Grace Wong/Chicago Tribune

Mezcal-obsessed mixologist Jay Schroeder launching 'Understanding Mezcal' book in March

From www.chicagotribune.com
By
Grace Wong

Jay Schroeder wants to make it clear that the title of his forthcoming book is a bait-and-switch. “Understanding Mezcal” isn’t meant to be the definitive work on the Mexican spirit, but rather as a guide to starting your journey.

“You’re not going to read that cover-to-cover, and three hours later, you’re going to be woke and understand mezcal. It’s not going to happen,” Schroeder said. “Mezcal, as a category, is unknowable. It is infinitely complex, and every rule has many exceptions to it.”

It took nearly two years to put the book together, but Schroeder has had a seven-year relationship with mezcal, the Mexican agave-based spirit that has seen explosive growth in the U.S. in the past few years. His exposure to Mexican spirits began under Rick Bayless, who quickly made Schroeder chief mixologist at his restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco. Schroeder then set out on his own, helping launch Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square, and is now partner and beverage director at Quiote and its basement bar hideaway Todos Santos.

He’s pursued his passion for mezcal by traveling frequently to various regions of Mexico, like Michoacan, Chihuahua and, most recently, Durango, to complete educational courses and learn from producers who have been making mezcal for generations. But the book is not about him.

“Stories of me roaming around in Mexico are cool, but I wanted something to put out there in front of people that I thought would be useful or engaging or relevant to their lives and not just to mine,” Schroeder said.

You won’t find glossy photos in “Understanding Mezcal.” Instead, hand-drawn illustrations by Polly Jimenez detail the appearance of agave plants, the regions they come from, and the equipment used to distill the plants into the smoky spirit. There are no recipes, no personal anecdotes and no mentions of brands. The book is published by Prensa Press, based in Mexico City and Chicago, and founded by Jimenez and Paul Biasco, whom Schroeder met through Quiote. This is the publishing house’s first book.

Biasco and Jimenez founded Prensa Press in 2018 with the mission of working with writers, chefs, artists, architects, designers and more to publish their written work. Schroeder said while many publishing houses will take an idea and then manipulate it into something that sells, Prensa Press worked with him to ensure that the end product was still his voice and what he wanted.

“Understanding Mezcal” starts with a basic education on what the agave plant is and how it grows, before it moves on to why it’s relevant to the product that is created later. While much of the information about agave plants is directly from Schroeder, who grows the plants at home and at Todos Santos, he also hired a science editor who has dual doctorates in biochemistry and botany to make sure the minutiae are accurate.

The book also explores the history of the relationship between humans and the plant before discussing the process of making mezcal, its economic impact on producer communities and how to ask the right questions when purchasing the spirit.

Schroeder said he hopes the book will appeal to both mezcal enthusiasts and people who may not have an interest at all — like his mother, whom he describes as “an amazing human being” who “does not care about beverage or alcohol or booze.”

“I want to be able to hand a copy to her … and have her read it cover-to-cover, which she dutifully will, and understand everything that’s in it, not knowing anything about distilled spirits or how they’re made or what it is or really caring,” he said. “And making it engaging enough and making it laid out enough that it’s accessible, but it’s not going to offend someone super savvy who’s reading it either.”

“Understanding Mezcal” comes out March 5 and will be available at Quiote, Todos Santos and on Amazon.com.

gwong@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @GraceWong630

MORE COVERAGE

James Beard-nominated mezcal book digs deep into history, production controversy »

Diving into Chicago's bar culture — 31 days of dives, taprooms, wine bars and more »

Review: At Quiote, tortas to rival Xoco and a mezcal bar with a wonderfully unhurried vibe »