About a decade ago, mezcal had a moment. ‘Craft’ bars started offering mezcal old fashioneds, mules, and sours along with drinks featuring hibiscus and agave syrup. Of course, they were delicious, so the drinking public embraced tequila’s agave brother from another mother and the rest is history. That moment mainstreamed the once enigmatic spirt and now nearly every self-respecting home bartender keeps a bottle of mezcal on the shelf.
For the uninitiated, mezcal is not tequila though they are similar. They are both distilled from agave plants and labeled based on age: joven (blanco for tequila), or young = unaged; reposado, meaning rested, = barrel aged for two months but less than a year; and anejo, or old, which does more than one year in the barrel. But tequila can only be made in and around Jalisco from blue agave. While most mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, it can be made in 10 states from any kind of agave and called mezcal, though most expressions are crafted using Espadin. Some mezcal has an earthy, smokiness that makes it seem like a campfire roasted cousin of tequila; others are more floral.
Thanks to the mezcal moment 10 years ago coupled with the shifting tastes of consumers, we now have a staggering number of options when it comes to the spirit on liquor store shelves. Whether mixed into a cocktail or sipped neat, Mezcal is an excellent drink to have on hand. Here are eight mescals to try.
Vida Mezcal was one of the first widely available mezcals to market. It’s still easy to find, affordable, lovely to sip and a perfect mixer, which is why it’s a bartender favorite. Fruity notes play off smoked wood and a good amount of spice with a lovely undercurrent of agave.
For those who like a little smoke in their margarita, El Buho gives the classic cocktail a mezcal lift. El Buho, which means “the owl” in Spanish, is distilled entirely from Espadin agave. There’s a nice dose of vanilla, a pop of pepper, and an herbaceous tingle that all riff off the lime juice and agave sugar.
Back in 2004 when John Rexer was bringing mezcal down from Oaxaca to his Guatemalan bar Café No Sé, crossing the border with hundreds of bottles of the spirit was not exactly on the ‘up and up.’ Today there’s nothing ‘illegal’ about his mezcal. The Anejo is a treat. Distilled from 100 percent Espadin, the spirit is aged for 13 months in new American oak, giving this mezcal rich notes of chocolate, orange and spices.
Distilled from sustainably harvested Tobalá agave, this expression from the big name label is pleasantly sweet and herbal. Fragrant citrus notes play off basil and spice with a savory nutty finish.
Agave De Cortes is a subtle sipper and a perfect entree into the world of mezcal. The smoke isn’t too intense for uninitiated palates and the flavors are bright with a floral bouquet and a mouthwatering minerality that makes it lovely to drink before, during and after dinner.
Only launched last summer, Vamonos Riendo is a beautifully bright newcomer to the category. A blend of Tobalá and Espadin agaves, fruity and spicy it’s a brilliant mouthful of melon, pineapple and citrus playing off cocoa, mint and licorice.
This joven mezcal is one of the easiest to find from Del Maguey’s much lauded single village line. Hand-made in the village of San Balthazar Chichicapa, it’s a delightful tipple. Smoke swirls around a snappy lemon, pineapple, caramel with a subtle savory, salty vegetal finish.
Distilled from wild agave, if you come across a bottle of Pierde Almas Tepeztate Mezcal, snag it before someone else does. It clocks in at the legal maximum 110 proof and it’s a wild ride with layers of complex smoke, jalapeno and chilies pop along tropical fruits leading to a brined herb finish.