No longer relegated to riding the coattails of its agave-based sibling tequila, mezcal has captivated an audience eager to experiment with its many varieties. For most drinkers, this exploration takes place in the form of cocktails formulated with craft mixers that lend themselves to the various flavors of the spirit. A combination of intense earthy notes and unmistakable smoke, cocktails require a delicate balance to properly showcase mezcal’s unique flavor profile.

To better understand how to achieve that balance, we turned to New Orleans-based Palm & Pine’s bartender Kimberly Patton-Bragg for advice.

First and foremost, quality ingredients and measurements are crucial to building a memorable drink. “Whether it’s stirred or shaken, figuring out the best proportions will ultimately enhance and honor the spirit,” Patton-Bragg says. Agave spirits are among the few that express terroir. Combined with the charred tones imparted from the production process, this gives mezcal a smokey taste reminiscent of Scotch whisky.

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For those who are new to the spirit, Patton-Bragg suggests using a classic cocktail as a skeleton to build on. In fact, its adaptability is one of the traits that make mezcal such a fun spirit to work with. Similar to the role that transitional clothing items play in one’s wardrobe, mezcal seamlessly fits into familiar cocktails such as a Paloma or Negroni. In these non-agave drinks, mezcal adds a subtle smoldering flavor without overtaking the cocktail’s traditional taste.

Understanding the differences between the agave spirits can also help guide drinkers when experimenting with mezcal. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from over 30 different types of agave grown all across Mexico. Before choosing a mezcal for your cocktail, consider the region it was produced in, as that will ultimately drive the flavors and characteristics expressed. For example, a mezcal from southern Oaxaca will have earthy, fruity notes, while one from Puebla will have ​​more herbal and mineral-rich notes.

“Start by tasting the types you’re considering drinking on its own,” Patton-Bragg says. This will help you decipher its subtle or not-so-subtle flavors and guide you to what mixers will work best. “If you are not a fan of the intensity, going more tropical is a good way to even that out,” she says.

As for weeding through the vast selection to find the perfect bottle, she suggests sticking to flavor profiles rather than hyped-up brands. “I don’t think you need to spend a ton of money to make a good cocktail,” she says. “There are some great moderately priced mezcals out there that are delicious with fresh citrus and tropical fruits like pineapple and guava.”