Mezcal wasn’t love at first sight for Jay Schroeder.
“I first had to actually know what it was before I was able to fall in love with it,” says Schroeder, a Certified Specialist of Spirits and the author of a new book, Understanding Mezcal. “Quality mezcal was difficult to come by in the United States until recently.”
Mezcal, though, eventually became his favorite spirit because of its diversity.
“It’s a big, wide category, and it has more depth and breadth than any other spirit category,” says Schroeder, the former chief mixologist and head bartender for three restaurants of celebrity chef Rick Bayless and now a partner and beverage director at the Chicago-based Mexican restaurant Quiote. “I’d even argue that mezcal as a universe is as complex as all other spirits categories combined, but I’m sure someone out there would contend that.
Understanding Mezcal is comprised of nine chapters that look at the agave-based spirit from many angles, including tradition, science, economics and biology. The book is for “seasoned bartenders and those looking to expand their awareness of the beloved Mexican spirit” and includes the work of Polly Jiménez, an artist and illustrator from Mexico City known for delicate, narrative-driven watercolors.
Schroeder says he wrote the book because there were none about mezcal.
“I had been waiting around for someone to put the pieces of the puzzle all in the same place, and nobody did it,” he explains. “I looked around and realized that it was something I’d be capable of doing, and I felt I had a pretty good chance of not screwing it up. The mezcal world is pretty pedantic and very political, and I’m an outsider. I felt the track I wanted to take with tone and inclusivity might result in something simultaneously expansive and non-controversial.”
“Every wine you’ve ever had, excluding some funky stuff from Michigan, is made from the same genus and species — Vitis vinifera,” he says. “The different agave types employed in making mezcal range across dozens and dozens of different species. Not only is that a factor, but it’s also a sign of another cause of diversity: The plants evolved into different species to cope with the vastly diverse environments found throughout Mexico. The result is each type possessing its own strong character.”
The world of mezcal is exactly like the real world, beset by shades of gray on all sides, Schroeder says.
“There is absolutely no ‘always’ in the world of mezcal,” he explains. “For example, let’s posit a theory: After roasting and crushing the agave, all producers add water before fermentation. That sounds real and uncontroversial, except it’s not true. There are producers in Jalisco who use a type of agave called agave inaequidens. Sometimes these agaves have so much residual water in their piñas that they don’t add water at any point in the process. Mezcal production practices across Mexico are so vastly diverse, so there’s no way to describe the process in absolutes.”
Schroeder says he has traveled to Mexico “a few dozen times” to educate himself about agave and mezcal. But there’s always room to learn more.
“Increasingly, I’m trying to focus my effort toward getting to places in Mexico that I haven’t been before,” he says. “I still have so much to learn in Oaxaca, but, at the same time, San Luis Potosí is an absolute mystery to me. The only info I have about the region is reading I’ve done and information brought to me by brands who bring in products from there. Getting on the ground and seeing how things work is crucial in the mezcal continuing education world.”
Purists may insist on drinking mezcal neat—without being mixed, without being chilled, without ice. But that may be too intense for a beginning mezcal or spirits drinker, Schroeder says. He recommends beginners start with cocktails to learn to appreciate mezcal.
Drinkers without Schroeder’s knowledge may have a difficult time differentiating top-quality and low-quality mezcal.
“It’s just like wine,” Schroeder says. “It’s really tough for the average person to know what’s good, bad and ugly. The easiest way is to speak to spirits professionals and take the time to develop a relationship with them at their establishments. I love pouring cool stuff for people and sharing my thoughts and opinions, but it takes a long time to really get your bearings in this big, crazy mezcal world.”
Schroeder says his new book, though, is not just for agave experts and is meant to be “a bit fun.”
“I think I’ve got some solid one-liners in there,” he says. “I think the tone is lively, and I’ve done as good a job as possible taking what is essentially a chapter on chemical engineering and livening it up. I wanted this book to be easy to access for the reader. I wanted to drive home that, despite a real and sincere desire to get nerdy with this stuff, you’re supposed to drink and enjoy mezcal with your friends. Having an understanding how it works can heighten that enjoyment, especially when you’re sipping on something really, really good.”