Despite the comparisons regularly thrown its way, mezcal occupies a unique place among the world’s many distilled spirits.
Hailing from Mexico and made from agave, there’s an obvious tequila tie-in. Mezcal’s signature smoky, earthy notes will be somewhat familiar to peated Scotch drinkers, too. And the fact that it incorporates a range of agave varieties grown in various states across Mexico — rather than just the Blue Weber from Jalisco used in tequila — brings terroir into the conversation, and even places one foot in brandy territory.
But Mezcal is more than all of these comparisons — a distinct, complex spirit, ready to be enjoyed and celebrated in its own right. So where to begin?
VinePair’s complete guide to the different types of mezcal will arm any drinker with all the knowledge to decipher the information that features on bottle labels. But for a quick primer: Most of the widely available bottles come from the state of Oaxaca and are made using Espadín agave. This particular variety is easier to grow and more efficient during production than others used for mezcal, but don’t take that as a sign of inferiority. Finally, while aged reposado and añejo expressions exist — just as in tequila — the practice is much less common in mezcal.
Ready to continue the exploration with a bottle and glass (or clay copita) in hand? Here are 15 of the best mezcals to drink right now.
Best Mezcals For Cocktails
Agave de Cortés Mezcal Joven
Produced by the Cortés family, whose mezcal making lineage runs six generations deep, this 100 percent Espadín expression is made using an entirely non-mechanized (Mezcal Ancestral) process. Bright tropical fruit notes, a subtle hint of perfume, and a juicy berry finish ensure it will shine when mixed in cocktails. Don’t count out simple highballs or even sipping on the rocks. Average price: $40.
Cruz de Fuego Espadín
While included in the best mezcals for cocktails section this is equally deserving of its own category: best entry level mezcal. Priced at just over $40 — which really is as low as you should go when shopping for this spirit — it delivers all the hallmarks of a textbook Epadín: It begins with a cloud of woody smoke and a hint of BBQ; follows with underripe pineapple and green notes; and finishes a spiced agave pepperiness. No other bottle below $50 serves all of the above with the same definition and poise. Average price: $43.
Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Introduced to the U.S. in 2010, this mezcal is one of the few brands that benefits from national distribution thanks to a 2016 deal that saw Bacardí take on a minority stake. Easy to find and easy to enjoy, this Espadín-based unaged expression serves wafts of smoke and hints of apple, pepper, and earthy agave. Average price: $46.
Best Mezcals for Sipping
Pelotón de la Muerte Criollo
Part-owned by the Mexico-City-born chef Danny Mena, Pelotón de la Muerte offers four expressions made using traditional methods and mostly wild varieties. This 100 percent Criollo bottling intrigues from the get go, with red berries interacting with orange and crayon wax on the nose. Smoke integrates nicely throughout, while its 50.2 percent ABV content barely registers any heat. Average price: $49.
Madre Mezcal Ensamble
A blend of Espadín and Cuishe, this Ensemble serves rich doses of tropical fruit and bonfire smoke that weave from nose to palate. Its 45 percent ABV content amplifies the intensity of those aromas and flavors, which deliver a well-balanced drinking experience, and a great introduction to the category. Average price: $55.
Mezcal de Leyendas Maguey Verde San Luis Potosí
The term Maguey Verde refers to many different types of agave, depending on the production region. In San Luis Potosí, the origin of this bottle, the species in question is Agave Salmiana. And the word verde also captures its aromatic profile, which begins with clean aloe vera notes and only a suggestion of smoke. A lively palate dances between zesty citrus and grapefruit, with flecks of salty mineral notes providing an enjoyable seasoning. Average price: $57.
Nuestra Soledad San Luis del Rio
From San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca, and produced using Espadín grown at over 7,000 feet, this is a brooding, decadent mezcal. Mesquite smoke, leather, and poblano peppers engulf the nose and quickly wash over the palate. This one’s a sipper, for sure, and perhaps not the first bottle on a mezcal exploration. But its complexity and quality are undoubtable. Average price: $59.
