Mezcal is fast becoming the choice of tipple across the US, with its market surpassing that even of Mexico. However, there are many who confuse mezcal with tequila, its better-known cousin. Essentially, tequila is a type of mezcal. However, unlike tequila that's downed in shots, mezcal is its own creature and drinking it comes with its own "etiquette".
Before learning the proper way to drink mezcal, you should first understand the reasoning behind why mezcal is so complex. Both tequila and mezcal are distilled agave spirits made from the agave plant, a succulent from the lily family. The piña or heart of the plant is harvested once it is ripe to make agave spirits. This generally takes 7 to 14 years, but there are also some agaves that take up to 20 to 40 years. Despite being both categorized as agave spirits, they have many differences.
Mezcal can be made from about many types of agaves with each different agave accounting for its own distinct flavor profile. Meanwhile, tequila can only be made from blue agave, also known as blue weber agave.
In Mexico, there are eight states allowed to produce mezcal: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. About 90% of mezcal are produced in Oaxaca. Tequila can only be made in Nayarit, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and the vast majority in Jalisco.
To make mezcal and tequila, the piñas need to be cooked. For most mezcal, the agave heart is slow roasted in a fire pit in the ground filled with banana leaves, wood, agave fibers, and covered in earth. This results in the smokiness of mezcal. For most tequila, traditional ovens are used to cook the piñas. Companies with a bigger production may use an autoclave to steam it to speed up the process.
While most mezcal is left to naturally ferment, commercial yeasts are used for the fermentation of tequila.
As you can see, all the different factors and variables above contribute to the complex flavor profile in mezcal. There is a mezcal for every palate. Mezcal comes in a wide variation of different flavors due to the varying types of agaves used, regions the mezcal is produced, smokiness levels, and many more variables such as altitude, fermentation time, cooking time, etcetera. Made using pre-industrial methods, there are many variations in flavor.
If you have tried mezcal and decided mezcal is not for you due to its smoky flavor, keep trying! Mezcal comes in many flavors with different levels of smokiness. The smokiness can range from light to heavy. This smokiness comes from the cooking process where a fire is started at the bottom of the pit to cook the piña over several days to bring out the sugars resulting in a liquid that has a smoky fragrance and taste. Nothing else tastes like mezcal.
Combined with its smokiness at different levels, the mezcal experience can be floral, fruity, and earthy with tones of leather or even pine. Additionally, if you have had a super smoky mezcal, chances are you did not have a good quality mezcal as the strong smoky flavor is thought to be used to cover up the flaws in the mezcal.
To enjoy mezcal to its fullest, here are some tips to help you get started on drinking mezcal the right way. You would be surprised at how much more you will enjoy it!
Always start simple. Instead of reaching for the more expensive mezcal, try espadín, the most common type of mezcal. Espadín is available in a wide range of flavors, enough to keep you preoccupied for a while. With a neutral profile, espadín is easy to drink and is widely available at bars as it can be used in cocktails such as a Mezcal Old Fashioned. Some of the best brands for espadín include El Jolgorio and Del Maguey. Once you decide to move on to the next step in complexity, tobalà is a great option.
Like tequila, mezcal needs to be distilled twice. The first distillation or ordinario results in a 37.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). A second distillation is required to increase the alcohol percentage. Generally, the ABV in mezcal ranges from 36% to 55%. However, you should choose mezcal with a higher ABV as the higher alcohol content allows the aroma and flavors of the mezcal to shine. In the United States, many mezcal brands have a lower alcohol content, ranging from 40 to 43%. For mezcals with a higher ABV, look for Real Minero Largo or Jabali.
A great way to enjoy mezcal is to smell it. Dip the tip of your finger into your mezcal, put some on your palm, rub your hands together quickly, and cup your palm to your face. By doing this, the alcohol has evaporated and all that you are left with are the sugars from the mezcal, giving you a more pronounced sense of its aroma.
Unlike tequila, mezcal is best enjoyed in small sips. In fact, there is an expression in Mexico that mezcal should be kissed. For this reason, mezcal connoisseurs recommend sipping mezcal from shallow clay cups such as a copita or jicara.
Instead of a rocks glass, mezcal is traditionally served in copitas that can be made from a wide variety of materials such as glass, wood, or ceramic. The wide opening on top is great for you to get your nose closer to the mezcal, so you can smell and taste the complex flavors in it. Jicaras are made from hollowed out gourds from the Calabash tree. The natural plant fiber absorbs the fragrance of mezcal exceptionally well. Inexpensive and common in Oaxaca, you should definitely try mezcal served in a jicara at least once.
When sipping mezcal, do not swallow immediately. Instead, hold the sip of mezcal in your mouth and swish it around. The first sip can be a bit of a shock as it is intended to be a primer that neutralizes and gets your palate ready. Your subsequent sips will open up the flavors of the mezcal.
Salt helps to highlight savory notes and flavors in some drinks and cocktails. Since mezcal has complex flavors, it comes as no surprise that it is served with salt, but with a little twist as it is known as worm salt.
