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In recent years, mezcal has gone from a niche drink for connoisseurs to a wildly popular spirit, with new brands making their US debut seemingly every month. This means that there’s now a wide range of mezcal on the market, from the classic, deep, smoky spirit to lighter, more floral mezcals with just a hint of smoke.
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WHAT IS MEZCAL?
Mezcal and tequila are both agave-based spirits, but that’s where the similarities end. Tequila is produced in Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacan or Guanajuato using at least 51-percent blue agave, while the best mezcal is produced in nine regions of Mexico, primarily in Oaxaca, and can be made with many different types of agave (more than 200!). This means all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila, just like bourbon is a type of whiskey, but not all whiskies are bourbon.
The two are also produced differently. While agave used for tequila is steamed, agave used for mezcal is roasted in large pits lined with lava rocks. First, a wood fire is lit in the bottom of the pit, which heats the rocks. Once the fire burns out, the pit is filled with the piña (agave heart), which are buried in earth and roasted for days. This slow baking process gives mezcal its signature smoky flavor. Next, the cooked piñas are crushed, the juice is fermented, distilled in clay pots or copper stills, and finally aged in oak barrels.
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WHICH MEZCAL SHOULD I BUY?
There are a ton of mezcals to choose from, and the best way to find your favorite is to head to a bar and try a few. There are mezcals from big brands, like Clase Azul and Casamigos, as well as super-premium, small-batch companies using artisanal techniques. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorites, as well as a rather unexpected smoked, agave-flavored non-alcoholic spirit for the teetotalers out there.
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When Lebron James invested in this independent company, the world took notice. Lobos 1707 uses 100-percent Espadín agave and is made using traditional techniques. It’s the aging process that gives the mezcal its unique flavors.
The spirit is finished in Pedro Ximénez (PX) wine casks from Spain, an unusual choice. It is intensely smoky both on the nose and the palate with hints of pepper and spice. It is best enjoyed neat or on the rocks to savor the smokiness. Lobos means “wolf” in Spanish, and the majestic animal is its logo. The company donates a percentage of proceeds to wolf sanctuaries.
FLUÈRE SMOKED AGAVE
Non-alcoholic spirits are becoming much more popular, and not just for Dry January. Fluère was created by a foodie who was sick of drinking soda or coffee at Michelin-starred restaurants. He wanted a cocktail with complex flavors that kept him clear-headed. Using a unique hydro-steam distillation process, Fluère is able to extract intense flavors from fruits, spices, and botanicals to create delicious and flavorful non-alcoholic spirits.
The Smoked Agave is a shockingly good stand-in for mezcal, with a not-too-smoky nose and fresh fruit and vegetal notes on the palate. It’s meant for cocktails, whether that’s a simple Paloma or the brand’s signature Noches Mexicana with lime juice, grapefruit juice, and soda water.
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Sombra Ensamble is crafted from a blend of two rare, wild agaves: Tepeztate, which can take 25 years to mature, and Tobalá agave, which is quite small but intensely aromatic.
At the very high-end of the mezcal world, you’ll find Sombra Ensamble. This small-batch producer is located in the highlands of the Oaxacan Sierra. It is crafted from a blend of two rare, wild agaves: Tepeztate, which can take 25 years to mature, and Tobalá agave, which is quite small but intensely aromatic.
Due to the rarity of the plants, only 2,000 bottles were produced. It has green pepper, citrus and honey aromas, with caramel, tobacco and orange peel on the palate. The company is dedicated to sustainability, using solar-powered energy when possible, and the byproducts are used to create adobe bricks to build houses in nearby communities.
This small-batch, super-premium mezcal will change all of your preconceived notions of the spirit. It is light and floral, with notes of citrus, pineapple, vanilla, caramel and chocolate, with just a touch of smokiness.
Vamonos Riendo, which means “let’s go laughing” in Spanish, is produced in the highlands of Oaxaca at 6,500 feet above sea level using Tobala and Espadín agaves. It’s more difficult to grow agave at altitude, which results in more concentrated flavors. The spirit is triple distilled with fruit, which gives its fresh aromas. It’s perfect for sipping neat, on the rocks, or in a mezcal cocktail.