From citrusy and bright to dark and brooding, to laden with chocolate mole and laced with mesquite, this spirit category can have an almost unbelievable range of descriptors. And further flavor combinations can be even more startling: roasted meat, rubber and petrol; lychee, rosewater and bubble gum.
Such is the magical mystery of mezcal.
Mezcal is Mexico’s most traditional agave spirit, and perhaps its most nontraditional in terms of the drinking experience. It can surprise and delight with its extreme range, and it can show terroir like few spirits can.
For years, it was pigeon-holed as “smoky,” an easy way to differentiate its flavors from Tequila, which is also distilled from agave. But in reality, mezcal is so much more.
As Americans discover the palate-thrilling roller coaster ride that it can be, the spirit’s star is undoubtedly on the rise. Consumption of mezcal in the U.S. grew by 32.4% in 2018, according to UK based research firm IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, representing the largest gain among all spirits categories. Admittedly, that jump is from a relatively small base of 261,000 nine-liter cases, but it’s a dizzying trajectory nevertheless, and experts suggest there’s even more growth to come.
Tequila sales remain sizzling hot and dwarf those of mezcal—$3 billion in revenue reported in 2018 compared to mezcal’s $90 million—but the former’s rapid ascent has surely helped to catapult the latter onto consumers’ radars.
And so it comes as no surprise that liquor conglomerates are jockeying to add mezcal brands to their portfolios and get in on the action right now. Constellation Brands acquired a minority stake in Mezcal El Silencio earlier this year; Diageo purchased Pierde Almas in 2018; and Bacardi (minority stake in Ilegal Mezcal) and Pernod Ricard (Del Maguey) entered the mezcal market in 2017.
Bars, meanwhile, continue adding more and more mezcal bottlings and mezcal-spiked cocktails to their line-ups.
It’s impossible to ignore the groundswell of demand, particularly among those who have embraced Tequila and are eager give another agave spirit a try.
It starts with agave
The term mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl word for cooked agave, the paramount plant involved in the spirit’s production. While its tall, spiky green leaves are an iconic emblem of mezcal, it’s the piña, the rounded stem that resembles a pineapple, that’s used to make the spirit.
Once harvested, agave piña is cooked to soften the fibers and transform its starches into sugar. The agave is traditionally roasted, although some modern day producers choose to steam it to lessen the smoky character of the final spirit.
Mezcal vs. Tequila
Both mezcal and Tequila are made from agave, so what’s the difference between them? Basically, Tequila is a type of mezcal. While mezcal can be produced from up to 50 species of the agave plant, Tequila can be made from just one: agave tequilana Weber, or Weber blue agave. Additionally, agave that’s earmarked for Tequila is steamed in ovens, while the plant is often roasted in underground pits for mezcal, which can provide a distinctive smoky note.
The cooked plant then gets pulverized. A tahona, a giant stone wheel often drawn by a donkey or mule, is the customary way to crush the agaves. A growing number of distilleries have mechanized this process, which is less romantic, but certainly more efficient. Other smaller producers may use a mallet or machete to smash the cooked piñas.
Regardless of the compression method, the resulting pulp is fermented and then distilled into mezcal. A small number of mezcals are also aged in barrels.
How important is agave? Look at the label of a mezcal bottle. The level of detail is unmatched by any other spirits category. In addition to the brand and the name of the mezcalero who makes the spirit, the agave variety (or varieties) used to make the mezcal is often listed, as well as the state or region where the agave was grown. It’s easy to draw parallels with wine grapes and regions.
Terroir in mezcal
While it’s tempting to hone in on a favorite type of agave, experts point out that terroir matters, too. To be called mezcal, the spirit must be made in one of nine Mexican states: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas.
Some agave-based spirits are made in a mezcal style outside the regulated Denominacións de Origens (DOs), but they can’t legally be labeled as mezcal.
Where the agave is grown and harvested matters, but where it’s fermented and distilled is just as important. Quality mezcals are also always fermented with wild yeast, which can have a significant impact on its flavor and complexity.
