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.
Every product you find here is independently selected by our editors, writers, and experts. If you click a link on our site and buy something, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Simonson is a personal fan of Del Maguey mezcals. “Everything in the Del Maguey line is good and easy to find,” he says. And the Chichicapa is one he specifically recommends for cocktails. It’s made from certified organic Espadín agave, and named for the village where it’s made. Twice distilled in wood-fired copper stills, it’s smoky but also bright with top notes of citrus and mint, perfect for making your cocktails more interesting.
Made from Agave Marmorata (marbled agave) that has matured for 16 years before harvesting, unlike Espadín which is generally harvested at half that age. It’s crushed by a donkey-pulled wheel, and oak-roasted in a traditional ‘horno’ oven before double distillation in copper pot stills. This mezcal is smooth and delightful, with more citrus and floral notes than the smoke and ash bite you sometimes get with mezcal, and a melon-like finish.
This nuanced mezcal is mellowed by the three months it spends resting in contact with toasted French and American oak, which also gives it a pale amber color. It can stand up well to mixing in cocktails, but it’s also smooth enough to sip neat. Amarás is also focused on sustainability and replanting efforts and is entirely carbon-neutral
With a depth of flavor and richness that will appeal to whiskey drinkers, this añejo is aged for 13 months in American oak casks, leading to softer high notes and richer low notes. A perfect entry point to mezcal for those who prefer to sip their spirits neat, with subtle smoke and toffee undercurrents that make it both approachable and complex.
This blend of Espadín and Cuiche agave balances out the smoke and brighter citrus and floral flavors. It’s great for first-time mezcal drinkers, works well in cocktails, and I personally find that coating the rim of one’s glass with Madre’s exceptional Chile Blend earth salt and pouring a shot of Ensamble on the rocks is a must try.
Siete Misterios is another of Simonson’s favorite mezcal producers. Their Doba-Yej is named the word for Espadín in the native Zapotec language of Oaxaca, and it’s a well-balanced mezcal that will work well on the rocks for mezcal lovers, or in a cocktail for any audience.
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.
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.
Shake and strain into a chilled couple glass.
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.”
- 1 oz. tequila
- 1 oz. mezcal
- ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
- ½ oz. Orgeat
Shake and strain into a chilled couple glass.