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 13 of the best mezcals to drink right now.
13. Doña Vega Espadín
Launched in late 2019, Doña Vega is a relative newcomer to the category. Founded by PR professional Sonya Vega Auvray, the brand’s Espadín (one of two expressions it offers) is smoke-forward with subtler notes of sour pineapples and spice. This is an option that’s enjoyable neat but really shines when mixed in cocktails. Average price: $49.
12. 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. This is a bar cart staple. Average price: $38.
11. Sombra Mezcal Artesanal Reposado
This Espadín rests for six months in former Bordeaux wine casks prior to release. The aging is apparent throughout, lending green cedar notes to the nose, and vanilla and richness to the smoke-heavy palate. The clear influence of wine-soaked oak makes this an outlier in the category, but its flavor profile is undeniably enjoyable. Average price: $50.
10. GEM&BOLT Damiana Mezcal Artesanal
This Espadín expression is distilled twice with a brief period of oak maturation in between. The second distillation also includes the traditional Mexican herb damiana, which is said to produce a euphoric sensation and is typically taken as a stimulant. Its impact on the mezcal arrives in the form of invigorating botanical notes. With gentle smokiness on the palate, this is a great (if non-traditional) intro to mezcal, especially if you’re a gin drinker. Average price: $47.
9. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal Artesanal
Founded by Ron Cooper in 1995, Del Maguey is credited with fueling America’s modern infatuation with mezcal. Now owned by Pernod Ricard, the brand offers a range of pricy single-village and wild-varietal bottlings, but Vida is the one you’ll find behind most bars and in most liquor stores. Sipping neat delivers Espadín’s tropical fruit and slightly salty character, and its bold profile and price make it a great option for cocktail hour. Average price: $36.
8. Gracias a Dios Mezcal Espadín Reposado
Gracias a Dios Reposado is made with Espadín and rests in American oak for four months prior to bottling. The barrel aging has the effect of muting its smoky aromas, and adds vibrance and depth to its sweet and fruity flavor profile. Pleasant notes of smoke and spice emerge on the finish. Average price: $46.
7. Agua Mágica
The first 2,000-bottle run of this small-batch mezcal is set to launch in late May 2021. Comprising a blend of Espadín and Tobalá agave, those who snag a bottle can expect a perfumed bouquet and attractive flavors. Vibrant berries and violet petals lead the nose before giving way to charred green chile and refreshing cucumber on the palate. Average price: $65.
6. Montelobos Mezcal Artesanal Espadín
Owned by the Campari group, Montelobos is another widely available option and one that delivers well above its price point. Made with 100 percent certified organic Espadín, its floral and fruit aromas break out from the haze of smoke better than any other similarly priced alternatives. The palate is high-energy but also serves great depth of flavor, making it a go-to option for every occasion. If you’re looking to splurge, seek out the brand’s Tobalá expression. Average Price: $40.
5. Mezcal Amarás Cupreata Mezcal Artesanal
The Cupreata agave for this mezcal grows on high-altitude mountain slopes in Guerrero, and takes around 13 years to reach maturity. It has a strong vegetal core, with garden pea aromas seasoned with smoke and earth. Dazzling spice and complexity come to the fore on the palate, with a floral sweetness rounding things out on the finish. Average price: $58.
4. Lejana y Sola Mezcal Artesanal Joven
This Ensemble blends Esapadín with the rare Cuishe agave. Its profile matches bright tropical fruit notes with briny jalapeños and fresh flowers. A rich palate delivers spicy, textural complexity, with notes of smoke and flowers weaving seamlessly onto the finish. Consider this a sipper. Average price: $60.
3. Madre Mezcal
Another 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 the perfect introduction to the category. Average price: $45.
2. El Silencio Mezcal Ensamble
This Ensemble combines Tobasiche, Mexicano, and Espadín agave. Each is cooked, fermented, and distilled separately, with the former two varieties distilled once, and the Espadín distilled twice. The final blend serves complex floral notes and a sprinkling of chipotle. Though it arrives at just 40 percent ABV, this mezcal lacks no punch or concentration of flavor. For a cheaper option, El Silencio’s Espadín is also a great pick. Average price: $74.
1. Mezcal Vago Espadín By Joel Barriga
Arriving at 50.3 percent ABV, this Espadín packs a punch from the get-go. The dialed-up booze adds so much depth and concentration to its profile, with flavors and aromas spanning from botanical flowers to scorched earth and bright tropical fruit. This complex, sipping mezcal crescendos with a rich smoke finish and a delightful creamy corn note. And on the topic of corn: The brand’s Elote release is also a notable success. Average price: $56.