There’s a curious thing happening in bars these days. A newcomer, mezcal, is supplanting old standbys whiskey and gin as the bartender’s spirit of choice. The finest drinking institutions around the world are slinging mezcal negroni’s and mezcal old-fashioneds, knocking their gin and bourbon-based brethren right off the craft cocktail menu.
Mezcal is continuing to grow in popularity, and it’s no wonder why. This nectar of the gods (more on that later) is exclusively distilled from indigenous agave and has a completely unique flavor profile, unlike anything else you’ll find in the world of spirits. It also has virtually no glycemic impact, making it a perfect neat or on-the-rocks tipple for those on the Paleo or Keto diets, as well as those of us who want to enjoy our spirits without the sugars, and subsequent hangovers, of mixed cocktails or wine.
What Is Mezcal? More Importantly, What Isn’t It?
Let’s get this straight out of the gates, mezcal is not Tequila. In fact, it’s the other way around — Tequila is a kind of mezcal. The mezcal that was being made in Tequila, Jalisco, was so popular that bar patrons just started requesting the spirit by its geographic name, much like we do now with Scotch, Cognac or Champagne.
So what is mezcal?
Mezcal is what happens when agave, smoke and hundreds of years of history collide. In short, mezcal is a Mexican liquor distilled from agave cooked in an oven, but this spirit has deep roots in Mexican culture. It’s said that the Gods sent down a bolt of lightning to strike an agave, instantly cooking and splitting it so that humans could taste its nectar. This, even hundreds of years later, is essentially what mezcal is. The leaves and roots are shorn from the Agave plant, leaving the piña — the heart of the agave. The piñas are chopped and roasted in underground earthen ovens, which gives mezcal its signature smoky notes. From there the piñas are mashed or crushed, and the liquid that results is distilled, twice at least, thrice for special bottlings. The final product is mezcal.
How Should I Drink Mezcal?
This is the right question! Gone are the days of taking shots until you get down to the worm — heck, even the worm is gone. The best mezcal brands are complex, nuanced and deserve to be carefully tasted. They can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a craft cocktail. Mezcaleros will tell you that a neat pour at room temperature is the preferred way to enjoy quality mezcal. They will also tell you not to shoot or even drink your mezcal, but to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. Take a small sip, purse your lips, exposing more of your taste buds to the mezcal, and roll it over your tongue, letting it fill your mouth, then swallow and exhale. This sipping movement allows your palate to adjust to the high ABV that mezcal carries. After the kiss, you’ll be able to more easily pick up on the floral, citric, smoky and earthen notes that quality mezcal carries.
If you’re interested in exploring the sophisticated tastes of mezcal, then keep reading to discover some of the best mezcal brands on the market. Craft cocktail makers all over the world are falling in love with mezcal, and you can, too. Below, you’ll find a wide range of mezcal, from the best mezcal to use for cocktails to premium spirits that deserve to be served neat.
1. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
THE BARTENDER’S CHOICE
Del Maguey’s Vida is the bartender’s choice for good reason. This handcrafted, twice-distilled organic mezcal is essentially what people think of when they think of mezcal. Distilled exclusively from Espadin — the most common Agave in Oaxaca — this is one of the most widely available mezcals on the market. If you enjoy it neat, be prepared. The nose is pure smoke, with a punch you’re unlikely to find this side of Mike Tyson. Pour it in the glass and the scent tempers to something akin to a forest fire. On the palate that smoky flavor persists, front and center. Wash it over your tongue and let some of the heat burn off and you’ll taste notes of tropical fruits and citrus. But that’s why Vida shines in cocktails.
Bored of bourbon? Sour on scotch? Sub in Vida for those staid players and breathe new life into your favorite cocktails — this bottle is a must-have for the at-home craft bartender.
2. Vamonos Riendo Mezcal
Our newest favorite mezcal option is this triple-distilled, high-altitude option titled Vamonos Riendo. The brand officially released its first bottles into the United States on August 27, 2020, so this stuff is really the newest of the new in terms of mezcal. Unlike other mezcals, Vamonos Riendo is distinguished by a bright and loud flavor profile with only subtle hints of smokiness to broaden this mezcal’s horizon and make it more approachable amongst an array of palates. It’s handcrafted in small batches to be slow-roasted and distilled in the high-altitudes of the Sierra Madre mountains to ensure flavor stays just right and no taste is ruined per batch. Vamonos Riendo is really unlike any mezcal we’ve had before and it’s bursting with flavor.
3. Banhez’s Ensamble Mezcal
Banhez’s Ensamble Mezcal is a wonderful introduction to the magic that can happen when different varietals of agave are mixed by the hands of real Mezcaleros. Bahnhez is actually produced by a co-operative of families in Oaxaca’s central valley who are making their sustainable, fair-trade mezcal largely the old-fashioned way. This liquor is made in underground wood-fired pits, with donkey-pulled tahonas (heavy stone wheels that crush the cooked agave) and wooden fermentation tanks. The mix here is 90% Espadin and 10% Barril. Espadin gives you all the notes you’d expect — pineapple, banana and other tropical fruits — but the Barril overlays floral notes, lavender, vanilla and a hint of roasted nuts on the finish. This is bottled at a lower ABV than most mezcals so its easier to sip without the heat on the nose or front of the palate.
4. Montelobos Mezcal Joven
Montelobos boxes well above its weight in nearly every aspect, most importantly, in flavor. Don’t be put off by the slightly antiseptic nose of this bottle. That first whiff of the strong ethyl’s will give way to the smoked-pear-meets-limestone undertones contained within this complex artisanal mezcal.
