With its vegetal smokiness, mezcal is often considered the scotch drinker’s tequila—or maybe it’s the tequila drinker’s scotch. Perhaps that explains why, as we enter scotch-sipping season, this underexposed agave distillate is starting to appear on the menus of forward-looking cocktail bars, and on shelves at more and more liquor stores. Another reason is that, after decades of village mezcaleros employing traditional methods of production and distribution (i.e. unmarked bottles of small batch hooch, delivered by hand), a handful of distributors have started making top quality mezcal available north of the border.
So what, exactly, is mezcal? First, to clear up a couple of misconceptions: No, you won’t see God when you drink it, and the the worm is a gimmick best avoided. The category covers all spirits produced from the cooked piñas (it means “hearts,” gringo) of agave plants, including—just barely—Cuervo Gold. And while tequila (named for the town where it was first produced, kind of like Mexican Champagne) is made only from blue agave, mezcal can be sourced from all agave varietals, wild and cultivated, which means a much wider array of flavors is possible. Most importantly, tequila is made by steaming piñas, while mezcal agave is roasted in earthen pits, which impart a complex, smoky flavor that’s a world away from the tequila shots you knocked back with Turtle, E, and the boys in your most recent nightmare. Of the seven mezcal-producing Mexican states, Oaxaca is the capital; here are a few of our favorites from the region, organized from most approachable to most challenging.
After that preamble about smoke and earth, there’s this: Fidencio Mezcal, which, unique among brands we’ve tried, is produced sin-humo (without smoke). Fourth generation mezcalero Enrique Jiménez, striving for the purest expression of his agave espadin—the most common varietal used for mezcal—roasts with a neutral heat oven. Like most mezcals out there, it’s a joven, or blanco, but this is unusually fine, delicate stuff; like the lovechild of white corn whiskey and sweet agave pulled straight from the ground.
Del Maguey, Chichicapa
Ron Cooper, American artist and mezcal ambassador, set a very high bar when he brought his Del Maguey (maguey=agave) mezcals north of the river in 1995. Passionately invested in mezcal culture, Cooper sought out and bottled a collection of superior mezcals, most of them named for the Oaxacan village from which they hail. Chichicapa, located in a high desert valley, was Cooper’s first import—it’s a deliciously smoky and complex spirit, flush with lime, mint, guava, and pipe tobacco. Islay whisky fans will be easy marks for this elixir (as were we). Bonus: Del Maguey labels all showcase original work by Californian artist Ken Price.
Del Maguey Tobalá
Unlike the Chichicapa, Tobalá—emphasis on the last syllable—is named not for a village but a rare type of wild agave that grows only in high altitude canyons, under protective canopies of oak trees. Tobalá piñas are small; it takes a bunch to equal the output of one espadin plant. And according to Ron Cooper, attempts to farm it have resulted in lackluster liquor, so production remains extremely limited (this may be exacerbated by the fact that, during roasting, Del Maguey’s tobalá hearts remain buried for an entire month, instead of the usual three to five days). There are only 600 bottles of the current vintage, and you should make room on your bar for one of them. Honeydew, sweet pepper, clove and—we swear—Juicy Fruit stand out in this entirely unique libation. It’s hard to classify, and unlike anything else.
Ilegal’s gringo owners used to smuggle jerry cans of homemade to their bar in Guatemala, hence the name, but the special thing about this particular one is that they let it mature. The age of a mezcal is denoted like that of a tequila (joven/blanco, reposado, añejo). Of course, the cooking process creates such distinct and flavorful juice that wood seems almost unnecessary (mezcal isn’t just roasted; it’s traditionally distilled in clay or copper pot stills over an open wood fire, whereas tequila is usually made in steam-heated stainless steel). Still, there are some outstanding aged mezcals, and of those Ilegal Añejo is the champ: rich but gentle, full of mellowed smoke, butterscotch, tar, bitter chocolate, and fruit. Illegal’s owners tried hundreds of mezcals before finding their winner, and the resultant liver damage was not in vain—this beautiful hand-numbered bottle might just be our new special occasion tipple.
Sombra is, to put it mildly, unusual, but we can’t leave it alone. It smells like it might have been roasted with a gym sock and filtered through an old gas tank. (But, you know, in a good way). There’s plenty of smoke and citrus on the tongue; it’s certainly not a candidate for Baby’s First Mezcal, but it’s a rewarding tipple for the seasoned drinker. Hailing from San Luis Del Rio, high in the Oaxacan sierra, Sombra is roasted with mesquite in place of the usual oak, bottled at 90-proof in bottles of hand blown recycled glass and decorated with art from soft core Mexican comics (censored, but still). In short, Sombra is one mean hombre. We imagine Anton Chigurh, psychopath from No Country For Old Men, kept a bottle next to his air gun.