Navigating the Mezcal Maze

Mezcal is a complex spirit that can be made from over 50 different agave plant species. Here are 11 recommended bottles to guide you through this category.
Photo courtesy of Rey Campero / Facebook

Mezcal is the most complex spirit in the world,” begins Mezcal, a new book on the subject by Emma Janzen. Certainly, it’s a most complex category, as we found sorting through this month’s reviews.

This agave spirit from Mexico, often described as a smoky, rustic cousin to Tequila, has seen quite the explosion as of late. With demand on the rise both in bars and on retail shelves, production more than doubled between 2011 and 2016, Janzen notes.

Mezcal can be produced from more than 50 different species of the agave plant, and it’s become more common to see single-agave (or single-maguey) bottlings.

For consumers, this is amazing news. Even just a couple of years ago, if you wanted to sample mezcal, you only needed to know one label: Del Maguey, the first company to bring mezcal to the attention of North American drinkers. (While not reviewed this month, Del Maguey’s excellent bottlings remain among our highest scores for the category.) But now? The number of mezcal brands on the shelves has increased considerably.

Real talk: It’s great to have so many options. But it can also be incredibly confusing. Many brands offer multiple agave varieties. Mezcal can be produced from more than 50 different species of the agave plant, and it’s become more common to see single-agave (or single-maguey) bottlings. Of these, versatile espadín remains the most commonly-distilled variety.

However, expect to see more labels marked with the word ensamble—or a “blend” of agave varieties.

Today, the complexity of blends is what recommends them, as in Bozal’s Ensamble bottling, which mixes three agave types: herbaceous espadín, honeyed Mexicano and the dry, mineral qualities of barril.

In addition to different varieties, you might see various regions on labels too. A handful of barrel-aged mezcals also are trickling into the market, akin to Tequila’s reposado and añejo designations. And don’t forget about complex, savory pechuga mezcals, infused with fruit, spices and sometimes meat during distillation.

11 Top-Notch Reposado Tequilas

Don Amado Reposado (Mexico; Hass Brothers, San Francisco, CA); $60, 96 points. You don’t see too many barrel-aged mezcals, and this one is a beauty. Four months in used brandy casks gives this espadín mezcal a straw hue and enticing, well-integrated layers of dried apricot, honey, sherry, gingery spice and Scotch-like smoke. abv: 45%

Mezcal Real Minero Pechuga (Mexico; Heavy Metl Premium Exports, Austin, TX); $170, 94 points. The scent is rich and almost chicken-soup savory, while the rounded palate shows subtle honey-like sweetness at first, drying midpalate to leaner notes of menthol, rosemary and rubber. The long, lip-smacking finish brings back honey, this time mingled with light smoke and cayenne sparks. abv: 51.7%

Bozal Mezcal Tobasiche (Mexico; 3 Badge Beverage, Sonoma, CA); $80, 93 points. Showing just the faintest straw tinge in the glass, this single-maguey mezcal offers a zesty dried-herb scent. The palate also shows plenty of dried herb flavor, plus hints of tomato, citrus peel and a strongly smoky midpalate, finishing with a minty fade. abv: 47%

Mezcales de Leyenda Puebla Mezcal (Mexico; MS Walker, Norwood, MA); $85, 93 points. Showing a faint straw tinge in the glass, this is a mild but complex mezcal. It opens with a waft of mesquite-like savory smoke, plus hints of cumin, black pepper and coriander. The finish is clean and brisk, with citrus, white pepper and a touch of vanilla. abv: 47%

Rey Campero Mezcal Joven (Mexico; Heavy Metl Premium Exports, Austin, TX); $53, 93 points. Brash and complex, look for bright bell pepper and fresh basil aromas. The mouthwatering palate also shows plenty of bold vegetal notes, drying to rubber, a moderate amount of smoke and a spicy flicker of cayenne on the finish. abv: 48%

Gracias a Dios Mezcal Tobalá (Mexico; Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, New York, NY); $75, 92 points. Look for delicate hints of white floral and vanilla in the nuanced, slightly sweet aroma. On the palate, light sweetness is chased by smoke, finishing with a citrusy, fresh herb lilt. abv: 45%

Wahaka Mezcal Jabali Joven (Mexico; Wild Agave Imports, Austin, TX); $95, 92 points. The aroma is deliciously savory, evoking zesty hints of tomato and dried herbs. The palate opens with fleeting sweetness, leading to rounded, smoky midpalate and a long finish tinged with menthol, spearmint and fresh rosemary. abv: 47%

Creyente Mezcal Joven (Mexico; Proximo Spirits, Jersey City, NJ); $50, 91 points. The aroma mixes honey and floral notes with a zestier zing. On the palate, the balance shifts, with bold zesty-savory notes coming forward and floral and mineral notes taking a more subtle role. A ribbon of smoke ties it all together and wafts into the finish. abv: 40%

Mayalen Mezcal Borrego (Mexico; Vision Wine & Spirits, Taunton, MA); $69, 91 points. Brisk and refreshing, expect a citrusy explosion on nose and palate, with waxy lemon peel and lemon verbena followed by pine, cilantro, fresh bay leaf and mint, plus a drying, lip-smacking finish marked by cayenne heat. abv: 49%

Mezcal Amarás Cupreata (Mexico; Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA); $60, 91 points. A savory-sweet roasted bell pepper scent leads the nose. The palate opens with a flurry of black and cayenne pepper; sweet smoke, reminiscent of cigar smoke, takes over midpalate, drying to a complex finish mingling smoke and peppery heat, wrapped with gentle almond sweetness on the warming fade. abv: 43%

Mezcal Santa Pedrera (Mexico; VOS Selections, New York, NY); $50, 91 points. The aroma suggests roasted peppers, comfortingly warm and bold. The silky, herbaceous palate evokes fresh oregano and mint. A gentle echo of roasted pepper sweetness joins on the exhale, accented by black pepper and mild smoke. abv: 46%

Sombra Mezcal (Mexico; Davos Brands, New York, NY); $30, 90 points. This smoky mezcal is reminiscent of peated Scotch. It opens with fleeting vanilla-almond sweetness and quickly accelerates into a smoky midpalate, finishing with menthol, black pepper and an earthy hint of dark chocolate. Sip or mix. Best Buy. abv: 45%

Viejo Indecente (Mexico; Park Street Imports, Miami, FL); $60, 90 points. Complex, light and crisp, look for dried oregano, lavender and mineral-y wet slate. Mellow honey and vanilla sweetness is perked up by grapefruit peel on the drying finish. abv: 48%

Published on August 25, 2017
Topics: Spirits Ratings
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of Shake.Stir.Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made In Equal Parts (Chronicle Books, 2016) as well as ROAD SODA: Recipes and techniques for making great cocktails, anywhere (Dovetail Press, 2017). Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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