Mezcal is the wild and fascinating parent of tequila, and has a much broader range of flavors. It's most common descriptor is smoky, and it certainly is, but mezcal can also be sweet, floral, earthy, funky and fruity, often all at once. Despite pre-dating tequila, mezcal has gone largely unknown outside of Mexicio up until around 15 years ago. Since then mezcal has captivated the spirits and cocktail world. It's trending, as they say.
But even with this considerable market growth, many mezcals are still made the same way they have been for hundreds of years, in small local distilleries called “palenques” by distillers, "mezcaleros)", whose knowledge of the spirit has been passed down through generations. Though as the popularity of the category grows, potential dangers loom, as they do for all agave spirits. I encourage you to read more about this here.
Mezcal can be made from any species of agave (tequila can only be made from one: the blue weber agave). Over 40 variteties are used, but over 90% are made from Espadín. Details on more agave varieties are below.
The majority of mezcal is made in Oaxcaca, Mexico, though production is allowed in seven other Mexican states.
Mezcal's signature smokey flavor comes from roasting the agaves over hot stones in earthen pit ovens for several days.
Most mezcals are unaged, or “Joven,” (like blanco tequila) though some are aged and released as reposados and añejos.
Del Maguey - We probably wouldn’t be talking about mezcal today if it weren’t for Ron Cooper and the Del Maguey brand. They offer wide range of bottlings, some single village, some single agave, and some that don’t fit into a box at all. The Vida is their entry priced level and the mezcal is used in the well by many cocktail bars. Other excellent mainstays include the Tobala, Chichicapa and Santo Domingo, which is probably my favorite mezcal I've ever tasted.
Fidencio - Run by the grandson of a mezcalero who made mezcal in Oaxaca 120 years ago. They have three very good and well priced options. The Classico is more traditional, the Sin Humo is less smoky and they also make a Pechuga.
Ilegal - This is one of the few brands that offers mezcals of different ages: an unaged joven, a reposado that is aged for 4 months and an añejo aged for 13 months. All are a little lighter on the smoke making this a good introduction to the category. They've also got a great story. Which you can read on their site.
Pierde Almas - A company totally commited to the big picture surrounding mezcal, which you can learn about on their site. They feature five bottlings that are each made from one type of agave, including Espadín, Dobodaan (my favorite) and Tobalá. They also make a pechuga.
El Jolgorio - This is an excellent and diverse line that offers nine different single agave bottlings from a selection of Mezcaleros.
Nuestra Soledad - By the same folks at El Jogorio, though instead of focussing on the agave, they are all sinlge village mezcals showcasing the varitey between different palenques and mezcaleros. All are 100% Espadín.
Mezcales de Leyenda - Led by a group of Mexican entrepreneurs. Their angle is featuring mezcals from three specific regions: Oacaxa, Guerro and Durango.
Mezcalero - Superb line of mezcals curated by Craft Distillers, which carefully selects a wide range of artisanal, hand-made spirits. They are very limited and very high quality, which is reflected in the price, but you get what you pay for. Bottlings are named by number, currently 1-12 are sold out. Only 13-15 are available.
Vago - A very passionately run, transparent operation with a great story and even greater mezcal. This is another one that's not priced to be mixing with, and it's worth every penny.
Agave Species and Varieties
These are some common agave species and sub-species used to make mezcal, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. I've included some general flavor charactestistics you can expect of the mezcals made from each, but it's important to remember that great deal of a mezcal's character comes from the practices of the palenque. Where the agave was grown, wild or farmed, how long it was roasted, fermented, etc, all has a major impact. This is a just a jumping off point. Also note, I don't use "smoky" as a flavor descriptor here, because that's comes from the roasting, not the agave itself. The agave photos are courtesy of mezcalPHD.com. An website and blog that is an absolute must for mezcal lovers.
Espadín - (Agave Angustifolia)
Over 90% of mezcals are made with espadín for several reasons. It is easier to cultivate than other agaves and takes “only” 10-12 years to mature. It is also suitably large so yeilds a good volume and provides a sturdy backdrop for mezcal's classic flavors of floral and ripe fruit, herbaceous earth and smoke.
Tobalá - (Agave Potatorum)
While every agave is special, if one were to be the crown jewel, it would be tobalá. It is the base of several of the most prized mezcals. They are tiny, about an eighth the size of an espadín, and only grow in the wild nestled in the shade up in high rocky terrains. These mezcals are delicate, lightly sweet, endlessly complex with long, long finishes. This is another example where a plant that has to work hard to survive yields a remarkable spirit.
Tepeztate - (Agave Marmorata)
Tepeztate has broad twisted leaves and can grow to be quite large. While the marmoratsa species is scattered all over Mexico, the Tepeztate variety grows mainly at very high altitudes and takes a long time to mature, 12-15 years on average, and in some cases all the way up to 25. These mezcals have the typical floral and herbaceous flavors and can be a little funky and weird. I had one that reminded me a bit of blue cheese
Dobodaan, Mexicano, Cuixe
The rhodacantha agaves are dispersed throughout the western part of Mexico and are quite large with long thorns. They enjoy lower elevations, the Mexicano in particular prefers moist areas. They produce some of the more intensely floral and delicately complex mezcals.
Cupreata - (Agave Cupreata)
The genetic grandparent of tobala. These are short and stocky with broad leaves, and a little larger than tobala. They are found mostly in Michoacán and Guerrero. Mezcal made from cupreata is sometimes called “Papalomé” which means butterfly. They lean towards earthy and a bit savory, along with the usual delicate, fruity and floral characteristics we know and love.
