Adventures in...

Adventures in Mezcal

16th March 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

Melanie Symonds of QuiQuiRiQui, the UK’s only mezcal brand, on jungle epiphanies, weird distilling practices and agaves that grow on trees

With no experience whatsoever, I opened the UK’s first mezcaleria underneath a kebab shop on Hackney Road in 2012. I really had no idea how to run a bar. Before that I’d been working as a TV producer on food programmes.

It all started when I went to Mexico in 2010. I was at a beach party in a place called Zicatela. Someone gave me this disgusting drink and I was like, “Ugh, what’s that?” It was mezcal. I asked if you could get good mezcal and we ended up walking through the jungle to a little shack and buying a whole jerrycan for 100 pesos – about £4 – and taking it back to the party. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted – like a crazy 3-D tequila.

Melanie Picks Her Favourite Mezcals

After that I spent five months in Oaxaca travelling to out-of-the-way palenques and learning about mezcal. Mezcal wasn’t very popular then and it was unusual to have tourists coming to look. The people who produce it are quite poor – “palenque” means “factory”, but in reality mezcal is produced in shacks on the side of the hill. It was an amazing trip, it introduced me to lots of awesome people. Then I went back and opened the bar.

Very quickly I realised I had to start my own mezcal brand. The stuff I was buying for the bar was really expensive, and the affordable stuff wasn’t great quality. I was like, okay I need a mezcal that’s cheaper but with same production qualities: still completely handmade, nothing industrial, 100% agave. That’s how QuiQuiRiQui1 was born. Now I’m selling mezcals from two different producers in Oaxaca.

Defining mezcal is complicated. Mezcal is a category encompassing all spirits made from cooked agave in Mexico – the most famous one is tequila, which is made from one type of agave (the Blue Weber) in five states in the north of the country. Mezcal is also the name of a drink within that category: it’s made from a variety of agaves in eight designated states, mainly in southern Mexico. Most mezcal available in the UK is from Oaxaca.

We ended up walking through the jungle to a little shack, buying a whole jerrycan for 100 pesos and taking it back to the party

Tequila was traditionally made by hand and steamed in brick ovens. But when it became popular in America, the process was industrialised to maximise production and create a uniform drink, at the expense of flavour. Mezcal, by contrast, is always made by hand: they pit-roast it in the ground. Some people put water into the hole to create a lot of steam, others scorch the agave. Every family has its own technique.

Every mezcal is completely unique, even from batch to batch. You’re never going to taste the same thing twice. I think that’s why it’s popular. It truly is an artisanal, hand-crafted thing. And the people who make it are incredible. With other spirits you don’t really get that connection with the source. Gin is nice but it’s not crafted from the plant – it doesn’t have that element of mystique.

Mezcal was seen as an unfashionable old man’s drink in Mexico. Tequila was the fashionable one, mezcal was the poor relation. It was a poor person’s drink. But in the past five or 10 years young people in Mexico have starting drinking mezcal and now it’s having a real moment.

Why is mezcal so expensive? Firstly, agave takes a long time to grow – the crops take seven or eight years, or more, to mature (some wild agaves take 40 years). Secondly, mezcal production isn’t industrialised: people are using their hands and animals from start to finish. Then, to export mezcal, you have to pay the Mexican government 80% tax. On top of that, you have to pay duty and tax when you import it – and high ABV alcohols like mezcal are taxed at a higher rate.

Every mezcal is completely unique, even from batch to batch. You’re never going to taste the same thing twice

Agave spirits are an upper. They’re scientifically proven to be the only upper in the spirit world, everything else is a depressant. Mexicans will tell you it’s because of the spirit in the agave – they have a strong spiritual connection with agaves. And mezcal doesn’t give you a hangover either2.

Agave is a type of lily, not a cactus, though it looks like one. It’s been reclassified a few times. The plant hasn’t had a lot of study done to it. It does weird things like photosynthesising at night. Some wild agaves take 40 years to mature. They don’t like to be cultivated. Some grow on the side of rocks. Tobala, a wild agave, likes to grow on vertical rock faces.

Every time I go back to Mexico I learn something new about mezcal. For instance, there are these things called aerial agaves. They grow in trees. Then, at a certain age, they fall out of the tree and continue growing on the ground underneath. The mezcals made from them are called campo. I had no idea! The taste was quite viscous, quite petrolly. In a good way.

I’ve had some very challenging mezcals. There’s a thing called pechuga, which is a Zapotec word meaning “from the heart”. They make a mezcal and distil it twice as normal, then put it back in the still with lots of fruit and hang a turkey (or chicken) breast at the top and distil it again. It cooks the turkey and flavours the mezcal. Once I had a mezcal that was made with iguana. It was gross – it tasted like rotten meat and bong water. You can get some really weird mezcals out there.

Do I ever get tired of mezcal? No. Never. There’s always new stuff to learn. I never get bored of it.

Melanie’s off-licence and tasting room Brahms & Liszt is at 10 Chatsworth Rd, London E5 0LP; Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

  1. “The name was there from early on, before I had any idea of what I wanted to do. A friend of mine in Mexico has a burger shack and one of their burgers was called the QuiQuiRiQui. We were like, What’s that mean. Turns out it’s the Mexican version of cock-a-doodle-do. Now everything’s got a cockerel on it, but it’s got no relevance whatsoever to mezcal. People advised me when I started not to have a name that’s hard to read. Oops. But it’s okay – it’s become a talking point.”
  2. Some people may differ on this point

Posted 16th March 2016

In Adventures in...


Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing

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