Mezcal’s heritage is centuries old, but for many U.S. consumers, the story begins in the mid-1990s. That’s when Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, began to export single-village mezcal to America. Other mezcal producers soon also entered the market.
Cooper, a California native who started his career as an artist, spent three months during 1990 in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where he lived and made art.
“When not creating art during those three months, I traveled far into the countryside surrounding Oaxaca,” says Cooper. “About three days a week, I followed rumors of great, pure mezcals made by farmers, hours down dirt roads far from the capital.”
He loaded his pickup truck with mezcal samples, but U.S. customs would only allow one liter across the border.
By 1995, Cooper had begun to import bottlings to the U.S. But it wasn’t just any mezcal he was sourcing—these were artisanal spirits made by individual family palenqueros (producers) in old-style villages. Del Maguey became the first producer to credit the village where the mezcal is made, effectively creating the “single-village” designation for the spirit.
Bartenders then helped spread the word of mezcal through cocktails and straight tastings. In 2017, spirits giant Pernod-Ricard purchased a majority stake in Del Maguey.
Anticipating an agave shortage
Mezcal is quickly becoming a staple at U.S. bars, but some experts worry that the industry is growing too fast for nature to keep up. Potential agave shortages are increasingly a concern, which could also impact the Tequila industry.
“All alcohol starts life as sugar,” says Lou Bank, co-founder and executive director of SACRED, a Chicago-based not-for-profit corporation that uses education, advocacy and fundraising to increase awareness about mezcal and those who make it. Compared to other ingredients used to make alcohol, like grapes, wheat or even sugarcane, agave takes the longest to grow. The plant takes an additional four years at minimum to mature, with some varieties requiring decades.
“During that time, it’s building up all those chemical deposits that have flavors and aromas that make the end spirit considerably more complex,” says Bank.
No wonder a common expression among distillers is that “mezcal tastes like time.”
Danny Mena, a partner at Mezcales de Leyenda, an advocacy organization for mezcal producers as well as a producer in its own right, likens the rise of mezcal to that of single-malt Scotch. Prior to the 1960s, few Americans drank single malts. That changed in 1963, when Glenfiddich began to market its single-malt Scotch outside of Scotland. But demand soon outstripped supply, since good whisky takes time to age.
A similar fate hasn’t befallen mezcal just yet, says Mena. “We haven’t planted enough over the years,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we are decimating the species. But it means prices are going up.”
While American consumers are unlikely to welcome higher prices for mezcal, and such raises might slow the spirit’s market growth, an increase is good news for those who make Mexico’s indigenous spirit. The mezcal boom in the U.S. has strengthened the economies of small communities in Mexico where family producers have made mezcal for generations, says Francisco Javier Perez Cruz, founder of Unión de Productores Agropecuarios del Distrito de Ejutla de Crespo, a co-operative of small mezcal producers located in the central valley of Oaxaca.
“Mezcal is not only an alcoholic beverage,” says Perez via a translator. “For us, it’s part of the culture, part of the people, the history of Mexico. It’s an artisanal product.”
Like many, Bank frowns upon the so-called “industrial” producers that often employ mechanized processes.
“It’s hard to find beautifully handmade spirits,” he says. “There’s care and intention to them. There’s a heartbeat to it that isn’t in spirits that are industrially made.”
Bank suggests that consumers note the mezcalero’s name on the label of a favorite bottling and follow their work. To not know who makes your mezcal, he says, “is like raving about a restaurant and not knowing the chef.”
The popularity of Tequila may have helped crack the door open for mezcal, but the wild nature of the spirit is what brings consumers back.
“It started with people who have so much passion for the liquid,” says Mena. “People don’t want it to taste like a cross between rum and Tequila. People want it because it tastes like mezcal.”
A guide to agave varieties
Most mezcals tend to be made from a single agave variety, although a growing number of blends, or ensambles, appear on shelves. The following tasting notes, which span just some of the most frequently seen agave types, come from the book Understanding Mezcal (Prensa Press, 2019), by James Schroeder, also a partner/beverage director at Chicago mezcaleria Todos Santos.
