Mezcal’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, but it’s not a new spirit. It’s been made for hundreds of years from the heart (or the piña) of the agave plant. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from any of the 200-plus types of agave out there, Mezcal Ph.D. writes. More than 1,000 mezcal producers in eight states distill the spirit, and many still use traditional methods.
When you find a mezcal you like, cherish it. It takes eight years for commercial agave plants to mature, and each plant yields around five liters after distillation. The piña is cut out, put underground and smoked before being distilled. Then comes the aging: three months to two years in oak.
Sound appetizing? Here are some producers you should know that have a relatively large distribution.
Wahaka regularly makes five different types of mezcal from three different types of agave. There are single- variety options and mixed, joven (aged zero to two months) and reposado (aged two months to a year). Wahaka also puts out limited- release bottles, so keep an eye out.
Ilegal is one of the more widely distributed mezcals on the market and has a decade-long history of “smuggling and weeklong parties,” it writes on its website. It’s easy to find and belongs either neat or in a cocktail. Ilegal has joven, reposado and an añejo, which is aged for 13 months.
Los Amantes, which means “the lovers” in English, also offers a joven, reposado and añejo. It’s baked in stone ovens, and then the toasted piñas are ground by a stone mill powered by horse. Los Amantes is about as traditional as it gets.
Don Amado naturally ferments its mezcals, then double distills in ceramic pot stills. It makes some mezcal in the traditional method with smoked wood, but also offers a mezcal made in a stone kiln that has less of a smoked flavor.
Montelobos is 100 percent certified organic and made in a traditional manner with fire pits, mule-drawn stone wheels and wood-fire copper pots. Despite the small-batch, traditional method it’s made in, Montelobos won’t completely empty your pockets.
Zignum is primarily a mixing mezcal, which is perfect for people new to mezcal. Swap out tequila for Zignum and you’ve got yourself something familiar, but just a touch different. Mezcal purists probably won’t approve, but it’s hard to argue with a drink that can serve as the middle ground between the familiar and the unknown.
Unión, like Ilegal, has a pretty wide distribution. There’s a joven and a viejo (old), but both are as clear as day. Drink it neat or in smoky cocktails — but keep in mind that it’s a balanced Mezcal and you’re missing out on some of the nuance when it’s mixed.