Climate scientist Amanda Sesser recently opened Espiritu Mezcaleria (520 Capdeville St., 504-267-4975; www.espiritunola.com) with partner Jason Mitzen, a certified mezcalier. Sesser spoke with Gambit about the bar and the agave spirit.
Gambit: How did you get interested in mezcal?
Sesser: I’m a scientist and I have a consulting business. We’ve both worked in bars and restaurants, but it wasn’t our career paths. (Mitzen) was managing a motorcycle tour company in Alaska and that’s where we met. A year ago we moved to the Baja peninsula to a city called La Paz. Mezcalerias are a big deal in Mexico and our favorite one in La Paz reminded us so much of New Orleans — the architecture and the design. Portland (Oregon) has six or seven. Austin (Texas) has four. Chicago, New York, D.C., San Francisco — they all have multiple. We looked into it and we realized New Orleans didn’t have a mezcaleria.
Our chef and partner in the business is Nanyo (Dominguez) Cervantes. He was at Tito’s (Ceviche & Pisco) and he was born and raised in Mexico City. He lived in Tijuana and the Baja peninsula, so it’s in his blood. He created a menu that features dishes from from Mexico City, the Yucatan, Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Baja peninsula.
G: What are the defining characteristics of mezcal?
S: It’s a lot like wine — there are so many different varieties, tastes and undertones. Some are savory, some are more peaty or earthy, some are fruity. Some are distilled with chicken breast to give them savory flavor. They all vary from year to year and from batch to batch. But the difference between wine and other grain alcohols like vodka is that it takes many years for agave to mature, to where it fruits. The most common species that’s used is called espadin, and it becomes mature enough to harvest every five or six years. Rather than getting an annual harvest, you get something every six years, sometimes every 10, 15 or 20 years. That makes it really special.
Another thing people don’t know is that it’s a 100 percent pure agave spirit. Tequila and other alcohols can be mixed, but mezcal has to be 100 percent. They can’t mix it with corn liquor or sugar cane liquor or anything else, which makes it high quality. Because it’s not mixed, mezcaleros in Mexico claim you can’t get a hangover from it. I’m not putting my name behind that, because if someone drinks too much they’ll probably get a hangover.
G: How is agave harvested to produce mezcal?
S: Mezcal is made in the artisanal way and we’re working with mezcaleros who make it in an environmentally sustainable way. It’s very much farm to table, made in small batches. The people who make it are called mezcaleros and most of them have been doing it for generations. They harvest the mezcal right before it flowers. The agave plant shoots up a stalk and right before it blooms is when you cut down the agave plant. Then they cut off the leaves, and what is left is called a pina, which is the Spanish word for pineapple. It looks like pineapple once you cut all the leaves off it. That’s placed in an earthen oven where you dig a hole and add the hot rocks and start a fire. (The mezcaleros) put the pinas on top of the fire and cover them with dirt and roast them for several days, sometimes up to a week. Then they crush (the pinas). The agave is brewed, kind of like a beer, and it’s very sweet. That is then distilled one to three times, depending on the flavors that the mezcaleros (want). Just like with tequila, there’s a joven, or young, mezcal. If it’s aged more than six months, it’s a reposado, and if it’s aged more than a year, it’s an anejo. Reposado and anejo often are aged in old bourbon or whiskey barrels, and they take on the oak and whiskey flavor. Because of the way it’s roasted, a lot of mezcal has a smoky flavor, but not all mezcal does.