It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up Mezcal by Emma Janzen and give us both of their opinions of said book. BONUS: Since it’s the season of giving, we are running a contest to win your own BOOZY BOOKSHELF! All of the details are at the bottom of this post.
I was interested enough in Emma Janzen’s Mezcal to buy myself a copy some time back. I started it, got busy, put it down and didn’t go back to until we decided to review it for this month’s Boozy Bookshelf. I’m certainly glad I picked it up again, armed this time with a bit more knowledge and infinitely more curiosity about what she calls “the world’s most artisanal spirit”.
Fundamentally, however, the point she seems to make (which is reinforced by the extraordinary lack of selection we get here in Ontario) is that to really experience mezcal you have to go to the source. Which makes her job of bringing it to life in 2 dimensions all the more difficult.
Presumably in the spirit (no pun intended) of trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the book starts out with a short history lesson on mezcal – essentially the part that seems meant to convince you that you should care that it exists and want to learn more about it. (Which is curious, since if you’ve picked this book up you’re probably already in that mindset.) It follows with an in-depth exploration of the plants and processes that go into mezcal – to my mind the most engaging and interesting piece, once you get past the litany of agave species and the perfect bottles to try to taste each one (long-time readers will know my frustration around books filled with labels of which 99% are not readily available in my home country Canada). The process of making mezcal is genuinely fascinating to anyone with more than a passing interest in spirits, as are the stories of many of the people who make it. Janzen paints such a vivid picture you feel like you’re experiencing the terroir first-hand – like the part where she talks about the maestros eschewing modern technology and gauging ABV by the size of bubbles. (Which also probably explains why the LCBO’s legendary bureaucracy seems even more egregious when it comes to agave.) Next up is short section on how to explore it and how to drink it; nods to tradition add more here than her “find a bartender you trust at a place with a healthy mezcal selection” would initially suggest. Finally, a lengthy selection of recipes across varying styles (most with full-page accompanying photos) takes up about 60 pages. Although some improvisation was needed to sub in for brands we don’t have access to, the cocktails we tested out were pretty tasty.
While the writing is engaging, and the photography immersive, I struggled a little with how easily the flow gets disrupted. Perhaps coming off a couple of books where the photos and sidebars were quite seamlessly integrated, I found the layout style constantly pulling me out of the story. That said, the photos themselves are so interesting that they were hard to gloss over; where in other cases I might just mindlessly turn the page to get to the rest of the sentence, here I found myself examining the minutia of many of the images. It may seem like a minor beef, but typesetting is an art that feels as though it’s been paid short shrift in this case.
Marlene’s Last Word:
Janzen does an admirable job of paying homage to one of the world’s most interesting spirits, touching on multiple aspects of production and consumption with hints of the magic that make it so special. If you’re really into mezcal you probably want this as a reference manual and recipe book. If you’re not a huge aficionado going in, she may have turned you into one by the end. The question is if you have ~$30 to spend learning about mezcal do you want to spend it on a book about the stuff, or in a bar tasting the stuff?
For many of us bartenders, whiskey is a well-trod path, if just through proximity. Because of that familiarity, I found Emma Janzen’s Mezcal: The History, Craft, & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit to be an informative introduction to an intimidatingly obscure spirit. Despite its scarcity here in Ontario, when trying new mezcal I am almost always struck by the dizzying complexity and wide array of flavour profiles available in the spirit, and unable to parse the many Spanish and Latin terms on bottles to determine how I should evaluate the spirit. Ms. Janzen’s book does an admirable job of explaining the history and styles of this varied spirit.
It feels foolish to make this disclaimer, but if the reader is uninterested in mezcal, Mezcal likely won’t hold their interest. The book is part informational document, part evangelical tract for traditionally-made mezcal, and Ms. Janzen often waxes poetically about how mezcal is a unique, largely small-producer-made product, casually dismissing any industrially-made product as being separate from the more classically produced product. It is, however, difficult to argue with her: after all, distilled spirits are, by definition, a product made through a purification process. The more a product is distilled, streamlined, and purified, the less character it provides — after all, the end result of multiple distillations is inevitably a neutral spirit. Industrial attempts at streamlining the product do, almost inevitably, remove individual character. This isn’t always a bad thing — I’ve had one to many terrible “craft” products to claim that individual character is always a plus — but it goes against the traditionalist ethos of the book.
The “artisanal” focus does lead to a bit of a problem: since many mezcal releases are quite varied from area to area and year to year, it makes it difficult to write about any individual products or producers. Ms. Janzen avoids this somewhat by subdividing styles of mezcal by the various species of agave used, and offering bottlings that can function as presumably paragons of the styles of that spirit. Through her descriptions of those bottlings, the reader can get a rather solid idea of the differences between the spirits of different agave species even without drinking the mezcal highlighted. The only issue is that some of these individual bottlings might be difficult to find, particularly in states or areas where alcohol available is limited by local governments. This approach, however, does make the book feel a bit lean. Unlike “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert” and its chapters upon chapters of history, Ms. Janzen is only able to go into detail on a few bottlers/distributors, and almost no actual producers.
Another element that makes the book feel lean is the lengthy cocktail chapter. At around 100 pages, the discussion of and recipes for cocktails take up almost half the book, a fact that is ironically lampshaded by several paragraphs of the introduction to the chapter stating that many real mezcal connoisseurs view cocktails as a way to introduce unrefined newcomers to the drink at best, and a shameful way to mask the spirit’s complexities at worst. The cocktails themselves are very well-described, with notes on flavor profiles and lovely photography. In fact, the photography throughout the book is quite nice, with plenty of huge, full-page illustrations that at a few occasions unfortunately interrupt the flow of information mid-stream. Perhaps the brevity it is for the best; with a spirit as unique and complex as mezcal, it might be best not to overwhelm new aficionados (such as myself) with pages of complex information.
Lucas’s Last Word: Mezcal: The History, Craft, & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit is a quick and well-written introduction to the spirit. I’m sure mezcal experts may find it lacking at points, but for the rest of us it is well-written and interesting, but unless you are interested in the cocktails, it may be worth buying to share rather than serving as a constant reference point.
BOOZY BOOKSHELF CONTEST!
It’s the giving season and Bartender Atlas wants to pump up one lucky bartender’s bookshelf with a whole lot of boozy! We are giving away one copy of each of the following recently reviewed books to ONE Bartender Atlas bartender:
TO ENTER: You MUST be a bartender listed on Bartender Atlas (Not listed? Fill out the form here!). Only one entry per person. Contest closes December 4th at 11:59 pm EST.
THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED! Congrats to winner Kynan Wright of Vancouver!