I spent last Sunday kicked back on a neighbor’s couch watching the New Orleans Saints blow a 17-point lead and lose their second game in as many weeks. As I did this I sipped Sombra mezcal. I had brought a bottle to enhance my enjoyment of watching what I assumed would be a lively Saints beatdown of the pitiful Bucs; I thought the Sombra would make a fine celebratory drink.
As it turns out, Sombra works pretty well for numbing pain. One shot, two shot, three shot, more!
And it’s also very tasty. Mezcal has joined the parade of low-status spirits that have been lent renewed respect over the past few years (grappa, cachaça, Zima…. just kidding about the Zima). Much of this is thanks to Rob Cooper and his Del Maguey line of single-village mezcals, including his legendary pechuga, which you might know as The Mezcal That’s Made With A Dead Chicken. Or sometimes, The Mezcal That Costs $200 a Bottle If You Can Find It.
At any rate, mezcal has come a long way since I was in college, when holding up a bottle with a worm in it and lording it over my friends was a sign of worldly sophistication.
I got a bottle of Sombra to evaluate for an end-of-year review that ran in the December issue of Men’s Journal. (It's not online.) That assignment ran to all of 50 words. I can scarcely sneeze in 50 words. So let me add a bit more here.
Despite its unique appearance and lack of a prominent Del Maguey mark (look at the small print along the bottom of the label), Sombra is, in fact, another Rob Cooper product. His Mexican mezcal magicians make it; it’s then imported and marketed by a trio of entrepreneurs, including Richard Betts, a master sommelier best known for his tenure at Little Nell’s in Aspen. (The other two are Dennis Scholl and Charles Bieler.) They’ve decanted their mezcal into recycled glass bottles that are more rounded and elegant than the no-frills Del Maguey vessels, but what’s inside is of equally outstanding quality, the result of organic Espadin agave grown at high altitude in Oaxaca, and traditional methods of roasting, crushing, and distilling.
As for taste, two words will carry the freight: Big Smoke. It’s got an amazingly redolent smokiness, but one that doesn't overwhelm in the least — it’s like comfort food for anyone who’s spent time around a campfire. The smoke fades fairly swiftly, though, and it leaves you with a smooth, dry finish It’s without doubt among the smoothest, most sippable mezcals I’ve ever enjoyed — or at least among those not involving the unconscionable death of innocent poultry.
I recently pedaled my bottle up to Cure, one of my favorite New Orleans bars, where owner Neal Bodenheimer brought out a few Del Magueys for taste comparisons. We put the Sombra up against the San Luis del Rio, Chichicapa, Santo Domingo Albarradas, and Minero. And the results were encouraging. None who sampled Sombra thought it was out of its league or dumbed down. It actually came out in the top two of my favorites — neck and neck with the long-finishing Santo Domingo. I’d happily drink either in any circumstances, although preferably when the Saints are winning.
The good news? Sombra sells for about $50 a bottle vs. about $70 for the Del Maguey Santo Domingo. I’m looking forward to celebrating with it next month.
Sombra is part of the Classic and Vintage Artisinal Spirits Portfolio, created earlier this year by Domaine Select Wine Estates and representing other fine products like Averna, Tuthilltown, and Rhum J.M.