What mezcal offers the on-premise

Bars & Clubs spoke to international bartender and mezcal expert, Lucas Fongarnand, ahead of a masterclass held at Casa Merida in Potts Point, to learn more about the production and history of this idiosyncratic spirit category.

Lucas Fongarnand is the owner of La Cueva, a speakeasy bar located in Oaxaca, the spiritual home of mezcal in Mexico. Originally from France, Lucas settled in Mexico six years ago, falling in love with mezcal and its production.

Lucas Fongarnand

Lucas is visiting Australia to host a series of masterclasses in Milpa Collective’s Casa Merida venue, and Milpa’s Co-Founder, Liber Osorio, was on-hand to explain Lucas’s history and standing in the history.

“We met with Lucas in 2017 in Oaxaca when he was managing Mezcalogia, one of the first bars dedicated to Mezcal in Oaxaca. We have been in contact since then and I visit him every time I go to Mexico,” Liber says.

“Lucas is one of the guys behind BALTA, Milpa-exclusive mezcal made by Rodrigo Martinez. We have been planning his visit to Australia for a long time but because of Covid, we haven’t been able to do it.”

Balta ‘agave spirit’ (mezcal)

Now safely arrived in Sydney, Lucas (an alumni of New York’s The Dead Rabbit bar and experienced in French wine service) is ideally placed to assess the opportunities that mezcal contains for the Australian on-premise.

“Mezcal, along with tequila, is the fastest growing spirit category of the last couple of years in the world. The country [which] has been pushing those numbers in the United States, buying 70 per cent of all mezcal exported, followed by Europe and Asia,” Lucas says.

“But we are still in the middle of an ‘education process’ where customers are getting familiar with the flavour profile in the venues. That’s why bars and restaurants are leading this process, where mezcal is getting known around the world.”

As part of this ‘education process’, Lucas acknowledges that there will be many drinkers in Australia and beyond who are still less familiar with the spirit, its general flavour profile, and what it represents. In response to this challenge, he offers a simple definition for the layperson.

“Mezcal is a spirit. A distillate from agave that can be produced all around Mexico. Similar to wines, every batch changes depending on the agave plant, productions, terroir and storage,” Lucas says.

“Most of them will have the smokiness element on the first impression due the cooking method but is far more than that. Many different layers of flavours can be found in a single agave after you try the second sip.”

During a mezcal masterclass hosted on June 15, Lucas talked drinkers through mezcals from several different varieties of agave, and also different distillation methods – demonstrating how traditional clay pot-stills can have a great impact on the eventual flavour of the spirit.

Lucas hosting the masterclass

Furthermore, Lucas believes that mezcal is being driven by the same wide-ranging trends of sustainability and authenticity that are impacting the drinks industry as a whole.

“I think there are many trends that define mezcal and all come from the same background: the interest of knowing where the product you consume is coming from so, many people around the globe are asking the same questions about production, method, sustainability, fair trade, organic, etc,” Lucas says.

“Mezcal represents everything on that regard, plus is a spirit that carries a rich cultural and indigenous heritage. I think that’s why the Mezcal Culture or Agave Love is growing. It’s a delicious drink with a great background that is being run by family businesses for centuries.”

However, these traditional methods, and this authenticity, also means that mezcal is in a somewhat vulnerable position. The agave plants that provide the base for the spirit can take as long as ten years to reach maturity. Others grow wild and are not able to be farmed at a commercial scale.

A true cottage industry, fermentation (usually performed naturally with wild yeast) takes days to occur, while distillation in tiny copper or clay pot stills can only be performed in small batches. It is not unusual for clay pot stills to break during distillation.

“As is becomes more popular, Mezcal also attracts big industries looking for big profits and ready to mass produce the spirits, putting at risk the environment and the artisanal production of this magic spirit,” Lucas says.

“The bigger demand is also one of the reasons for the shortage in the agave plants we have now, which puts at risk the whole chain of production.

“When people started making mezcal, they never thought that it was going to become that popular and the process would be that quick. Probably for the same reason, the mezcaleros and agaveros [mezcal distillers and agave farmers] didn’t think about planting more of the wild agaves 15 or 10 years ago, putting some of the agave plants at risk of becoming extinct,” Lucas continues.

“That is the reason why we have to look for more sustainable solutions to help ease the problem.”

What these solutions will be, remains to be seen, but for now, there is the rare opportunity for bartenders and drinkers to enjoy a delicate, traditional and authentically produced spirit.

Casa Merida’s events continue, with a Tequila Masterclass held on June 22, followed by a Margarita Masterclass on July 6, and ‘Born to be Wild – Wild and rare mezcals’ on July 13. See more here.

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