Thunderdome: Scorpion Mezcal v 1800 Tequila

Thunderdome: Scorpion Mezcal v 1800 Tequila

We like the vision of Thunderdome in homage to the third installment of the Mad Max movies starring Mel Gibson. There's really no better scenario for assessing a new spirit than comparing it to a known standard over the course of several different styles of cocktails. Monogamy, after all, is for marriage and courtship. Spirits and cocktails is where it's permissible - desirable even! - to play the field. To venture forth and sip the various delights all the world has to offer. Your bar should be your cocktail seraglio. The Proof66 Thunderdome is where we see who's worthy to enter your culinary harem.

The folks at Cabelleros, Inc. were kind enough to send us samples of their Scorpion Mezcal, which is the perfect candidate for our setting. Mezcal is the name applied to the broad category of agave-based spirits produced in Mexico, with tequila being a specific type of mezcal made from a particular variety of agave (the Blue Weber agave). So, as the saying goes, while all tequila is mezcal not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is defined by the Mexican government and required to be a certain percentage of Blue Agave to be awarded the term tequila and that has proven to be very, very popular. But where many people are familiar with the distinct characteristics of Blue Weber agave that are now known the world over, mezcals are a bit more adventurous and will produce more exotic flavors. For those who enjoy tequila, they provide an opportunity to experience a more varied taste.

Or just forget all of that and let's just get right to the point: Mezcals are those agave spirits that have the worm in the bottom of the bottle. Everybody's heard of the worm but not everybody knows where it comes from and mistakenly looks to tequila. Worms are in mezcals. To make it a bit more exciting, the Scorpion folks declared loudly that, Worms are for wimps! and put not a worm but a scorpion in the bottle.

That does bear repeating. It is the only spirit in the world that we're aware of that has a scorpion immersed in the bottle waiting like a present in a Christmas stocking when you finish the bottle.

So invertebrate marketing aside, how does the Scorpion mezcal stack up against the known standard of 1800 Silver 100% de Agave tequila from the pros at Cuervo? Let's look to the Proof66 Thunderdome to tell us.

Like all of the Proof66 Thunderdomes, our tasting goes in rounds. The first round we take the spirit neat or with a touch of ice to try and gauge the nuances of the liquor. We followed that up with the classic margarita (on the rocks, with fresh squeezed lime juice, organic agave syrup as a sweetener, and Cointreau). Then moved on to a drink we christened the Naughty Berry Margarita, which replaces the lime with lemon juice and the Cointreau with X-Rated Fusion Liqueur. We moved on to the Chinese Emperor Margarita, which featured agave syrup as a sweetener along with lemon and Qi Tea Liqueur. Then, to wrap up the night, we whipped up a classic Tequila Sunrise with fresh orange juice and grenadine.

And after all that, would anyone eat the scorpion?

Round 1: Neat.

The 1800 Silver is a great standard for assessing tequilas. It's reasonably priced, it gets very solid reviews, it's from a very well-known and long-standing producer, it's widely available, and it really does pour its own shot if you tip the bottle upside down. 1800 is 100% Blue Weber agave just like any tequila styling itself as ultra-premium. The silvers are un-aged, allowing the full flavor of the agave to soak through the spirit. In our testing group of 20, strong choruses rang out at taking the 1800 neat. It brought up visions of college, smells associated with parties that were themselves associated with tequila, and all-in-all a very distinct tequila-ness. Whether tequila-ness was good or bad depended strictly upon the tenor of the memories for the given individual.

The Scorpion silver mezcal was strikingly different. The taste itself is tequila-like but has a different note. We would say a rustic note that we attribute to the different agave. The Tasting 20 regarded it as a smoother spirit - very well-crafted with a milder finish and by far the better sipping tequila.

And then there's the smoke.

The Islay scotch whiskies of Scotland are renowned for being dried over peat fires that infuse the whisky with a strong and smoky peat flavor. Some people love the peat. Others do not.

Scorpion mezcal is made from agave smoked over traditional wood-fire pits. And, like the peaty scotches, it imparts a tremendous smoke-flavor to the finished product. It is unmistakable; it is strong; and it permeates every pore of the spirit. Every person who tasted the spirit commented about it. Some thought it overwhelming; some thought it interesting. In general, people who claimed to be into tequila found the smoky mezcal the most welcoming. Some couldn't stand it. This is a very similar reaction to Islay scotches, which themselves induce a spectrum between enthusiasm and horror. The professional ratings for Scorpion betray this kind of spectrum in smoky preferences: from a relatively weak score from Wine Enthusiasts to a very, very strong score from the Beverage Testing Institute, opinions run the gamut for this mezcal.

Round One to the Scorpion for the crafting and the general uniqueness but in a polarizing vote not seen since Bush edged out Gore in Florida. Thunderdome was very definitely underway.

Round 2: Classic Margarita.

We've shouted this before as loudly as we can and we'll say it again: do not put your margaritas in a blender full of syrup! Please? Or at least have the decency to call it a frozen margarita when you do? Otherwise it's like announcing to your prospective in-laws you're engaged without having set a date. No mom is going to believe that weak nonsense and the same rules apply when claim a real margarita is made with syrup mix out of a can and made into a slushy. /rant

The 1800 goes in a classic margarita like the fairy godmother's ballroom dress on Cinderella: light, elegant, beautiful... but quite perilous if it continues too far into the night. Much acclaim and much love from the 20 drinking the cocktail. For all those that had unpleasant memories of college and complained of burning throats taking the 1800 neat... once they got it mixed in a proper margarita, there was love in the air. Much better, was the oft-heard refrain.

As for the Scorpion? It's the holidays and we're all familiar with family gatherings where someone has slaved all day over a turkey and it turns out dry. Arid in fact. And it's greeted by an uncomfortable silence and much drinking of water - all anyone can think is their mother telling them If you don't have anything good to say, then god damnit keep your mouth shut! For this drink, it was still early in the evening and nobody wanted to be the first to defame the Scorpion... and the same uncomfortable silence settled over the room. A few crickets chirped. Then the alcohol got the better over remembered manners taught by mothers and a great chorus of groans went up from the gathering.

As it turns out, the intense smoke flavors just don't mix well with sour. There were one or two exceptions where the smoky margarita was hailed as better but the majority opinion was quite the reverse - smoky mezcal ought not to be put in a classic margarita. Without going into the gruesome details it quickly became clear that the mezcal had a place but it would have to be in a more non-traditional drink.

Round 2 in a decided victory for the 1800.

Round 3: Naughty Margarita.

Knowing how the classic version went down, we were a bit worried about trading in the Cointreau for the X-Rated liqueur, itself a fusion of more fruity flavors. But, this was science and we forged ahead. Our forefathers pioneered the West and how could we do less?

Overall, the drink itself was not well-received. In fact, it was a bad drink, poorly made by us and not a reflection on the otherwise excellent X-Rated liqueur (many people tried it neat and loved it). But this is part of Thunderdome where it is good to see what a spirit can do with a bad drink.

With the 1800, there were general notes of sour and acidity that many found unwanting. (In the future, we'll have to cut back on the lemon.) But in general, the drink was considered at least adequate. It was even considered dimly acceptable by some. But everyone preferred the 1800 in the margarita. The 1800 itself was certainly not the problem but it didn't really help either.

So did the smoke of the Scorpion save this drink? Alas, no. We had already learned that sour was not necessarily a good thing for smoke and it certainly wasn't here. One person was reminded of a burnt house; another of bacon; a third of a cigar that had been dropped in pomegranate juice. In general, we had apparently chosen precisely the wrong drinks to show off this spirit. If we can say one thing about Scorpion Mezcal, it refuses to compromise itself where 1800 might be something born of appeasement. But here, appeasement works.

Round 3 in another decisive victory for the 1800.

