In less than a decade, mezcal, Mexico’s iconic spirit with a history dating back at least over 400 years, has emerged from the doldrums, finally garnering a reputation as a quality sipping spirit. Until now its history, nuances, regulation and innumerable incarnations has been essentially ignored in English language popular non-fiction literature, in favor of treatises focusing upon the more well-known other major agave based spirit, tequila. In Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec (Mezcal PhD Publishing, 2014), John McEvoy does much more than distinguish the two Mexican spirits in a detailed and concise manner. He pays homage to mezcal, while at the same time provides both its aficionados and novices with a wealth of information in an entertaining and often light-hearted manner.
The chapters are titled and laid out in an organized easy to delineate fashion, allowing the reader to quickly find a selected area of interest. Despite this being the case, since Holy Smoke! is a fast read one is more apt to pick it up and not put it back down until finished. The photos, plates and illustrations are well placed and captioned so as to enhance one’s ability to use them as a tool in capturing the essence of the text’s minutiae and McEvoy’s message.
McEvoy’s enumeration of the history of Mexico’s alcoholic beverages puts mezcal in a clear and understandable context. He rightfully dedicates a significant portion of a chapter to pulque, the most popular fermented drink during pre-Hispanic times, then traces its use to the present, along with that of other Mexican distillates such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla.
McEvoy’s coverage of the breadth of agave species and sub-species which are distilled throughout the country is admirable. Yet he does not get bogged down in the ongoing discussion of nomenclature. Rather, he acknowledges disagreements, and in chart form lists species, then alongside them several of the sub-species and common names depending on the locale where the distillation takes place. McEvoy would readily agree that it is a no-win situation for any aficionado, distiller or even so-called expert in the field to try to definitively resolve issues upon which botanists and taxonomists cannot arrive at a consensus. In any event, although he states that species (and to my thinking by implication sub-species where there is agreement) is the major determinant of flavor profile, with the plethora of other influences on aroma and nuance, dogmatism in terms of identifying species and sub-species does not take us very far in our quest to profile aromas and flavors.
There are three sections of the book which stand out more than the rest. McEvoy’s treatment of aging is admirable. He is in favor of lauding a good reposado or añejo, and gives short shrift to those who would be dismissive of anything but a joven. Similarly, without mentioning by name others who simply discount the concept of mezcal cocktails, he rallies around the Manhattan cocktail crowd, going so far as to include a chapter on mezcal cocktail recipes.
I’ve been around mezcal for a quarter of a century, and have written about both its sustainability, and how mezcal’s nuances are innumerable and unbridled. McEvoy’s sections on maintaining a healthy industry for all, and his detailing of the myriad of influences brought to bear on every produced batch of the spirit, provide food for thought …. for all of us. The modern era of mezcal is still so young. To a number, each of us should continuously be open to learning, even those who live and have lived mezcal and nothing more. It is indeed refreshing to have witnessed seasoned palenqueros such as Douglas French (Scorpion Mezcal, as well as bright up-and-coming youths within the industry such as Judah Kuper (Mezcal Vago), both eager to be taught by others. And so those who think they know it all, should at least acknowledge that a quick read of Holy Smoke! might just serve as a refresher concerning aspects of the industry not having been considered for some time.
I would be remiss if I did not point out shortcomings in Holy Smoke! For me at times the book was too anecdotal, referencing matters having nothing to do with mezcal. On the other hand, McEvoy’s excellent use of citations from industry insiders was both valuable and illustrative of the breadth of research which went into the book. However, following an absolutely wonderful, extensive quote by Stephen Myers (Ilegal Mezcal), wherein he romanticizes mezcal in a somewhat sensuous manner, McEvoy states “Yeah. I like that. I might have added, ‘and it’s f----- g awesome!’” simply detracted from what he was attempting to convey.
At times McEvoy unwittingly fell into the trap of others, stating absolutes where there are none, to the extent that it would have been more accurate using qualifying words such as “approximately,” “mainly,” “by and large,” and so on; in one instance he simply pigeonholes mezcal as artisanal and tequila as industrial. Finally, while McEvoy does an admirable job explaining and synthesizing COMERCAM’s complex regulatory scheme, he does get it wrong stating that “mezcal must be bottled at the distillery,” and at one point confusing COMERCAM’s export numbers with sales figures. But as suggested at the outset, his primary target readership is not those integrally involved in the industry, or those with visions of becoming exporters, but rather hobbyists; whether spirits aficionados, tequila enthusiasts or novices to mezcal and other agave based alcoholic beverages, as well as bartenders, mixologists and restaurant owners interested in advancing their knowledge with a view to better serving their patrons.
Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec should be included in the personal library of everyone interested in Mexican fermented or distilled beverages. The breadth of coverage is impressive. While the depth does not rival that of certain topics contained in the third (and first bilingual) edition of Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria Cultura del Mezcal The Cult of Mezcal, John McEvoy’s thorough treatment of an extensive range of topics relating to mezcal and agave is unmatched. To this extent it stands as an important contribution to the growing body of mezcal literature.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.