Hooch: Talking mezcal with Lane Harlan

Whenever I engaged in cocktail banter with casual acquaintances this spring, and I brought up that Baltimore was soon to acquire its first mezcal bar, I’d get one of two responses: blank stares and crickets, or something along the lines of “Dude, I don’t touch tequila—it makes me crazy.”

So, yeah, our local knowledge of Mexican spirits might be a little lacking, beginning and ending as it does with tequila (which, thanks to classic rock and country-music lyricists, has devolved into some sort of devil juice leading to black eyes and broken hearts). And so when the aforementioned bar, Clavel, finally opened in Remington last month, I arranged to meet co-owner Lane Harlan for some mezcal schooling I might pass along. The airy mezcaleria and eatery resides a block east of her namesake speakeasy with its Paris-between-the-wars vibe.

“Yeah, everyone thinks it’s dangerous or like gasoline,” a chuckling Harlan says of the misunderstandings surrounding south-of-the-border spirits. “Mezcal is really just an overarching term for an agave distillate, so anything that is distilled from a species of agave is a mezcal. Tequila, which is made from blue agave, is technically a mezcal.”

Most tequila on this side of the border is mass-market stuff churned out on an industrial scale, and there are big-company mezcals, too (like that stuff with the gimmicky worm in the bottle). But the mezcal Harlan fell in love with during her multiple trips to Mexico is a hoary, handmade liquor usually categorized as either “artisanal” or “ancestral.” While a Mexican regulatory body is currently debating how to legally define these terms for labeling purposes, in essence they both refer to small-scale mezcal production and mezcaleros who’ve been cooking up the stuff for generations. (Suffice it to say, only a trickle of this traditional spirit ever gets exported.)

Fifty or so species of agave can been used to make mezcal. Once the succulent plants mature (which can take as many as 30 years, depending on the variety) the leaves are hacked off, leaving pineapple-shaped centers, or piñas, which get fire-roasted in earthen pits. They are then mashed (by hand, a stone wheel, or other rustic contrivance) and the resulting slurry is fermented in open-air vats via wild yeast. It is then distilled no more than twice in stills of either copper or clay. 

“Mezcal just seemed so fascinatingly complex and different and I was just drawn to it,” Harlan says. “Like wine, so much of it is about terroir.”

The pit roasting brings smokiness, which I was excited to taste. First up was Vago’s Espadin mezcal (named after the agave species used). It doesn’t pack the sooty wallop of Islay whiskey but invokes charcoal smoke drifting over from a neighbor’s barbecue. This weaves in and out of a liquid that at turns tastes minerally, herbaceous, and fruity. Complex and compelling stuff, with less burn than I expect from something consumed neat at just over 100 proof. Next up, the Mayalen brand of Wild Cupreata mezcal (again, the agave species). The smoke is dialed back some while the heat turned up. Toasted lemon butterscotch with grassy overtones? Then she poured me some Fidencio Tobala, which was fruity with a citrus bite. And then . . . well, you get the point (and don’t worry, I’d arranged for my wife to drive me home).

Suffice it to say, exploring North America’s oldest distilled spirit was an enjoyable learning experience. Harlan sometimes even refers to Clavel as a “mezcal library.”

“I say that because it’s an education,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to take yourself on an journey learning the different ways of translating the agave plant.”

Yeah, but ‘Gettin’ Liquored at the Mezcal Library’ isn’t going make much of a country song.

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