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SUNDAY BRUNCH | liquid city

The Magic of Mescal

September 27, 1998|CHRIS RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Plunk yourself down at the bar at L.A.'s El Carmen, and order up a couple of shots--one tequila, one mescal.

Well-known as a repository of tequila, El Carmen also has the best selection in town of mescal, a similar liquor from a different part of Mexico. Mescal's the stuff that sometimes comes with a worm in the bottle--but that's the type to avoid.

Like tequila, mescal is made from agave (from different species), and while most tequila comes from the region surrounding the town that bears its name in the state of Jalisco, the finest mescal comes from Oaxaca.

For tequila, agaves are baked in steam ovens; for mescal, they are fire-roasted, yielding smokier, often more intense flavors.

Bar manager Raul Yrastorza could pour from his collection of more than two dozen bottles, but at the high end, you've really got only three brands of mescal to choose among: the four bottles of Del Maguey Single Village (Chichicapa, Minero, San Luis del Rio and Santa Domingo), which are all excellent yet completely different from one another; Encantado, a smooth, faintly smoky blend of more than two dozen mescals; and Don Amado, which combines steam cooking with fire for a mescal that's closer to tequila in its lack of smoke.

Yrastorza, a mescal fanatic, thinks there's something taboo about this liquor.

"It's the kind of thing you'd drink at a ritual of black magic or hedonism," he says with a grin.

For special customers, he whips up a great margarita using the San Luis del Rio del Maguey, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and sugar. With its heady blend of smoke and citrus, it's one of the best margaritas you'll ever taste.

By educating his staff and customers, Yrastorza has dramatically increased mescal sales in the year the bar has been open.

"We had to force-feed it to people in the beginning," admits Yrastorza. "Often, it was fear of the worm or a bad college experience."

Now El Carmen has regulars who eschew tequila and drink only mescal. And while most sip from shot glasses, some customers request theirs in snifters.

Mescal remains an obscure pleasure, just as Armagnac lives in the shadow of better-known (and better-marketed) Cognac. But the newest entry on the market may change that. Del Maguey's Tobal--made from the wild tobal agave--is certainly the finest mescal available in the United States, and with its wonderfully intense and exotic flavors it just may change the way people think about Mexico.

Only 375 bottles of Tobal were produced. It's available at El Carmen ($18 per shot) and Wine House ($120 per bottle).

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