If you've visited a cocktail bar within the last ten years, chances are that you’re somewhat familiar with mezcal. Many know that the spirit is similar to tequila, except smoky. So, let’s clear things up.
Tequila is a type of mezcal made from one species of agave (blue weber or agave tequilana), but at least 50 species of agave have also been used. Up to 250 agave species exist in nature, giving mezcal the potential to be one of the most diverse spirits in existence.
Each agave has a different lifespan, character, and flavor. Terroir also influences it's flavor dramatically—more on that later. Mezcal can be produced in only ten of Mexico’s thirty-two states due to its denomination of origin (DO), which defines the rules and regulations of production, certifications, regions, and labeling of a specific mezcal. (Although it's been produced in other states unofficially for hundreds of years.)
Mezcal gains its signature smoky character (which can range in intensity) from its production method. The piñas, or agave hearts, are cooked in underground pits and trapped in smoke. This differs from tequila’s traditional production method of oven-roasting the piñas, which is why most tequilas lack this smoky character.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are 10 reasons why mezcal should be the next spirit order.
Mezcal Is the Most Terroir-Driven Spirit
Terroir (meaning the climate, soil, and a maker's personal impact) is not something many people think about when drinking spirits, but its relevance to mezcal is difficult to ignore.
“The concept of terroir gets brought up a lot with wine, but oftentimes is neglected in the spirit world,” says Jena Ellenwood, New York-based bartender, writer, and cocktail educator. “In mezcal you can taste the terroir—you can experience the wild yeasts, the nuances of the other plants growing around the agave, you can smell the memory of the roasting process, feel the texture of the water used to cut it and bring it down to proof, have a moment with the earth that created everything that went into that bottle.”
There Are Many Different Mezcal Flavors
“Mezcal also is one of the best representations of terroir in spirits, the agaves really absorb so much from the soil, where its grown, and what other plant life that they grow around that on their own they produce so many interesting flavors from village to village,” says Matt Gumm, a Portland-based bartender. “You can taste so much of the area around where it is produced, that it adds another layer to the flavors.”
With each village and region contributing to such a unique flavor profiles, it’s important to taste the same varietal —like espadín, for example—to gather a better understanding of the genuine influence of terroir.
“I always suggest beginning with espadiín mezcales, because this is the most abundant agave variety and it is easily reproduced,” says Camille Austin, Global Portfolio Ambassador for Casa Lumbre Spirits. “It is great to taste espadíns from similar regions but different producers to understand the diversity in regional customs and climates. I would also throw a few blanco tequilas in the mix to understand the presence of smoke from the underground firewood cooking technique that is typically used in artisanal and ancestral mezcal production.”
Mezcal-Making Is a Labor of Love With Rich History
Unlike most tequilas, mezcal is often hand-crafted in single villages by families who employ traditional production methods passed down for generations, often using almost 100 percent manual labor.
“Mezcal and agave spirits are a direct reflection of the past coming full circle with the current times we are living in,” says Austin. “Agave spirits are a slow drink, they take time, nature and physical labor to make. Mezcal, with much of today's production mimicking how it was produced centuries ago, uncovers an aspect of Mesoamerican history that we are only in the past several years beginning to discover. The aromas and flavors of the beverage allow us a peek into the lives of its people and origins of the past.”
“I also think it’s really important to talk about the time and the hands that went into creating the spirit—agave takes between eight and 20-plus years to mature, and some of them are so small that it takes a ton to make one bottle,” says Ellenwood. “Palenques [growers] that replant for every agave they harvest are so important, as is the necessity of paying workers fairly for their time and their land. I stress that concept a lot in my class, the price reflects so much of the ethics surrounding the spirit, as it isn’t an easy or quick spirit to produce.”
It Tastes Different Than Practically Anything Else
While most spirits are aged post-production, all mezcal aging is done during planting, resulting in flavors that are unique and unlike anything else.
“Specifically with mezcal, it has a lot of unique herbal, smoky and vegetal flavors you don't really get with other spirits, and certainly not in the same combinations you find them in mezcal,” says spirits writer Jason Horn. “It's a great spirit for ‘savory’ cocktails—it goes really well with things like tomato, carrot juice and spicy peppers—but it can also be really subtle behind fruit, bittersweet amari and things like that.”
