Hotel Palomar, 1047 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Sommeliers, professional wine experts in charge of ordering and pairing wines, are fairly common in upscale restaurants.
One San Diego restaurant pro is doing the same thing with mezcal, one of Mexico’s most important contributions to cocktail and culinary culture.
Jen Queen recently became a Master mezcalier, an honor similar to a master sommelier but applied to mezcal and its sub-beverage tequila.
She is one of only 14 in the world and the first on the west coast to earn the title. It took her three years of extensive study to become a mezcalier.
“[The title] is recognized by a branch of the Mexican government, and it’s pretty intense,” she explains.
To get the mezcalier title, Queen had to pass four ascending levels and exhibit excellence in areas such as blind tasting and food pairing.
She also had to attend a day of culinary training in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, where she had to plan and execute dishes using mezcal as a primary ingredient.
Queen is putting her knowledge to work at local restaurants such as Saltbox, Puesto at the Headquarters and Monello.
Saltbox is taking advantage of Queen’s new title by planning a seven-course tasting and pairing menu on Jan. 23, according to Assistant General Manager Ray Stencel.
“Jen has made a fantastic dessert with crema de mezcal,” he says. “It will have that cool and sweet aspect of a cream with the smoky undertones enhanced by the mezcal.”
Another dish that will be served is “chapulines,” flash-fried grasshoppers coated with lime-chili powder.
“They have a nice, fatty flavor that pairs well with mezcal,” she says.
As a mezcalier, Queen considers it her duty to educate a public unaware of mezcal and how it differs from tequila.
Basically, both mescal and tequila are distilled from the agave plant. But while all tequilas are mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila.
“Tequila originates in mezcal but it’s seen as the finest production of it,” she explains. “There are eight states in Mexico where you can produce mezcal and five where you can produce tequila.”
Queen says mezcal is a versatile spirit because affecting any of the variables, such as water source, type of agave plant, soil, and even the producer can affect the taste.
“When I was in Mexico, there was a tasting of mezcals made by a father and son. Everything else was the same except the maker,” she says. “The father’s mezcal was robust, really strong and pungent, while the son’s was more delicate and more floral.”
As part of her education process, Queen hopes to clear up misconceptions on whether good mezcal should have a worm in the bottle.
“I was taught — and this may be a marketing gimmick — that the worm was proof of [the alcoholic content],” she says. “Now we have science. I don’t need to put the worm in the bottle to prove it.”