Mezcal is an agave based spirit, similar to tequila, but processed differently. The difference in preparation is what creates the intrigue and mystery behind the spirit. Although the mezcal mysteries seem endless, there is a new, easy to understand guide to help debunk misconceptions and provides stepping stones for our personal discovery of the elusive swill. Mezcal – The History, Craft, & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, by Emma Janzen, is intended to re-frame our foggy notions of Mezcal. I had the honor of speaking with Emma about the James Beard nominated book, the stories within, and the voices shared in her writing.
CannyCandi: In the acknowledgements, you mention this guide is more of a “love letter to mezcal” (I support your sentiments!). When and how did your love affair with mezcal start?
Emma Janzen: Ten years ago, I was working as an assistant at a daily newspaper in Austin, TX. I was desperate for more writing and production. And also, my husband (my boyfriend at the time) and I were looking to do more outside of work together. We joined a class, Tipsy Tech, run by the Tipsy Texan, aka David Alan. We started paying attention to different spirits and it was around the time mezcal was starting to come into The States, not as a new category because Del Maguey had been around for a long time, but there were new brands like Wahaka starting to come in. I tried some of those and went to Tales of the Cocktail that year. So, my first published paper was about mezcal. I got hooked! I had so many questions and just kept with it. I wrote as many articles as I could for various publications and kept tabs on the industry until the book came along.
CC: What and how were you inspired to write the book?
EJ: I wrote an article in 2016 while here in Chicago, in Logan Square, and noticed a new mezcal bar (a mazcaleria) opening up. And was thinking about the amount of Mezcal bars in America and wrote a short article about it for Imbibe. A publisher at Quarto Press saw my article and reached out to me. He said I’ve been thinking about Mezcal as a book topic for a while and what do you think about that? Do you think it’s a viable idea? I wrote a novel in response! It included why it’s a perfect time and perfect spirit to write about. I must have impressed him because he asked me if I wanted to write it! It’s funny because people say Mezcal always finds you. I knew I always wanted to write a book, but this topic just felt perfect when it was presented.
CC: Could you talk a bit about the people who guided you along the journey of writing Mezcal?
EJ: I went into this project really knowing who the main players are in this industry – who made the biggest impact on the category and the producers who really lead the charge, and thinking that these people would be my spirit guides. And so, the way it shook out, that kind of didn’t happen at all! It was really frustrating, but I ended up meeting all sorts of new people, [somewhat] new brands and experts who helped shape the way this book came together. I let mezcal guide me. I had an expectation of who was going to help me and that fell through so I let go of expectations. I think it worked out for the best that way because I feel like I have a much more diverse selection of perspectives and voices in the final book, than there might have been if I had stuck with the original people I set out to talk with.
CC: What kept you motivated to complete the book as challenges arose?
EJ: Oooo, the first word that comes to mind is the ‘deadline!!’ And two other motivations: one was, almost ‘fear’ because I felt like I had something to prove because I walked into the project not as a formal expert on Mezcal, I didn’t have an [authoritative] platform. I thought people would be like ‘Who the hell is this chick?’ I have never written another book before although I have been a writer for a long time. I felt like the first book I need to nail it. I need to do a really good job with this. So that was a definite motivation. On a similar note, I felt there wasn’t a really good English language introduction which was organized super well, easy for people to understand, and was beautiful. I had a personal responsibility to really get it right so I could explain this spirit, but bigger than the spirit was to explain this culture: it’s the Mexican [people’s] history and it’s their day-to-day. I wanted to make sure I honored their culture and communicated it in a way that was special and gave a good voice to the people making mezcal. This wasn’t my story, it’s their story, so I wanted to work really hard so I wouldn’t mess it up!
CC: The book is very comprehensive, how did you decide to organize the content and parts of the book?
EJ: I knew going into the project I didn’t’ want to dig too deep into the distant history because I wanted people to relate to the subject matter more. So, that’s why I decided to make it more about the modern history of the spirit and how it came to rise in America. It’s an English language book so I wanted it to connect with American audiences as well as represent the culture of mezcal. That’s why I wanted to start with explaining what it is in a way that it’s not so cut – and – dry and boring. Didn’t want it to read as a textbook. I worked some of my own stories into the book to put [readers] in that setting so they would imagine what it’s like to be in Mexcaloteca in Oaxaca or any of the other remote villages. The book starts in a bar where a lot of American’s would learn about the spirit as if a bartender is explaining what it is. And then goes into a guide of the actual [agave] plants, then production to how it’s made. I wanted to include cocktails because I felt you can’t talk about how mezcal became what it is today in America without talking about cocktails. It was bartenders who first understood it and started teaching people. Wanted to get a good collection of recipes together with classic and modern cocktails for diversity, so you can pick it up and have a cocktail for any season or occasion as well as really simple to make.
CC: You mentioned you always considered the quote from Tio Rey,” the act of making mezcal being a blessing more so than the spirit itself…,” while writing the book. How did you keep that in mind while writing the book?
EJ: I think it’s easy for Americans to talk about mezcal only in the most romantic of terms. There is so much romance to the spirit: the way it’s made, the practice has been handed down from generation to generation in so many families. It’s mysterious and magical – so many brands play that up and that’s what makes mezcal so captivating. But Tio Reys comments grounded my perspective a little more. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and for so many of these families, [making mezcal] isn’t something they suddenly decided to do. [They think]: this is what I know how to do. I’m a farmer growing corn or other crops to bring in income and it’s another way to put food on the table. I felt this was important to keep in mind because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of mezcal, but it’s important to remember that it is supporting people’s livelihoods. It’s good to keep this balance in mind.
CC: What’s the controversy involving mezcal in cocktails?
EJ: At the beginning [of the cocktail section], I point out that in the mezcal drinking community, for a long time, people believe you shouldn’t mix or shoot the spirit. You should sip it. It is a beautiful spirit, and deserves the respect of savoring it in its purest form. The use of mezcal in cocktails is a little controversial for that reason, many purists feel cocktails mask the essence and lose all the character. I agree with that and respectfully disagree. I feel mezcal works very well in cocktails. There’s another aspect to the topic of sustainability. Mezcal is a spirit that takes a lot of time to produce. The most common mezcal varieties made these days take five to seven years for the plant to grow before they can be harvested and turned into the liquid. And as mezcal becomes more popular, the industry needs to keep the idea of sustainability in mind or else these plants won’t exist anymore if you overharvest. The idea of mezcal being a cocktail ingredient discourages purists because you’re using so much of it.
CC: Right now, you are riding the wave of Mezcal, but are there other books or ideas in the pipeline?
EJ: I don’t have anything formal right now on the books. Yet, one category of drink that is experiencing a resurgence but also has an interesting history is American Cider. They’re so many companies looking back at pre-prohibition cider traditions and making these beautiful ciders from heirloom apples. Many people who believe they don’t like cider but I want to challenge them to look a little harder. You might think you dislike cider but there’s probably one out there for you… you just haven’t’ found it yet. If you like beer or wine, there’s a cider you’ll like since it’s a beautiful middle ground between those two [wine and beer] and this would make for a really interesting deep dive.
To get your hands on this fun, fabulous read (and check out all the stellar photos taken by Emma!), visit the links below. Happy reading and enjoy the smokey sips!