London rarely lacks for new bibulous crazes. The latest, following in the footsteps of New York, appears to be for mezcal. Three mezcal-stocked bars have opened in the past few weeks, and as with Londoners' embrace of all things Mexican, we're likely to be downing the stuff by the gallon before long. In the interest of research, we decided to embark on a crawl around all three.
A quick mescal primer: it's made from the agave plant, as is tequila (all tequila is merely a type of mezcal, albeit one made in the Mexican state of Jalisco). Mezcal can be made from seven states in southern Mexico, although most comes from Oaxaca and, in contrast to its industrial cousin, is generally made by small producers using traditional methods. It's taste is recognisably similar to tequila, although smokier, the result of the production process in which the plant's pina, or heart, is roasted underground.
Enough of the hoary back story, and onto the bars.
Mezcaleria Quiquiriqui, 184 Hackney Road
Our first stop is also the newest on the scene. Quiquiriqui — whose name is the Spanish equivalent of 'cock-a-doodle-do' — is located beneath a kebab shop on the Shoreditch end of Hackney Road, and is stocked with that area's usual tropes: cinema seating, a wall plastered with pornographic Mexican comic book covers and the world's saddest jukebox (no songs and a sign reading "please do not touch the buttons"). What lifts it above other, similarly scrappy bars is its range of mezcals: there are over 20 available, either as a shot or in a carafe (cancel your plans for tomorrow if you order the latter).
On opening night we were invited to a tasting session, where the garrulous Thom Bullock of Spirit Bear Mezcals gave us a personal tour through some of his favourites. Winning the crowd over with his sheer enthusiasm and retro surf-bum argot, Thom explained how to gauge the quality of a mezcal, and introduced us to four different drinks. Of them, the Sombra, an oaky-tasting variety, and the Barille were particularly good, while the Enmascarado impressed mainly through its potent 55% ABV.
The bar also offers a range of cocktails: the Pink Taco, made with hibiscus and cardomom, was a winner, despite having the look and consistency of a Slush Puppie.
Mezcal Cantina, Dalston
Despite its name, this Dalston restaurant had a fairly limited selection of mezcals on offer, though the owner assured us that more were on their way. We sampled La Penca, which was an easy drink, though perhaps lacking the complexity of those tried earlier in the evening.
Despite the paucity of mezcals on offer, the atmosphere was pleasant, with the evening Dalston set packing the restaurant, and the bartenders (Mexican, for that added touch of authenticity) convivial and chatty. Get a few more bottles in, and this should become a firm fixture on London's fledgling mezcal trail.
Wahaca Mezcaleria, Fitzrovia
Our final stop led us to Fitzrovia, where Wahaca's latest restaurant boasts a mezcal bar on its upper floor. The vibe here was classier, as befits the location, with a well-dressed crowd migrating from their tamales and tacos on the ground floor to undertake further imbibement amidst the upper bar's soft lighting and natty seating (which includes habitable bird cages suspended from the ceiling).
The bar takes mezcal seriously, with 26 on offer, many of them from Del Maguey, arguably the sina qua non of artisanal mezcal's popularity outside of southern Mexico, and including the Pechuga, in which a chicken carcass is suspended above the stills for 24 hours during the distillation process. At £12 a punt it was a little more than our groaning wallets could manage, so we tried the Del Maguey Chichicapa and a Mano Negra instead. Both were excellent, although at this point the finer discussion of each drink's effect upon the palate was being displaced by unsober digressions.
For those tiring of neat spirits, Wahaca also offers a select cocktail menu, including the Mezcal cup, described as a "Pimms style long drink" offering a "Mexican take on an English classic".
All three bars had their charms, and will probably cater for differing crowds. Quiquiriqui should prove successful with the hipster brigade looking to expand the range of spirits upon which they can pontificate, whereas Wahaca offers a more refined quaffing atmosphere and the chance of grub slightly better than a doner kebab. Jury's still out on Mezcal Cantina, though we'll be pleased to see the bar stocked with a few well-chosen bottles. London's mezcal revolution has only just begun.
For more boozy walk ideas, see the Londonist Book of Pub Crawls