Certainly, the first flavor you get is smoke, but it’s not overbearing like other value-priced mezcals. Instead, the smoke sets the table for one of the sweeter and lighter mezcals on the market. With sweet pear and brown sugar notes, this is a great introduction to mezcal. Even better, Montelobos has pledged to use only sustainable and traditional production methods, so you can feel good about your bottle while the mezcal makes you feel better about everything else.
5. El Jolgorio Tepeztate
El Joglorio has carved out a niche at the high end of the mezcal market, and deservedly so. Their bottlings are made in conjunction with storied Maestro Mezcaleros, and though flavors differ slightly from edition to edition (look for the mezcalero’s name, bottle number and batch size inscribed on every bottle) the excellence is unflinching. For the experienced mezcal drinker, this is an instant favorite. Tepeztate is a truly wild agave varietal with a 25 to 35 year maturation period. That time in the ground shows as Tepeztate mezcal is known for its vegetal and herbaceous notes. Joglorio’s bottling doesn’t disappoint. The nose is a heady mix of citrus, jalapeño and freshly cut grass; smoke is the fourth or fifth note you catch.
Pour this neat and settle in. That green, verdant nose floats out on the ethyls. On first taste, light, sweet flavors of cucumber and watermelon meld with piquant flavors of ginger, spearmint and eucalyptus, all delivered with the butteriest mouth feel outside of a wheat bourbon. When you finally swallow, Joglorio leaves you with the lingering flavors of cedar and dried tobacco. And that’s just the first sip. Let this one open up in the glass and prepare to be amazed by some of the best mezcal in the world.
6. Dos Hombres Joven Mezcal
If you’re looking for a mezcal that is delicious yet mixes well into fruitier cocktails, look no further than Dos Hombres. Dos Hombres is a fruit-forward treat with notes such as apple, mango, local zapote and wood. It goes down smooth as hell but has that smokey bite you love and crave in your mezcals. Dos Hombres takes their agave from hilly terrain areas in a remote hamlet in Oaxaca. It rains abundantly and the soil the agave is grown in is filled with a volcanic residue which helps make this mezcal so flavorful.
Because this mezcal bears many fruits, we suggest you sip this alongside a hard cider or into a classic cinnamon apple cider fall cocktail. It will be quite the fragrant beverage and a delicious one at that.
7. Ilegal Joven Mezcal
Given its name, you know there is probably a story behind Ilegal. And you’re right, there is. Back when mezcal was strictly prohibited to leave Mexico, bar owner John Rexer would find ways to “creatively” bring mezcal from his favorite villages in and near Oaxaca down to his bar in Guatemala, unintentionally creating the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico. His bar quickly became a hit for having mezcal, but it was a risky business to bring it down. Rexer and his buddies were packing unlabeled mezcal bottles into duffel bags and packing them as luggage under their bus to hope inspectors wouldn’t notice as they smuggled booze across national borders. Eventually, Ilegal was created by Rexer as an ode to his past and his “creative” mezcal shipping processes.
When sipping, you can expect a full agave flavor with hints of citrus, green apple and red chiltepe. You’ll obviously be getting that hint of smoke at the end, too, don’t worry. While we love this mezcal for its taste, we definitely suggest you at least give it a shot for the story and see what Ilegal is all about.
8. Yuu Baal Joven Pechuga
BEST FOR PARTIES
Lucky for us, there’s a style of mezcal custom made for celebrations, Pechuga. Often enjoyed at weddings, quinceañeras and other celebrations, this type of mezcal is usually Espadin-based. However, unlike other mezcals, this variety is distilled a third time. That third distillation usually involves the introduction of a batch of local fruits and herbs to the distillate, and the suspension of a raw chicken or turkey breast in the still so that all of the vapor must pass over the raw meat before becoming the final product. This means, as a rule, Pechugas are smoother and softer on the palette than normal mezcals. Real Minero — a family of Maestro Mezcaleros spanning generations — are among the world’s finest mezcal producers, and this is one of their most vaunted bottlings.
Open the bottle and just sit a moment. You’ll notice there’s almost no smoke here at all. The nose has the now-familiar Espadin tropical fruits, but there’s something else, a creaminess and meatiness that mixes with that fruit. A full whiff smells something like the most wonderful tapioca pudding cooking alongside a rotisserie chicken. The mouthfeel is full, fatty and unctuous; flavors run the gamut from black tea, clove and cinnamon to berries and orange cream. This is absolutely a mezcal to share, and your friends will never look at you, or mezcal, the same again.
9. La Venenosa Puntas
Now you’ve arrived at the pinnacle of mezcal knowledge, and like the watch collector who wears his Patek 5960 with jeans, it’s time for the subtle flex, the bottle that shows you know so much about mezcal that you don’t even need to show how much you know. Enter La Veneneosa, the mezcal that is and isn’t mezcal. Venenosa is a Raicilla, a mezcal by another name, produced in Jalisco. Raicilla is underground mezcal, so named to avoid taxation by the Spaniards during the 18th century. La Venenosa’s most prized bottling is Puntas, which is distilled from the upper portions of the agave hearts.
Open the bottle and you’re transported to Mercado Jamaica, Mexico City’s 24-hour flower market. Rosehips, lavender and vanilla flavors permeate the air. Draw closer to the bottle — and though it’s bottled at a stratospheric 63% ABV — there’s no alcohol on the nose at all, a theme that persists through the entire experience of this bottle. Pour it in the glass, neat, and take a sip that contains notes of creme brulee, vanilla bean, nectarine, peach and pear. The flavors dance across your palate with never a wrong foot. This is arguably the most subtle, complex and elegant bottle on the market. The alcohol never burns; instead, it is a vehicle to convey this complexity. Block off an evening, put on your favorite Miles Davis album and simply float away with this unparalleled bottle. And, if you’re feeling generous, bring a friend.