Drinks

Mezcal Is So Much More Than You Think

The spirit is much more than tequila's smoky cousin. As these bottles — and cocktails — prove, there’s a lot worth discovering.

The thing that makes mezcal so rewarding to explore — the sheer variety of flavors to be found — is also what makes it a bit daunting to navigate. Especially with so many new mezcal brands constantly popping up. According to a recent report on the global mezcal industry, the $241 million per annum market will double over the next six years. So if you’re not already acquainted, now is a good time to dip a toe.

The word “mezcal” is derived from the Aztec word for “cooked agave,” and it’s defined as any agave distilled liquor. In terms of the differences in mezcal vs tequila, tequila is a type of mezcal made in specific regions and always with the specific blue (azul) agave plant. What we refer to as mezcal is made using other types of agave plants, such as Espadín and Tobalá. Tequila and mezcal are also produced differently: tequila is steamed in ovens, then distilled in copper pots, whereas mezcal is typically roasted with charcoal and wood fires in earthen pits lined with lava rocks and then distilled in clay or copper pot stills. The fire-roasting gives mezcal its distinctive (and sometimes divisive) smoky character.

To better understand what makes mezcal different from tequila, and how it plays with other ingredients in cocktails, I reached out to Robert Simonson, cocktail writer for the New York Times and author of several spirits books including Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for the Golden Age of Agave, as well as the cocktail-centric newsletter, The Mix with Robert Simonson.

Simonson compares the mezcal craze today with the single-malt Scotch craze in the 1990’s. “They are both bold spirits with strong, challenging flavors that are very closely connected with their places of origin,” says Simonson. He also adds that people associate both spirits with artisanal practices and authenticity, “rightly or wrongly.”

Here, with Simonson’s help, are six interesting mezcals that cover a range of what the spirit can offer.

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Two Mezcal Cocktails to Try

“The critical difference [between mezcal and scotch] is that mezcal can mix, and has fostered a cocktail culture,” says Simonson. “If you like what customers like to call a ‘spicy Margarita’ or ‘spicy Paloma’— and many, many people do these days — make these classics with mezcal, because even if it’s more expensive, the substitution pays off in terms of flavor.”

Aside from classics normally associated with tequila, here are two specifically mezcal-based cocktails that Simonson recommends.

1. The Naked and Famous

The Naked and Famous is a spin on the Last Word cocktail, mixing mezcal with Aperol, Yellow Chartreuse, and fresh lime juice. “Use Del Maguey Chichicapa, as the drink was originally created by bartender Joaquin Simo, and you will notice a definite improvement in the cocktail,” says Simonson.

Ingredients

Directions

Shake and strain into a chilled couple glass.

2. The Camarón Cocktail

Simonson came up with the recipe for the Camarón Cocktail, which uses both tequila and mezcal, and he says that it’s “a good illustration of how agave spirits work together.”

Ingredients

  • 1 oz. tequila
  • 1 oz. mezcal
  • ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
  • ½ oz. Orgeat

Directions

Shake and strain into a chilled couple glass.