While you might be a little squeamish with the idea, insects play a huge role in native pre-Hispanic cuisine. Worm salt is made from larvae in the agave (Maguey) plant. This condiment comprises of ground up chiles, salt, and worms. These worms or gusanos del maguey come out of the plant.
Also known as sal de Gusano, worm salt is an Oaxacan specialty often described to provide an umami explosion. It is made by picking matured larvae, toasting them, and grinding them with Oaxacan chilies and sea salt. Traditionally served as an accompaniment to mezcal, it adds a smoky and savory note to your mezcal experience. Try it by sipping your mezcal and taking a bite of orange sprinkled with worm salt.
However, avoid mezcal with worms inside it as it is a good indication of a brand that is more focused on marketing instead of flavor. This marketing gimmick was intended to indicate purity or impart virility. Of course, the general public fell for the idea even if Mexicans themselves never drank mezcal with a worm.
Mezcal is best served at room temperature as it contains a lot of natural congeners. These are constituents that are byproducts of fermentation or distillation. They contribute to an alcohol's distinctive flavor or character and are responsible for some of its effects. By chilling mezcal, it dulls the congeners in it and takes away many of its flavors. For this reason, mezcal is best stored at room temperature and served without ice unless it is used in cocktails.
Unlike other drinks that are best with salt or lime, this is not the case with mezcal. Instead, mezcal is best with food. The complex smoky and savory flavors of mezcal are enhanced by slices of fruit such as an orange slice, guava, grapefruit, grilled pineapple, and sal de gusano. Drinking mezcal straight is also great with foods such as barbecued or stewed meat and mole. While some of these mezcal pairings may sound strange, try it before you decide!
Although some purists frown on mezcal cocktails, these are a great way to enjoy mezcal. A mezcal cocktail should bring out the best of the mezcal used by enhancing the aromas and flavors of the drink. Some of the best mezcal cocktails highlight the complexity of mezcal.
If you are interested in trying at making some of the easiest mezcal cocktails, swap out the tequila for mezcal to make a mezcal margarita (Mezcalita) or the whiskey or gin to make a simple mezcal old fashioned or mezcal negroni. For more adventurous options, try the rising sun, a smoky mezcal cocktail that builds on the grapefruit and fresh lime juice or mezcal sour, a sweet-tangy cocktail with a fluffy froth.
The best mezcal cocktails involve ingredients that enhance the spirit's flavors. A simple cocktail recipe to try is the Last of the Oaxacans, made from equal parts of green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, Espadin, and lime juice that is shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker and strained into a chilled glass. For a cocktail that works best for smoky mezcal featuring fresh vegetables, try Oaxaca Cooler or Health Kick. Those of you who prefer warm spices may revel in Little Devil or The Shaman.
Choosing a mezcal is subjective. Ultimately, it depends on your preferences as many factors come into play including the type of agave, distilling process, mezcal category, and aging process. More research is required if you have a selective palate. However, if you would like to jump in or are interested in trying the most popular choices, here are some of the best mezcals on the market you can buy.
As you delve into learning more about mezcal, it is inevitable that you will come across Del Maguey, a mezcal producer. Dubbed as the architect of mezcal's resurrection, it's founder Ron Cooper took 20 years to deliver 100% organic artisanal mezcal to the world. The visit to Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca in the early seventies sparked the dream to start his company. They are the first producer that credits their products where the product is made.
The majority of mezcal production is in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although there are many independent distilleries around the world are picking up on the trend, most village distillers have been producing mezcal for generations.
Known as palenqueros, they hold the freedom to produce mezcal using their ancient practices, a methodology known as the "single village mezcal" that dates back to pre-Spanish conquest times. Unlike any other, single village mezcals harness ancient organic processes that combine the local microclimates to create a taste and character that is unique to each village. Bottled with simple yet distinctive green bottles, Del Maguey mezcal is often thought of as being the purest available.
One of the most cost-effective and versatile mezcal for cocktails and for sipping, it has a fruity smoky flavor with hints of spice. It is the go-to for many bartenders making it easily found at bars across the country.
Known as a work of art in a bottle, Montelobos mezcal is available in four options. Try their espadin, a light Joven that features a balance between smooth and smoky. Their lower price tag is a definite plus for those who love mezcal cocktails. They also have the Ensamble, Tobalá, and Pechuga.
This producer is known for representing Candelaria Yegolé, a town located in the Southern Highlands in Oaxaca. Dedicated to the production of artisanal mezcal, the brand creates job opportunities for the locals. Some of their products include Espadin, Jabali, Madre-Cuishe, Mexicano, and many more.
Considered as one of the world’s finest mezcal producers, the family has been making mezcal for many generations in Oaxaca in small clay pot stills which are then rested for months before it is bottled. Besides creating the best mezcal, this producer is also involved in one of the largest diverse sustainable agave reforestation programs.