Finishing The Mezcalcello Project We Started at the Beginning of Quarantine

Making mezcalcello is easier than you think — especially in Arizona. Especially during quarantine.
Making mezcalcello is easier than you think — especially in Arizona. Especially during quarantine. Chris Malloy
In March, feeling early pandemic pressures and the first numb pangs of quarantine boredom, we dove into a few kitchen projects. Wings. Baked goods. Cocktails. And a mezcal-based riff on limoncello, born through my newly rekindled curiosity in homemade drinks and the fat lemons bending branches near my house.

The liqueur’s birth took nearly 100 days. It felt more like 300.

click to enlarge Leave the white pith on those lemons. It can bring sharp bitterness. - CHRIS MALLOY
Leave the white pith on those lemons. It can bring sharp bitterness.
Chris Malloy
The process became complex. Skin lemons. Steep the skins in mezcal. Seal. Wait for some three months, for more than three lunar cycles, for more than 100,000 official American COVID-19 deaths. Wait and agitate as the country slides into a tumultuous, transformative, necessary spring. And when as few as 20 or as many as 100 days have passed, you knock out the last steps.

Before those steps, let’s cover the other item from our March piece starting this project.

In that story, we took early stock of the pandemic with the aim of returning in some 100 days, when the liqueur would be ready. Then, the virus had started to close or limit restaurants, leave hospitality professionals jobless, and threaten the local food supply chain. Though restaurants have started to reopen, many hospitality workers have reclaimed jobs, and local supply chains have proven resilient, the pandemic remains.

Actually, based on sheer data, the pandemic has deepened.

The number of daily new COVID-19 cases has soared. Despite what the governor has said, there’s still a strong upward trend, to the point that we’re still eating takeout. So for now, while the big picture of how things will look post-pandemic remains blurry, we’ll kick our big-picture analysis down the road, until the numbers drop and the end of this crisis comes into focus.

For now, that leaves us with our unfinished, multi-month kitchen project: mezcalcello. Luckily, making the liqueur is just a few long steps. Once the marathon steeping is done, the end is near.

click to enlarge Our completed batch of mezcalcello. - CHRIS MALLOY
Our completed batch of mezcalcello.
Chris Malloy
After close to 100 days, I had 320 grams of 42 percent ABV mezcal saturated with broad curls of lemon rind. I strained out the rind. I diluted the base down to about 24 percent ABV using one cup of simple syrup, poured from a reserve kept in my fridge for quick use in cocktails. Syrup created body, a thin veneer of chew. It also charmed the acerbic edge, smoke, and citrus, aligning them in a big way.

I have to admit, I’m happy with how this experiment turned out. The key, I think, was to use freshly plucked lemons, an inexpensive-but-decent mezcal, and a scale for weighing your infused spirit base — cutting it with simple syrup to your liking, and pinning down the final ABV with some math.

click to enlarge The limoncello from Cibo. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
The limoncello from Cibo.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
What to do with a sweet smoky lemon liqueur?

Limoncello, frosty and zipping with citrus, can briefly obliterate summer heat. Traditionally, you sip a short pour after meals, the bracing liquid rolling coldly down your throat and soothing your system. But what can we do beyond tradition, and is that where such a riff must exist?

For perspective and ideas, I linked with a few pros.

First, I reached out to Guido Saccone of Cibo Urban Pizzeria, who infuses a classic limoncello. He uses grain alcohol and simple syrup to keep his liqueur close to but “slightly different from the original Sorrento recipe.” A mezcalcello? Not a limoncello, he believes, as you build the Italian original from grain alcohol.

click to enlarge Mezcal Carreño, a few rungs up from the espadin I used. - CHRIS MALLOY
Mezcal Carreño, a few rungs up from the espadin I used.
Chris Malloy
Second, I connected with Abel Arriaga of Mezcal Carreño. Arriaga is all for infusing mezcal, even the high-end sippers he sells. He says that Carreño bottles can gain a little something from a jalapeno infusion, which can contribute to cocktails.

Finally, I messaged Miguel Morra, who gets imaginative with mezcal at Vecina, notably in the form of an Old Fashioned riff served in a smoky treasure chest. In the past, he has experimented with mezcals infused with ingredients like forms of chocolate and vanilla.

“Mezcal is fun to infuse because it gives a lot of earth tones to whatever flavor you’re trying to achieve,” he says.

click to enlarge Morra making a mezcal Old Fashioned. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Morra making a mezcal Old Fashioned.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Unasked and off the cuff, Morra improvised a mezcalcello take on a bee’s knees cocktail: 2 ounces mezcalcello, 1 ounce lemon juice, 1/4 ounce honey, and 3 dashes orange bitters.

So I shook up a batch this week. And I sat with one winding down, reading, taking in the up-sloping graphs, and thinking about things beyond me — like the rush to shut down the state in the wake of predominantly peaceful protests yet the failure to properly close for a pandemic. Some people think the other side of this is here. Others know it remains distant.

This infinite spring, when every day we can feel the rumble and glide of history’s wheels moving, everything is changing, from criminal justice to public health, right on down to food and beverage.

What new food culture will emerge after the coronavirus? We still hope and wonder, just as we did in March. When will we be beyond, what new traditions will we carry, and how differently will we eat and drink? 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy