This smoky Mexican spirit is so hot right now, but Samuel Flynn Scott wasn’t so sure it was for him. Until one Sunday afternoon…
The “Not Serious Wine Chats” events have been on my radar for a few months now. I really wanted to attend the natural wine event (for one thing, I thought it might be full of sceptics and I wanted to rant and rave about my love for light Jura reds). Weirdly, something in the name held me back.
As soon as a food event bills itself as not taking itself seriously I expect the opposite. A number of fine-dining establishments try to pass themselves off as being really chilled-out fun zones, but they’re not. And let’s be honest – obsessing about wine just about always comes across as dull and highfalutin, and it might just be better to accept that. I can see my friends’ eyes glaze over when the notseriouswinechats start falling from my mouth. It’s fun, if you’re deeply into it; if not, it’s just an expensive abstraction to justify boozin’.
But I digress; the latest round of Not Serious wasn’t about wine at all but mezcal. A drink I don’t love, but feel I need to get to know better. I am rather fond of tequila and that wood-aged blue agave smoothness. Mezcal feels like a secret handshake drink for bartenders, like Fernet Branca. The intense smoke, in my limited experience, is just unpleasant.
But its popularity is exploding and I have many flavour-obsessed friends who swear by it. I know in my heart that the problem probably isn’t the mezcal, it is almost certainly me. And so it was that I found myself in La Fuente, the tiniest of bars in downtown Auckland, at 4.30pm on a Sunday afternoon with a bunch of unfamiliar faces set on drinking an unfamiliar spirit.
Morven McAuley, who runs the event, greets me and has some weird power of instantly making me feel relaxed. I find some friends and we are offered mezcal or Garage Project Bliss to whet the palate. I wish I had chosen the Bliss because the cocktail is everything I don’t like about mezcal. The first sip I think “mmm, maybe this is tasty”, but by sip three the smoke has worn me out and it’s put aside never to be touched again. Oh dear.
La Fuente starts bringing little bites out of the kitchen and they are good. Owner Edmundo Farrera, one of our hosts for the evening, charms with mezcal tales from his homeland as they bring out a round of straight mezcal: Derrumbes San Luis Potosi, supposedly a high-quality ‘starter mezcal’ for those not used to big smoky spirits. It’s salty and tangy like pickled jalapeños. I like it – the tides are turning. This has to be at least 50% down to Edmundo: he is very passionate about something I didn’t really care about and the passion is contagious. As so often happens with food and drinks, the story behind it allows you to taste in a different way.
Mezcal, Farrera tells us, “is like riding a horse. Make friends with the horse. Take your time so you don’t fall off.” It’s sage advice, as this is potent stuff. But in Mexico this is a drink for big celebrations – eventually you will fall off the horse.
Farrera is joined by Anthony Rodgers from Jervois Rd Wine Bar & Kitchen. Hailing from Colorado, he’s as mezcal mad as Edmundo, revelling not only in its flavour complexities but also the zip you get from agave-based spirits. “All the other things we drink are depressants, whereas this is a positive psychotropic. It’s a stimulant. Cocaine, not weed, if you will,” he explains. Should become very popular in Auckland then. (There is a fair amount of scepticism around the veracity of the psychotropic claim, but it’s a good line nonetheless.)
We move on to Gracias a Dios Tepextate, a heady drop that has a finish that lingers on the palate for minutes. Mezcal appreciator and world is fukt expert Julie Hill thinks it smells of Sharpie pens. She is so ‘on the nose’ with this tasting note that it almost breaks the mezcal spell I am under.
Luckily the velvet timbre of Farrera’s voice is still weaving its magic. Mezcal, he explains, is aged in glass, clay or stainless steel. Not in the flavour-imparting woods used for those popular amber reposado and anejo tequilas. “Wood and the blue agave of tequila is perfect, delicious. In mezcal it just interrupts the flavour spiral.” I’m not sure whether to believe him but Farrera also tells us that it is often aged in cemeteries then opened on cinco de mayo (not so coincidentally the date of our not-serious mezcal drankin’). Spirits indeed.
Feeling spooked by the graveyard juice and a touch buzzed, the crowd loosens up and joins in. Unlike beer and wine panels I have attended in the past, people are joining in informally. It naturally drifts into actual chats.
The third and final mezcal is Marca Negra Espadin. At this point I am in the flavour spiral. I am loving it. The whole event has actually been not serious. It’s been fun. The speakers are total boss-level experts but not condescending or over-explainy. Maybe Not Serious Wine Chats has actually found a way to talk about these luxury drinks without being boring. Maybe I could learn a thing or two about how to be into stuff, but not act like a snobby dork. These thoughts evaporate like spirits into the air as I stumble into the Auckland CBD wondering if I have made friends with mezcal or if I have fallen off the horse.
For more on mezcal, listen to the latest episode of Dietary Requirements