Mezcal Is The 'World's Most Artisanal Spirit'
“Mezcal is the most artisanal spirit in the world,” says Alex Valencia, owner and bartender at La Contenta, NYC. “The mezcal you see today is made the same way it was made 200 years ago. Mezcal may be new for you, but it’s an ancestral spirit for Mexicans and is more than a thousand years old.”
It's Made In An Amazingly Hand-Crafted Way
While many spirit brands have large production teams and technologies to increase efficiency, mezcal’s artisanal production methods leave each mezcalero (mezcal producer) with a significant amount of manual labor to make their expression.
“I've always heard mezcal brand people talk about things like how their juice is distilled in a tiny clay still way up in the mountains by two old dudes and their burro [donkey], and I figured it was pretty much marketing B.S.,” says Horn. “But then I got to visit Oaxaca, and (in a lot of cases, at least) it really is these family-run palenques in out-of-the-way places crushing agave with animal-drawn stone wheels, firing up these quirky D.I.Y. stills and making really tiny amounts of mezcal.”
Drinking Mezcal Has Socioeconomic Benefits
Drinking mezcal made by ethical and sustainable producers can also be socioeconomically beneficial to their families, village, or community, as it provides reliable jobs for people who have, historically, not had many opportunities.
According to Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, a book by Emma Janzen, “[Mezcal provides] an important economic improvement for states like Oaxaca, where 70 percent of the population lived beneath the poverty line in 2014.”
Iver Saldaña of Montelobos Mezcal believes that using cultivated agave, as opposed to wild agave, is the first step towards sustainability. "'Using cultivated agave is a key approach in which each agave plant used is replaced with many more new agave plants,'" Saldaña said in a recent Forbes article. "This way, the producer can ensure that each agave is sustainably-grown, useful both for projecting future harvests and lessening the impact of removing a living plant from an active ecosystem," author Ali Wunderman explained.
Justin Lane Briggs, mezcal consultant at The Cabinet in New York, adds, “If you spend your money wisely, with respectful and conscientious mezcal producers who are protecting the heritage and the future of the category and the community... Well, there aren't many spirits you can buy that can have as powerful a direct impact on people and their living conditions."
"We won’t have some agaves in the future if we don’t take care of nature,” points out Carmen Lopez, brand ambassador for Wahaka Mezcal. “Allowing agaves to bloom will ensure propagation by seed, translating in happy bats and in general ensure the survival of pollinators.”
Something to note: As mezcal’s demand increases, it’s important to be educated and drink expressions from distillers that are transparent with their production methods. Industrialization is also a potential threat for this rapidly growing industry, and supporting artisanal makers is key to maintaining mezcal’s integrity and quality.
Mezcal Is Endlessly Complex
“It's endlessly complex; maybe it's just me, but I can nurse a couple ounces of good mezcal for an hour and keep on finding new flavors and aromatics in the glass. It will evolve in the glass, just like any fine wine,” says Briggs. Between the various production methods and the terroir, every glass of mezcal will express its own character that can range from flavors of tropical fruit to wet stone and more.
It's Deeply Tied To Mexican Tradition and Culture
“Mezcal for hundreds of years has been an invaluable part of the cultural life of the people of rural México,” says Michael Rubel, general manager at Estereo in Chicago. “They grew Maguey in the same way they would grown corn or beans, and they typically planted them in rows right next to each other for the good of the soil. Traditionally, mezcal was made when there was a quinceañera or a wedding in your village and you went out and picked what was ripe - you didn’t worry about exactly what kinds they were.” Still to this day, mezcal is imbibed during all sorts of celebrations and rituals and remains a revered spirit.
Mezcal Keeps the Party Going
“The agave plant as a raw material to make spirits has been on this continent for millions of years and is one of the most complex that exists,” says Austin. “It is a plant that is made up of many organic compounds, or terpenes, commonly known as essential oils, that lend to the herbal, citrus and fruity flavors, as well as the 'magical' feeling we get when we drink mezcal.” Valencia echoes that point, stating: “Mezcal is also an upbeat spirit that gives you a euphoric feeling.” This is true in moderation, of course.
Four Entry-Level Mezcals to Try: