A Crash Course in Mezcal From Chicago’s Resident Agave Whisperer

That buddy of yours who’s sampled every nano-brewery in the country and can recite every cru in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855? He’s got nothing on Jay Schroeder.

A walking encyclopedia when it comes to all things agave, Schroeder is the author of Understanding Mezcal, an engagingly erudite new guide to the plant and all its pleasures. And if anyone can claim to truly understand the enigmatic spirit, it’s him.

Schroeder’s C.V. reads as follows: former chief mixologist for the restaurants of star chef Rick Bayless, current partner and beverage director at Chicago’s Quiote (Michelin Bib Gourmand 2018, 2019) and adjoining bar Todos Santos, and quite possibly the most knowledgeable man in Chicago when it comes to Mexican spirits.

Since our mezcal wisdom is limited to the basics (it’s smoky, all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas), we recently sat down with Schroeder to chat about his book, its subject and what to know before you pick out a bottle.

InsideHook: You’ve really done a deep dive with this book. Is that your m.o. with things generally, or did mezcal simply mesmerize you?

Jay Schroeder: 1,000% my m.o. I think the biggest difference is that with most things, you start to dive deep and the amount you’re able to learn drops off drastically the further into it you get. The world of mezcal isn’t really a world, though — it’s more of a universe. Every region has its own terminology, techniques and concerns. I’ve basically found a realm where my curiosity will seemingly never run out of things to learn and be blown away by.

IH: What is it about mezcal that really engages you?

JS: Diversity, plain and simple. Mezcales from Michoacán are drastically different than those from Oaxaca, as are those from Durango. It just so happens that in addition to thinking a lot of this stuff is really tasty, I happened to pick the single most diverse spirit on the planet. And the process of making mezcal adds a dimensionality that simply doesn’t exist in other spirits.

IH: Any recommendations for picking out a bottle?

JS: I tend to like mezcales that have a lot of body but are balanced out by a nice acidity. Mezcal as a spirit can get really rich and oily, and I like that a lot. I tend to like things that are a bit higher octane, starting at around 48% alcohol and above. It’s the concentration of flavors and aromas that I like, and things just get more concentrated the higher up the alcohol scale you go. 

IH: Tell us about one of your own mezcal-driven cocktails.

JS: We have a drink on the menu now which I like in a very unexpected way. I hate cantaloupe. But we’re running a cocktail called “It Might as Well be Spring,” which centers around cantaloupe from Nichol’s Farm. The cantaloupe still comes through loud and clear, but the way it plays with the other ingredients I just find really charming. It’s got a bit of really nice Cava in it for some bubbles, a delicious mezcal made from agave cupreata in Guerrero, fresh lime, green chartreuse, honey from our rooftop hives and regular “American” cinnamon — the type they use in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The baking spice adds a warmth and everything else takes it in such a bright direction. It’s just what my Seasonal Affective Disorder needs in mid-winter Chicago.

Main photo:  Left courtesy Jay Schroeder, right courtesy Prensa Press