“Espadín comprises most mezcal made for cocktails, as well as many excellent expressions for sipping,” says Schroeder. By comparison, single-variety mezcals made from more rare agave types can be considerably pricier, and many collectors save them for special occasions.
“This wasn’t always the case,” he says. “Palenqueros [distillers] create mezcal to be enjoyed, to be shared and to be experienced.”
A final note: Flavors in finished mezcal can vary widely, depending on where the agave is grown and how the mezcal is made, so consider this a baseline guide.
Names: bacanora, castilla, espadílla, espadín, pacifica, Weber blue agave
Regions: From Sonora across to Tamaulipas, all the way down to Costa Rica
Flavors: Can vary widely, depending where it’s grown, but generally, the roasted piñas are rich and reminiscent of baking spices and squash.
Names: papalome, papalometl, tobalá
Regions: Oaxaca and Puebla
Flavors: Tends to produce mezcal with sweeter, nutty and buttery flavors.
Names: barril, bicuixe, cuixe, largo, madrecuixe, tobasiche
Regions: Southern Mexico, specifically Oaxaca
Flavors: Cuixe, largo and tobasiche grow quickly and produce fewer sugars, which offers bitter, coffee-like notes or tart/earthy flavors. Madrecuixe, bicuixe and barril grow more slowly and amass more sugar, which produce brighter, fruitier and sometimes nutty flavors.
Names: arroqueño, blanco, coyote, sierra negra
Regions: Grows widely in Mexico, with concentrations along the South Pacific coast
Flavors: Can vary drastically. Mezcal made from the diminutive agave coyote can be deep and dark, while those produced from agave arroqueño, the largest and slowest growing of the bunch, trend toward piquant and green notes.
Names: blanco, cenizo, verde
Regions: Northern and Central Mexico, specifically the states of Durango and Zacatecas
Flavors: Earthy and mineral, which is indicative of the region’s arid climate.
Seven magnificent mezcals
Alipús San Juan (Mexico; T. Edward Wines & Spirits, New York, NY); $52, 94 points. This mezcal made from 100% espadín offers an inviting light coconut aroma. A fruity and smoky core of charred pineapple, burnt orange peel and coconut winds into cinnamon sizzle, hitting all the right notes. Sip or mix into tiki-inspired cocktails. abv: 47.5%
Erstwhile Arroqueño (Mexico Erstwhile Mezcal, Brooklyn, NY); $123, 92 points. For those who prefer a smokier mezcal profile, this bottling offers a fresh, lightly minty aroma, but it hits squarely on the palate with a dark, moody mix of menthol, spearmint and smoke. The elongated finish is driven by licorice, star anise and black pepper. abv: 44%
Bozal Tepeztate (Mexico; 3 Badge Beverage, Sonoma, CA); $80, 91 points. The fruity aroma entwines ripe pineapple and bell pepper. The notably silky palate opens with a pronounced petrol note, which fades to mellower tropical fruit and finishes with plenty of peppery sting. abv: 45%
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%
Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Espadin Especial (Mexico; Pernod Ricard, New York, NY); $90, 91 points. The remarkable nose is jammed with pineapple and earthy roasted notes, plus a faint touch of vanilla. This mouthwatering mezcal mixes sweet and salty sensations on the palate, along with just the right amount of smoke. It would be an intriguing addition to cocktails. abv: 45%
Luminar Joven (Mexico; DWLL, Los Angeles, CA); $30, 91 points. Sweet almond leads the nose and palate. It opens with gentle cinnamon and almond soon accelerates to a spicy rumble, as black pepper, habanero and cayenne singe the finish. Put together, it makes for a surprisingly addictive sweet heat. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Montelobos Tobalá (Mexico; William Grant, New York, NY); $100, 90 points. Delicate white flower and coconut aromas lead into a jalapeño-laced palate overlaid with nutty sweetness. The bracing, citrusy finish is mouthwatering. abv: 46.8%