Mal Bien Mezcal ‘Alto’ Isidro Rodríguez Montoya
The Mal Bien label offers a curated selection of small production mezcals from across Mexico. Made by Don Isidro Rodríguez Montoya and entirely from the Alto variety, this is a distinctly clean and mineral-driven mezcal that brims with tropical fruit aromas, while a surprising savory depth awaits on the palate. Sipping allows full appreciation of its nuance, but the temptation to mix excellent cocktails with this mezcal may prove too strong. Average price: $69.
Don Mateo de la Sierra Pechuga
Family owned and operated for six generations, Don Mateo de la Sierra is based in the western state of Michoacán. The recipe for its Pechuga mezcal typically varies by batch, and production usually sees ingredients such as venison, turkey, iguana, dried fruits, and spices suspended in fabric within the still. That visualization may not sound immediately appealing but the distillate’s goji berry and candied tropical fruit aromas, and intensely concentrated savory palate, are sure to win over all. Average price: $100.
NETA Espadin Ramón García Sánchez
NETA is another label that works with a local cooperative and small, family producers based in the valleys and hills of Miahuatlán, Oaxaca. This truly small batch Espadín, from Maestro Ramón García Sánchez, proves the variety can be so much more than a “workhorse.” Raw squash, candy corn, and pink flower aromas dazzle on the nose. Each sip lands bright, fruity, and tropical — almost colorful — with smoke weaving onto an everlasting finish. Average price: $110.
Del Maguey Tobalá
Del Maguey’s green bottles and colorfully illustrated labels instantly stand out on liquor store shelves and back bars. Most familiar is the brand’s widely available Vida expression, but the best experiences lie in its single village expressions, such as this Tobalá from Santa Maria Albarradas. Smoky aromas quickly pass, revealing dates and sugar snap peas. The palate awakens with tropical fruit and mineral saline notes before smoke comes full circle on the finish. Average price: $125.
Mezcal Macurichos Madrecuishe
From Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, this mezcal is made from Madrecuishe agave matured between eight and 18 years before harvesting. A heady nose opens with orange pith and grapefruit aromas, and a hint of waxy rocks. The palate walks a precise line of smoke and minerality, with subtle floral notes adding further color. Bottled at 48 percent ABV, each sip lands with extreme depth and intensity, before subtle nuances evolve on the lengthy finish of each sip. Average price: $129.
El Jolgorio Tepeztate Mezcal
Named after the celebrations and festivals — or jolgorios — that take place in the Zapotec mountain villages of Oaxaca, this label represents a collection of some of the finest mezcal producing families in the region. This bottling ranks as the finest expression we’ve tasted all year. Made from Tepeztate harvested at 25 years old, it is full of character and piercing in its delivery of aromas and flavors. Expect to be blown away by freeze dried raspberries, rose water, and neutral wood smoke on the nose. Then prep your palate for a wild and intense ride of smoke, minerality, and vibrant tropical fruit. Average price: $140.
Terms such as artisanal and hand made have long since lost their identity in the spirits realm — which is a shame for bottles such as this, because this Tobasiche mezcal is the real deal. Roasted in earth, mashed by hand, and ultimately distilled in clay ovens, the earthy, rustic charm of its nose quickly conveys the loving manual labor that went into its production. Smoke, and that same earthy character, soon part to reveal an enticing perfume, then lead to an attractive fruitiness on the palate. Average price: $140.
Produced from the rare Coyote agave in the Zapotec mountains of San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca, this is a phenomenally expressive mezcal. A dozen red roses seem to spring from the glass, with dried red berries soon following. White pepper on the palate tempers an alluring sweetness before the berries and flowers begin their charge once more. Smoke is an afterthought in this mezcal, though an enjoyable one that only adds to the experience. Average price: $160.