezcal we're talking about "mezcal other than tequila" rather than "all mezcal, including tequila." (As a comparison, when we refer to French brandy we're often referring to French brandy other than cognac.)
In the last two or three years, several brands of amazing-quality mezcal have become available. It's fair to say that top bartenders have gone bananas for the stuff. There is even one New York bar where nearly the entire menu is dedicated to the spirit.
Mezcal can come from several species of agave, some of which only grows wild and is harvested rather than farmed. Much of this mezcal is produced in a very traditional method in which agaves are put into a pit with hot rocks previously heated by a wood fire and covered with earth and left to bake. Then it is shredded, fermented, and distilled. The baking step infuses the agave and resulting distillate with smoke.
To scotch whisky drinkers, these mezcals will resonate as do smoky Islay whiskies. Look for brands including Del Maguey, Sombra, Mezcalero, Los Danzantes, and Benesin.
Bartenders have figured out that to stand up to a big, powerful, smoky spirit like mezcal, you need powerful mixers. (Mezcal margaritas will please few people.) Surprisingly, berries and fruits (especially pineapple) do rather well against mezcal, as do savory ingredients like sherry and herbs, and forceful liqueurs like Chartreuse. But we'll start off with this rather simple cocktail from Carlos Yturria of Absinthe in San Francisco.
By Carlos Yturria of Abinsthe restaurant in San Francisco
1.5 fl. oz. Mezcal (Don Amado Plata)
3 Small Basil Leaves
1 fl. oz. Lemon Juice
.5 fl. oz. Simple Syrup
Muddle lemon juice, berries, and 2 basil leaves in a mixing glass. Add mezcal and simple syrup, ice, and shake. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Garnish with the remaining basil leaf. Clap the leaf between your hands to release its aromatics before garnishing.