Round 4: Chinese Emperor Margarita.

What the hell? Another margarita?

Yes indeed but this time with a twist. We brought an old friend to partner with the Scorpion and that old friend was the little-known but quite intense Qi Black Tea liqueur from California. This stuff is also wildly, insanely smoky. A quick search on the internet shows that more people cook with this liqueur than drink it. Mixologists warn people to add only a little lest it override the drink like William Shatner on stage. We added a bit of lemon and agave syrup to the mix and sat back to see what would happen.

Well, the 1800 ended up being ok. The drink was certainly better received than the X-rated version. General, if tepid acclaim met the drink.

Then, as the phoenix rises from its own ashes so the Scorpion rose to the challenge of the Qi. This was easily one of the best drinks of the night and indeed the best showing by far for the Scoprion. The two smoky characteristics complemented each other perfectly with the light sweetener and hint of citrus from the lemon. It was refreshing and light. It could've been an Arnold Palmer only in its younger, more radical, experimental days. People who had almost given up on mezcal altogether were coaxed into trying the drink and, upon trying it, were drawn back in to the tasting. Outstanding cocktail and an outstanding stage for the Scorpion.

Round 4 in resounding vote for the Scorpion.

Round 5: Tequila Sunrise.

The tequila sunrise is one of the standards of summer and it's a dramatic, colorful drink when properly executed. Round 5 is always a freestyle for Thunderdome where we create a drink on the spot based upon what we have learned that night. We knew that Scorpion mixed poorly with the sour but beautifully with the smoke. But what about citrus flavors that are decidedly not sour? Can it mix with just the sweet? The Tequila Sunrise is a perfect candidate for the sweetness of fresh orange juice and the added sweet kick from the grenadine.

The 1800 was just ok in the drink. It's a decent spirit but it does have a bit of burn and it does have a bit of needle. It has a bite. Not the bite, mind you, of that stuff that's shot with lime wedges, handfuls of salt, and occasionally the belly-button sweat of a willing partner. The 1800 is far superior to your typical well-drink tequila. But the 1800 will still give you a little love-nibble as it goes down just to let you know it's there. That nibble is in the Tequila Sunrise.

Scorpion, as we noted above, is much better crafted in that it's smoother and probably gains its extra elegance in its small-batch method of distillation. Better, the smoke does work quite well with the orange juice. The mezcal kicked up the desirability of the Tequila Sunrise to the point where most of the party wished that we'd just started with that drink and stuck with it all night through. There was no question what was the better drink. Two drink stands on a beach and the crowd is going to the Scorpion Mezcal, no question. This is great news because while not everyone has Qi Black Tea liqueur in their home bar, just about everyone can come up with orange juice.

Round 5: big-time, smack-down from Scorpion.

Round 6: the scorpions themselves.

One great thing about having a bottle of Scorpion Mezcal is that it equals instant party. The bottle has a little Mexican sombrero on the top of its bottle... and then it has a previously living and totally genuine scorpion in the bottom. The bottle says hola! when you open it and gives sinister promises when you finish it. We guarantee one thing: if you open a bottle of Scorpion Mezcal you will finish it because everyone wants to see if anyone has the guts to eat that thing when they get to the end.

Well, we had two bottles. So we had two scorpions. And we didn't have to look very far for volunteers. Both scorpion were eaten. And, so far, both have suffered no ill effects. Both enjoyed the great esteem, admiration, and horror from the rest of the party who watched mesmerized (or filmed with a bizarre variety of smart phones) the ingestion. Yeah, 1800 has a cool bottle top... but that's nothing like watching someone eating a scorpion. It's a crowd-pleaser.

Round 6: Scorpion in a runaway... other tequilas can't even step on the court for sheer cool.

So overall, we can give high recommendations for the Scorpion Mezcal and most especially for tequila enthusiasts. Like whiskey drinkers, those who are accustomed to tequila flavors will very much appreciate the step outside the norm. It's a finely made spirit that should mix well with most

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