Arroqueño, Sierra Negra
(Agave Americana, Oaxacensis variety)
Giants, up to 10 feet wide! Arroqueño is the gentic mother of the espadín and can take up to 20 years to ripen. Because of their size, these mezcals are rare and highly sought after. Along with the typical tropical fruit notes, the mezcals can be earthy, funky and a touch herbaceous. Their abundance of sugars keeps all the flavors in balance, even at higher proofs.
Madrecuixe, Barril, Tobaziche
The karwinskii agave is composed a little differently than the others. It has a short stalk that the piña and leaves grow on top of, somewhat resembling a small tree. The importance here is the stalk can also be fermented and distilled along with the piña. This results in mezcals that are drier, more tannic, herbaceous and not quite as fruity and floral as others, though still plenty complex and delicious.
Sotol - This is actually not made from agaves, though it does resemble mezcal. Sotol is made from the dasylirion wheeleri, also called the desert spoon, which is a cousin of the agave. It has an official D.O. in the northern states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, where the plant is commonly found, they also grow in the the south western United States. In addition to smoke and sweet fruit flavors, sotol has a lot of root vegetable notes. Por Siempre is an excellent brand. Absolutely delicious.
Bacanora - A type of mezcal recognized by a D.O. in the state of Sonara. The only available brand I’ve seen is Cielo Rojo. It's lighter on the smoke than other mezcals and is somewhat acidic, with green vegetal flavors. Yum.
Raicilla - Raicilla is basically a mezcal with a D.O. in Jalisco where most tequila is made, and mezcal is not recognized by a D.O. La Venenosa is the only brand I’ve come across. Very tasty stuff.
Comiteco - A traditional spirit made from distilled pulque (see across) and sugar cane. It comes hails from the region around the city of Comitán in the state of Chiapas, which is southern most state in Mexico.
Tuxaca - Another type of mezcal, this one is from Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco.
Charanda - Ok, this one has nothing to do with agaves. It's a Mexican spirit made from sugar cane, so it’s essentially rum. It's primarily made in the state of Michoacán and comes in similar age tiers to tequila (blanco, reposado, añejo, etc.).
Pulque - Pulque is made from fermented agave sap called aguamiel (honey water), as opposed to the fermented roasted agave juice that is used for tequila and mezcal distillation. So it’s sort of like agave beer or wine, though it looks and tastes nothing like them. It’s thick, milk white in color and has a sour, yeasty taste. Pulque is not widely available outside of Mexico. There’s sometimes a misconception that tequila and mezcal are made from distilled pulque, which not true. Distilling pulque creates unpleasant flavors like sulphur and burnt rubber.
Recommended (and responsible) Brands:
Mezcal's diversity choosing one an adventure. No amount of imformation - where it was made, with what agave, whether it was wild or farmed - can tell you the whole story of what's bottle. Only your taste buds can tell you that.
But there is one aspect of mezcal you should always pay attention to: whether it was made sustainably, responsibly with respect to mezcal's culture and traditions. All of these brands meet that standard, as well as being incredibly delicious.
These are just brands, not individual bottlings. Included are links to each brand's site, where you can see the entire line find much more information about the story and process than the typical liqour brand site.
Types of Mezcal - While mezcal can't be neatly divided into categories, which is certainly part of it's charm, there are a few common classifications and terms that you'll run into.
Single Village - Mezcal all made in one Palenque (distillery).
Single Agave - Mezcal made all from one specific specicies or varietal of agave.
Ensamble - A mezcal made from a blend of agaves species, that doesn’t focus on one in particular.
Pechuga - A style of infused mezcal that's disitlled a third time with fruits, spices and a piece of meat, usually poultry. It is traditionally made once a year when ingredients are in season.
Sipping (and shooting) Mezcal
The fun vessel for drinking mezcal is a the traditional copita, which is basically a tiny clay bowl. You can order them on the Del Maguey website. A mezcal toast includes a ritual now familiar to many within cocktail world. You rasie your coptia and exclaim “¡stigibeu!” (pronounced “stee-gee-BAY-oo"), which is a Zapotec word that basically means “to the collective life force.” It often gets shortened to just: “stigi.” The toast can be followed up with “¡bakeen!” or, “drink!”
Cocktails with mezcal.
Like Scotch, mezcal can be a challenge to mix with because those intense smokey flavors can be overbearing. Of course, if you love mezcal, you won’t mind it’s flavors dominating a cocktail. But for many it can be too much. One effective approach is to mix it in a cocktail with tequila. If a recipe calls for 2 ounces of tequila, try 1½ oz tequila and ½ oz mezcal. This stretches out mezcal's intensity while keeping the flavors intact. One of my favorite cocktails that does this is the Oaxacan Old Fashioned, or as I like to call it: the gateway mezcal cocktail.
Other Agave Based Spirits & Beverages
Many of these are mezcal by a different name, others are just traditional Mexican booze products that may use agave, or not. Not many have distribution outside of Mexico. But that could easily change. Twenty years ago who had heard of mezcal?
The Mezcal Worm
The infamous “worm” in the mezcal bottle is actually a moth larva, and it's horseshit. It was a marketing gimmick that caught on in the 1940s and 50s which created a voodoo-like mystique around mezcal. Somehow the idea of "drinking the worm" became a romanized symbol of debauchery that popular gringo culture couldn't help but perpetuate. And yet, there are attempts to legitimize it. Some claim that if the larva is intact that means the mezcal is at the proper proof. Others maintain that the worm actually contributes a discernible and better yet, appealing, flavor. But like I said, it's utter horseshit. I think the only reason a bug was ever put into a bottle of mezcal, was to sell more mezcal. Mezcal should not have a worm. You'll never see one anywhere near a Palenque with any shred of integrity.
While we’re debunking myths, I should also probably mention the worm won’t make you hallucinate and mezcal has nothing to do with the drug mescaline - despite what John Taffer says.