For last week’s Books and Comics Issue, we excerpted a few pages from Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan’s excellent forthcoming comic cookbook Let’s Make Ramen!, which neatly orders the often confusing universe of a relatively recent culinary phenomenon.

Like ramen, mezcal is, in its own way, a relatively recent phenomenon outside its country of origin. While gringos have been indiscriminately chugging industrial-grade tequila for the last century or so—the world’s first (and maybe not last) breakout mezcal—rural Mexicans have continued to quietly produce infinite expressions of agave-based spirits largely for themselves and their own communities, as they had for centuries. In the mid-90s the Mexican government created a Denomination of Origin for mezcal—ostensibly to protect it from counterfeiting—but effectively limiting its production and exportability from nine Mexican states and the producers within that who can afford the prohibitive licensing costs.

Agave rhodacantha
Agave rhodacanthaCredit: Polly Jimenez

That hasn’t stopped urban capitalists from identifying an exploitable market in small-scale agave spirits, which in recent years has created a whole new environment of problems and potential for the subsistence communities they come from. Urban consumers eager to dive into what on the surface seems like an ocean of novel booze, as variable and multifaceted as the world of wine, are confronted with a dizzying array of brands, producers, plant species, and terroir, and the romantic stories of the faraway people that labor to make the juice.

It’s not just difficult (though certainly a lot of fun) to get grounded in all the different ways mezcal can taste, but you have to consider whether the rustic label you’re dropping serious dollars on is treating the people behind it, and the environment it comes from, fairly. 

And there are targets on both sides. “Mediocre and mass-produced products are already flooding the market, aiming to prey on both a general lack of education among consumers and those same consumers’ raw enthusiasm,” writes Jay Schroeder in Understanding Mezcal, a slim, delightfully designed volume that answers agave-related questions beginning with “What does the word mezcal even mean?”

Roasting pinas
Roasting pinasCredit: Polly Jimenez

Schroeder initially developed an appreciation for mezcal while running the beverage program at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco and traveling around Mexico soaking up the spirit. He went on to open the late Mezcaleria las Flores before joining Quiote/Todos Santos. While his expertise might be granular, here he takes a bird’s-eye view of the situation. There is no brand fetishizing, no charming portraits of hardworking campesinos; just a neat, dry, witty (ahem) distillation of the history, botany, methods, traditions, and modern economics surrounding this old spirit, now entering a world, for better or worse, that still doesn’t get it.

Words, concepts, and species are brought to life by illustrator Polly Jimenez, who founded nascent publishing house Prensa Press along with journalist Paul Biasco, who opened and for a time managed Quiote/Todos Santos and now runs the Mexico City Neapolitan pizzeria Dr. Pizza.

Understanding Mezcal is a quick read, but in short order you’ll have a reasonable appreciation for the differences between pulque and pechuga, tobala and tepextate, clay pot and copper alembic.  v