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Ask the bartender: a spirited discussion of mezcal

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour -- both drinks, and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Steuben's Food Service and here every week, where he'll be answering your questions. Read his opinion of vodka here; keep reading for his take on mezcal. Q. I've been seeing a lot more mezcal behind bars lately. What is the difference between tequila and mezcal?

A. I love this question because I love the spirits.

The term "mezcal" has in the past been used to describe the entire category, although today the term is generally used for the agave spirits of Oaxaca and the surrounding states. Prior to the distillation of mezcal, the agave hearts or piñas are roasted in a pit covered by the leaves of the agave plant, after which they are crushed by a traditional stone wheel called a tahona. This process gives mezcal a distinctly smoky character. In general, mezcals are unaged. Mezcal can be made from a variety of agaves, including espadin, arroquense and the wild tobalá. My favorite brands are the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals and Ilegal Mezcals.

To be a tequila, the spirit must be made in one of five specific states in Mexico: Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. It also must be made from only Weber Blue Agave. For the most part, the piñas are kiln-baked or steamed before crushing. Some tequilas distillers still use traditional tahonas, but most crush with a machine. There are several styles of tequila, including blanco or plata, which is unaged and must be bottled within sixty days; reposado (rested), aged two-to-eleven months; añejo, aged for one year or more; and extra añejo which requires three years' aging. All of the aging is done in oak barrels. A couple my favorite brands are 7 Leguas, El Tesoro and Chinaco.

Agaves need to mature for around seven years -- and as a result, tequila can be a bit pricey. But it's worth it. When buying tequila or mezcal, be sure to look for the term "100% Agave" or "Puro de Agave" on the bottle to insure that the spirit is of top quality. Otherwise, the product may be cut with neutral spirit or coloring. And quality mezcal will NEVER have a worm, scorpion or any other type of insect or animal in the bottle.

Mezcals and tequilas are my favorite spirits behind my bar. They are both truly native rustic spirits that are representative of the land, culture and history of Mexico. They are also versatile, great for sipping neat, on the rocks and in cocktails. I'll leave you with a simple drink recipe that uses both.

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Smokey Margarita 1.5 oz. Don Julio Blanco Tequila 1 oz. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal .75 oz. Grand Marnier 1 oz. fresh lime juice.

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain over fresh ice, garnish with a lime wedge. Salt rim optional.

Cheers!

Post your questions for Sean Kenyon below, or write bartender@westword.com.

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