They say you always remember the first time, and I certainly do. It was in a bar in Paradise Valley, Arizona, with a barman with a jaunty handlebar moustache.
I‘m talking, of course, of the first time I tried mezcal. The bar was The Last Drop at the Hermosa Inn, and I’d asked bartender Travis Nass to serve me whatever was his personal favourite from the cocktail creations on his bar menu. “El Ultimo is the desert in a glass,” he said, and explained that the smoky secret was mezcal.
When I said I’d never tried mezcal, he plonked a glass of it down in front of me. “You’ve never lived,” he said. It was the start of a fascination with mezcal, the mysterious Mexican spirit that’s usually as clear as vodka but often – though not always – tastes like a peaty Islay whisky.
Mezcal was usually described as tequila’s rather rougher brother and – given tequila’s reputation among drinkers – it was hardly an incentive to try it. It was also touted as the Mexican spirit with a worm at the bottom of the bottle, so hardly likely to be on a par with an Ardbeg 22-year-old. However, throwing a worm (actually a grub) into the bottle was purely a marketing gimmick from one particular mezcal brand in the 1950s. For a long time, trying to find mezcal was like asking furtively for something from under the counter. Today you can even find it in Waitrose, for goodness’ sake.
Calling a mezcal Dangerous Don is an unfortunate harkening back to the worm era, but this is a mezcal brand that’s as modern as tomorrow and which – unusually – was founded by a British woman. Thea Cumming had been touring US bourbon distilleries and went on to visit Oaxaca, which is to mezcal what Jalisco is to tequila. There, she met a cowboy called Frank whose favourite tipple was to mix rough mezcal with instant coffee, sugar and vanilla.
As she’d never tasted anything like it before, she decided she wanted to recreate the drink and import it to the UK. It sounds like the kind of story dreamed up by a PR professional to add a bit of romance to a brand name, but this kind of thing happens over and over in the world of mezcal. The big brand Del Maguey came about in a similar way, and if you read Emma Janzen’s excellent book, Mezcal, you’ll understand how people get similarly hooked by this spirit.
Dangerous Don comes in two expressions. There’s a regular twice-distilled Joven version, and this Café version in which the Joven is steeped in organic NaomQuie Coffee beans from the coast of Oaxaca, and then distilled a third time. It’s bottled at 48% ABV and sells for £51. This was a sample sent by the P.R. company for Dangerous Don; per Malt policy, this does not affect the review or score.
Dangerous Don Café Mezcal – Review
Color: Surprisingly clear.
On the nose: Also surprising, as you expect the aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans, but what you get is an enjoyable mix of chocolate and vanilla sweetness, bonfire smoke, a lemon zestiness, and some almond and hazelnuts, almost like Frangelico. Did someone mention coffee and alcohol? Well, not so much.
In the mouth: Now, this is where the alcoholic strength hits you, and the coffee too, but also swirling around in there is the nutty taste, and the smoke, and the creamy richness of a hot chocolate drink. The most dangerous thing about Dangerous Don is how totally more-ish it is.
It’s rare to find a flavoured mezcal, although Mexican mezcal regulations do allow for the addition of herbs, spices and other ingredients. It’s just that people prefer their mezcal to taste of mezcal, and its own strong taste doesn’t lend itself to being flavoured with anything. But Cowboy Frank definitely hit on something when he mixed coffee with his mezcal.