“You have to know the agave and the area where the raw material grew,” Aleks Medina, bar manager of Sabina Sabe in Oaxaca, Mexico, says of the complexities of mezcal. This information gives you “an idea of what to expect before drinking.”
Each mezcal has an utterly distinct terroir, Medina says, reflecting the diversity of different agave varieties, how they grew and were harvested, and from the unique production methods of each mezcalero. Some mezcals are more vegetal, some are floral, and some are sweet and have notes of honey. Others are nutty, or earthy, or taste strongly of minerals.
Before joining the team at Sabina Sabe, Medina worked with Mezcales Sanzekan, a label in Chilapa de Álvarez, Mexico. He came to love and respect what mezcal means to its community, and the importance of sustainability and reforestation for the longevity of the category.
Admittedly, a person can spend years studying mezcal and still not learn everything there is to know; but Medina is eager to share his love for mezcal with beginners and experts alike. Here are his tips for appreciating everything mezcal has to offer.
Start with an Espadin or Papalote
“I would start by tasting mezcal Espadin (Agave angostifolia) from the central valleys of Oaxaca and mezcal Papalote (Agave cupreata) from the lower mountain of Guerrero,” Medina says. “These two states have the greatest mezcal tradition and, therefore, are the most representative at the country level.”
Espadin is widely available at bars because it is harvested relatively early, when the agave is between 6 and 8 years old. “It is a neutral profile, easy to drink and the best reference to discover the different flavors that [mezcal] can have,” says Medina.
“After the Espadin, continue with other wild varieties,” he says. “Something important to consider is the time that the agave takes to mature, because with more time of growth and maturation on earth the mezcal is more complex and interesting, since it absorbs flavors of the environment in which it grows.”
Try the same varietal across different regions
“All the agaves have different expressions, and the regions where they reproduce also bring different flavors,” Medina says, even if they are made with the same maguey.
By tasting the same type of mezcal across regions, and even within regions, you can get a sense of all of the category’s diverse flavors and terroirs. As with wine, or any agricultural product, elevation, soil type, and climate have impact on the flavors and aromas of different mezcals.
Look for high ABV
By law, mezcal must be distilled a minimum of two times to an alcohol level between 36 and 55 percent. Medina says that the range of 45 to 55 percent is where there is enough alcohol to allow the flavors and aromas of the mezcal to blossom and be experienced at their full potential. “It is in this range that the organoleptic properties of the drink can be better expressed,” he says.
Many brands available in the U.S are beneath this benchmark and typically sit around 40 to 43 percent. While there are some brands on the latter end of that range that provide genuine quality without losing flavor, such as Montelobos, the golden range Medina mentions is where the magic happens. He recommends mezcals such as Real Minero Largo, Rey Campero Espadin, and Jabali.
Sip it neat
“The best way to drink mezcal will always be clean, in small sips similar to small kisses, always accompanied by a little water to cleanse the palate and hydrate,” Medina says. “In this way you can appreciate the different flavors and aromas of mezcal.”
Get creative with cocktails
“Cocktail is a relatively new topic for mezcal,” says Medina. “It is a good tool to reach less risky palates; being a spirit of great complexity is not always easy for everyone.” While many bartenders will reach for a classic like the Margarita when substituting mezcal for another base spirit, Medina encourages people to be more diligent when using mezcal in cocktails.
“A cocktail based on mezcal should be a mixture that respects and enhances the flavors and aromas of the drink, so anyone who dares to make a cocktail should educate your palate to recognize the complexity of mezcal,” Medina warns. “My favorite cocktail [when mixing with] mezcal is a version of the classic Last Word, also known as Last of the Oaxacans.” This cocktail is equal parts mezcal Espadin, Luxardo Maraschino, Green Chartreuse, and lime juice — shaken and poured up in a coupe.