Clooney and Gerber are not the only estadosunidenses embracing mezcal. In the last five years, shipments to the U.S. have reportedly quadrupled. Mezcal’s market share is comparatively small — there were fewer than 400,000 cases in the United States in 2017, versus tequila’s 15.9 million in 2016 — but it is growing exponentially.
Due to its small-batch, hand-hewn production process, bottles of mezcal sold in the United States tend to be pricier spirits like Jose Cuervo ($21.59 for 750 milliliters) or Absolut ($22.99). Thankfully, there are some affordable bottles with wide distribution in the United States.
We blind-tasted an array of $50-or-less mezcals to determine the best bottle for your buck. For sake of consistency, all are joven, or clear and unaged mezcals. Prices are per digital retailers that are linked to the brand name.
A light, vegetal nose is followed by bright, lemony flavor and understated smoke. “This is a crowd-pleaser,” said one taster. It’s not the most mind-blowingly complex spirit on the market, but it does provide excellent value and versatility. It’s a solid sipper and a subtle team player in cocktails. Price: $34.95.
A single-village mezcal made from organically farmed agave, this is a very smoky spirit — a result of its production process, in which piñas are roasted underground and then crushed by tahona. It has a strong, boozy flavor, making Sombra an excellent option for those who love mezcal or peated Scotch, but unlikely to convert those who don’t. Winemakers Charles Bieler (Three Thieves Winery), and Richard Betts and Dennis Scholl (Betts and Scholl) launched the label in 2009. Price: $33.95.
A bright, grassy nose gives way to green peppercorns and tropical fruit on the palate (“I get pineapple, but, like, in the distance,” commented one taster), as well as subtle smoke. Friendly enough to be used in cocktails or sipped straight, this bottle provides great value for the money. Price: $39.96.
Made from organic agave, Montelobos’ joven mezcal is smooth, sweet, and gently smoky, like sipping rum next to a campfire. “As if someone down the street has a wood-burning stove,” one taster commented. We loved its subtlety and its balanced, smoky-woodsy sweetness. This is a great mezcal to sip, and would bring lovely sophistication to a Margarita. Price: $41.99
Made in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, this bright bottle skillfully straddles the line between accessible and complex. It has a bright, vegetal nose that reminded one taster of “fresh fennel,” followed by agave sweetness and hints of green peppercorns and smoke. Wonderful neat, it would also be lovely in a spirit-forward cocktail like a Negroni, or over ice with a squeeze of lime or expressed orange peel. Price: $49.99
Our favorite spirit for the money has a clean, vegetal nose and bright, fruity palate. The finish is smoky and long, “but in an enjoyable way,” a taster said. Smooth and elegant, this is an excellent sipper, and it plays well in cocktails as well. We would happily serve it with a splash of citrus on ice at a party, mix it into a Paloma, or sip it neat on the sofa with a good book (or, say, Twitter on a slow news day). Price: $49.99.