At a recent block party on Scoville Avenue in Oak Park, I brought out a bottle of mezcal, the Mexican spirit distilled from the agave plant, cousin to tequila, though with many more dimensions of flavor. No one liked it. “Too hot,” was the judgment of my neighbors.

Seeking guidance regarding the best way to introduce mezcal to those unfamiliar with the spirit, I consulted with friend Lou Bank, the founder of SACRED (Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development), about the best way to serve it to people who’ve never had it before. 

Bank told me, “When I share neat mezcal with someone for the first time, I’ll suggest they first smell it, both in the small, wide-mouthed vessel I’d serve it in and on their skin, after the alcohol has evaporated. Then I’d walk them through small sips that you hold in the mouth for 5 or 10 seconds before swallowing. Your palate simply must prepare for such complex flavors, which can translate to ‘rough,’ ‘confusing,’ or … hot.’”

Years ago, Bank and I traveled through Oaxaca, Mexico, visiting small mezcal producers. It was eye-opening. The people we visited (like Felipe Cortes, pictured) were making mezcal the way their families had for generations: harvesting agave, roasting it in pits, mashing and fermenting it, and then distilling the spirit in small batches. 

“Before the Industrial Revolution,” Bank told me, “all spirits all over the world were distilled using processes that relied on the skills of the people making them. Then automation kicked in and made it relatively easy for anyone to distill decent spirits. Most of the world adopted those simplified systems. But in large swathes of rural Mexico, they are focused more on delicious mezcal than on efficient systems.”

Mezcal holds a principal place in the culture of small communities in Oaxaca and other Mexican states. In one tiny village we visited, stalks of the agave plant flanked the doors of the local church, reflecting the almost spiritual significance of mezcal, which is frequently used in religious celebrations.

If mezcal sounds interesting to you, Bank suggested that at Binny’s, you can pick up two excellent expressions, Lucy Pistolas Mezcal Artesanal and La Luna Mezcal Artesenal Cupreata. But, he cautioned, “because there are so many different varieties of agave used to make mezcal, grown in such different regions, and processed in such a wide variety of manners, the breadth of flavors and aromas in mezcal put even Scotch to shame. So I don’t think the best way to start with mezcal is to buy a bottle. Instead, go to a place like Tacos 76 or Amerikas to taste through a few different options.”

To get an even better sense of the larger world of mezcal and other agave distillates, come to next year’s Copitas de Sol, a fundraiser for the National Museum of Mexican Art. We went to the 2022 event last month, and there were dozens of different mezcals to sample; it was a fantastic way to learn about this traditional, artisanal, and delicious spirit.