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There’s a curious thing happening in bars these days. A newcomer, mezcal, is supplanting old standbys like 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. Of course, there is alcohol involved, so no spirit can be truly considered to be healthy.
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. Geography and the type of agave used are important indicators as to what separates the two categories. Tequila can be made from just one type of agave called blue agave, or agave tequilana, and can be produced in five Mexican states. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from virtually any type of agave (and there are many), although espadin is the most common one used. And mezcal can be made in six Mexican states, with Oaxaca being the primary source.
So what is mezcal?
Mezcal is what happens when agave, smoke and hundreds of years of history collide. In short, mezcal is a Mexican spirit distilled from agave cooked in an oven. But that’s not all, because 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 resulting liquid is fermented and then distilled, usually twice, sometimes thrice for special bottlings. The final product is mezcal. It can be aged like tequila, but it’s usually bottled without seeing the inside of a barrel.
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. Be sure to try expressions made from different types of agave to see how that affects the flavor. 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. It is a single village product, meaning it’s made in just one location — in this case, San Luis Del Rio. 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
BEST FOR SIPPING
Our newest favorite mezcal option for sipping is this triple-distilled, high-altitude option titled Vamonos Riendo. Unlike other mezcals, Vamonos Riendo is distinguished by a bright flavor profile with only subtle hints of smokiness to broaden this mezcal’s horizon and make it more approachable to newcomers to the category. It’s handcrafted in small batches that are 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. Madre Ensamble
Ensamble means that the mezcal is made from a blend of agave, and in the case of Madre, cuishe and espadin varieties are used. The result is a nice combination of smoky and earthy, with some floral notes and a hint of herbs like sage. This ensamble is worthy of drinking neat or mixing in a drink, with an approachable but complex flavor profile. The brand also collaborated with DeVonn Francis of Yardy World to make Madre Mezcal x Yardy World Earth Salts, a trio of salts that incorporates Mexican and Jamaican flavors. If you’re in the mood for a Madre Mezcal margarita, try the Chile Salt on the rim for a spicy kick.
4. Montelobos Mezcal Joven
Montelobos punches 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 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 the category. 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. Código 1530 Mezcal Anecestral
Up until now, Codigo 1530 has been known as a celebrity brand (country star George Strait is an investor) that actually produces really high-quality tequila with a twist — the spirits are aged in wine barrels. And recently, two different mezcals have joined the lineup, Artesenal and Ancestral. The latter is an ultra-premium expression, a single village, small-batch release made from papalome agave. The techniques used to make this mezcal are very traditional, from leather fermentation vats and clay pot distillation. Look for bright fruit notes, along with citrus, vanilla, tobacco and a nutty finish.
6. Dos Hombres Joven Mezcal
BEST CELEBRITY BRAND
If you’re looking for a mezcal that is delicious yet mixes well into fruitier cocktails, look no further than Dos Hombres, a brand with the celebrity backing of Breaking Bad stars Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston. Dos Hombres is a fruit-forward treat with notes like apple, mango, local zapote and wood. It goes down smooth as hell but has that smokey bite you love and crave in your mezcal. Dos Hombres is produced 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 stuffing 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. This brings really interesting notes of fruit and spice to the palate, separating this from other mezcals you may have tried. 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. Clase Azul Guerrero Mezcal
Clase Azul is truly a luxury brand, with some of the most expensive tequila you can find on the market. Part of the reason is the handmade ceramic decanters that the liquid comes in, and the new mezcal follows the same path. The first expression, Guerrero, came out last year. This mezcal is made from papalote agave grown in the state the expression is named after, and the palate is light, citrusy, slightly smoky, and pops with subtle notes of grass and vanilla. The beautiful green ceramic decanter is adorned with a flower that is meant to represent the Fifth Sun, a pre-Hispanic god. This bottle is one of the most expensive you can find, which is why this is our pick for a mezcal flex that is backed up by the quality of the liquid.