• In the dark I ventured. I had awoken in a land more corporeal than where I’d fallen asleep. This place had an eerie glow about it. There were spirits everywhere and with these spirits came a price, albeit a reasonable one.

    It just so happened to be a carnival of spirits and libations. “Come thirsty, leave happy” was the motto of the San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival, and a carnival it was. They went so far as to have had a local burlesque show entertain the masses amidst a sea of hand crafted, small batch spirits.

    I’m taking a break from wine on this post (and maybe a few others) to discuss another love of mine – specialty craft distilled liquors.

     

    The layout of the land held a stage in the center of the room. There was a DJ spinning tunes while a circus barker and a man in a gorilla suit MC’d the floor show and riled up the crowd. There was an aerial silk dance, a man with a whip, a strip dance, a trapeze act, and a pole dance. People crowded the stage as each of the acts went on, and then dispersed during the breaks to drink and learn.

    There was information aplenty to be had about the producers of each drink or base spirit, why they were different and the makeup/history of the spirit itself. I’d like to talk a little about each of the spirit’s origin before discussing the individual producers.

     

    Some of my favorite Mezcals were in attendance – the majority of the Del Maguey (pronounced ma–gay) line.   All tequilas are Mezcal, but all Mezcals are not tequila. Tequila is a region in Mexico just like a lot of the wine regions we’ve been going over, such as Bordeaux in France or Chianti in Italy. Its only requirement is to be made from maguey (agave.) Typically tequila is made from only blue agave and distilled twice as opposed to Mezcal’s once (Del Maguey’s Mezcals are distilled twice.)   The heart of the agave plant is cooked on hot rocks covered with earth and maguey fibers (kinda like a pig at luau) for three to five days. This is how most Mezcals get their smoky flavor. The roasted hearts are ground or smashed by stone mills or with mallets. Then they are fermented for at least two weeks in open air wood vats and distilled.

    Mezcal often has a bad rap due to the low end of mezcal getting the most play here in the states. Most people who have heard of Mezcal reference a worm that can be found in these low end productions. Drinking this worm is a hazing often done in fraternities, and has been linked to hangovers and Tequila regret. The worm (gusano) is frowned upon by many prideful palenqueros (distillers.) for this stigma it represents. The worm is often found on the agave plant, and one theory as to why they would put it into the bottle is to show that the liquor is a high enough proof to preserve it.

     

    Ron Cooper created the Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal line to bring 100% certified organic mezcal to the world. They are also the first to put the single village name on the bottle just like they do with wine (single vineyard.) One of the Mezcals in this line is the VIDA.

    VIDA is an entry level Mezcal, so to speak. Here is what they have to say about it.

     

    VIDA San Luis Del RioTM is an artisanal, Organic Mezcal from Del Maguey, at an entry-level price point and broader availability. Launched in 2010, VIDA is highly mixable and has arrived to much anticipated industry acceptance and high bartender demand. Hand crafted, it is twice distilled, very slowly in small wood-fired, riverside copper stills to flavor specifications that underscore its versatility in cocktails. VIDA has a nose of fruit aromatics, a hint of honey, vanilla and roast agave; the palate offers ginger, cinnamon, burnt sandalwood, banana and tangerine, with a long, soft finish. Viva VIDA!

     

    My favorite Mezcal of the Del Maguey line was the Chichicapa which is available at K&L Wines for $69.99:

    Chichicapa has a relatively light nose, yet is deep and sweet on the tongue with a very complex character. It has a long finish, with a distinct smokiness and hint of mint at the end. Chichicapa is 2 hours south of Oaxaca, and 2 hours to the west on a dirt road. The pueblo elevation is about 7,000 feet. Chichicapa is separated from the valley of Oaxaca by a mountain range. The valley is broad, about thirty miles deep and ten miles wide. The climate is desert and tropical, with banana trees, guava, mangoes and other exotic fruits. Faustino Garcia Vasquez is the maker of Chichicapa. He is a humble and talented craftsmen with great respect for the ancient processes. Del Maguey was named “Distiller of the Year” at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

     

    I love Mezcal most for its ability to show through even in a poorly made margarita. I don’t recommend having bad margaritas made for you, but when you want a margarita and want to be certain you can ‘taste the tequila,’ get Mezcal instead. It is, however, best when sipped and enjoyed all by it’s lonesome.

     

    The San Francisco Craft Spirits Carnival promised us we’d leave happy and they didn’t lie. After the Mezcals, we made sure to hit up some aged rum, mixing liquors such as pür-geist, and we ended our afternoon with a stop at the Bulleit Bourbon table for a delicious signature drink (next week I will go into detail on some of these.)

     

    Fort Mason is a gorgeous venue with views of the city, the bay, the bridge and Alcatraz.   Throw in San Francisco’s Indian summer and you’ve got an incredible afternoon.

    Events like this one remind us to branch out from our everyday drink choices and pay tribute to the small batches out there. Right, Ron Cooper?