There’s plenty to love about mezcal, and not just because it may or may not be the liquor of the moment (honestly, we can’t keep up with that). If you love, or even like, tequila—and here are 12 reasons to fall hard—there’s a good chance you’ll get goosebumps for mezcal. The stuff’s still made with giant fire pits. And sometimes raw chicken breasts (see below). How can you not love that?
Truly the easiest way to approach mezcal is to look at the differences between it and tequila. They’re both made by fermenting the heart of agave plants, but tequila can only be made with Blue Weber Agave whereas mezcal can be made with upwards of 30 agaves. And unlike tequila, where the hearts are steamed and then crushed (sometimes in this really cool, ancient kinda way), the agave hearts used to make mezcal are fire roasted prior to fermentation. (Remember those awesome fire pits we told you about?)
The result is, no surprise, a smokier drink. Not necessarily campfire, Peat Monster smokey (though some mezcals can be smokier than others). But in every bottle, no matter how delicate, you’ll always find a tendril of smoke winding its way through flavors that range from hot green pepper, grassiness, citrus, spice, vanilla, florals, and well beyond. Yes, the price point for all that complexity will be a little higher, but if you love smoke (even if you don’t), it’s worth it.
A good, and usually pretty easy to find, starter mezcal. Not because it’s lacking in sophistication (Ilegal is definitely one of the more reliable brands) but because it’s less smoky than most bottles. A softer smoke hugs green agave and fresh citrus notes with a moderate dose of heat at the finish. Typically mid $40s.
As with tequila, a “reposado” mezcal has been aged for anywhere from 2 months to a year. This’ll get you some more golden notes, as well as hints of oak complimenting the smokiness. Notes of vanilla and citrus make it feel at once rich and bright. A bit more expensive than their Joven but a good foray into aged mezcals. (PS – A “mezcalero” is someone who makes mezcal. Easy enough, right?)
Fidencio Pechuga Mezcal – NOTEWORTHY SPLURGE
Pechuga mezcals are always going to be more expensive. And that’s because they use a very special, old process—hanging a raw chicken breast from the cap of the still for the third distillation of the mezcal. Yeah, it seems entirely random, but the thinking goes that the chicken breast for some reason helps to round out the final product. Here it’s enhanced by the addition of some fresh fruit (quince, apples, pineapple). You get some spice, tropical fruit, but also balancing earthiness and yeah, that je-ne-sais-quoi silky savoriness, which works really well with mezcal’s natural smoke. (Pechuga mezcal does not taste like chicken, FYI.)
Del Maguey Vida Mezcal – BEST BUY
A perfect entry level bottle: affordable (it usually doesn’t get over the mid $30s), beautifully made, and widely available. (The journey to get more mezcal into the States can be attributed to a few key people, but that’s another story.) Here you’ll get agave fruit, green and fresh, sliced into by a subtle smoke. An organic and single-village mezcal (meaning the agave is sourced in one village), as close to terroir in mezcal as you can get.
Usually somewhere in the $40 range, give or take, with lots of complexity and bang for your buck. Soft earthiness and herbs with the subtlest prick of spiciness and restrained smoke. A hint of sweetness and soft florals balance out the savory notes.
The name might make it seem like this is mezcal made in some beautifully run-down distillery, but it’s actually a pretty refined bottle. Made with estate-grown 100% Blue Agave (the only agave used in tequila production), it’s actually bottled at 94 Proof (that’s 47% ABV). You’ll get a slight alcohol burn lingering up with the smoke, but it’s not going to punch out your palate. That light smoke gives way to floral and citrus notes enriched with almost a little creaminess.
This one might be harder to find, but it’s an example of both how inspiring mezcal production can be (founder Cecilia Rios Murrieta was new to it, but simply fell in love with the stuff) and how important it can be to a community. But if you find a bottle, don’t just pick it up to support a company’s high standards. The joven has fresh heat and agave fruit, with tendrils of smoke picking up the high-ABV heat (this bottle clocks in at 48%, so sip nice and slow).
Los Nahuales Anejo Mezcal – BEST SPLURGE
If you find yourself falling for mezcal, you gotta try at least one anejo—aged for at 1 or more years. And you couldn’t do better than a bottle like this, which sees 2 years in French oak barrels, resulting in a mezcal with more wood and spice complimenting and even elongating the smoke. Green agave notes and fresh citrus are still there, but the overall impression is smoother and a bit richer.