Editor’s Note: For our second magazine, we traveled to the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca to visit artisanal mezcal producers. While there, we encountered centuries-old techniques and a changing social climate revolving around the traditional spirit. For an introduction to this distilled spirit, read our guide below, which features a range of both cultivated and wild agave mezcals.
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“Mezcal is the most terroir-based spirit,” says Arik Torren, owner of mezcal producer Fidencio Mezcal. The spirit, made in one of seven Mexican states (Oaxacan mezcal is the biggest presence on US shelves), is small-batch distilled from fermented agave. Mezcal traditions and family recipes are often passed down through generations, which leads mezcal to reflect both the place it is grown and the hand of the maestro mezcalero who produces it. This creates a spirit with a wide variety of flavor profiles — some mezcals have subtle notes of smoke, perfect for the reflective, inward sipper; others have incredible, bombastic, sharp profile changes, with roasted vegetal flavors morphing into blasts of juicy fruit, ending with a strong minerality. The variety and the high level of quality in the best mezcals (many of which are just now becoming available in the US) make it one of the most exciting spirits to drink.
The governing body for mezcal, Consejo Regulador Mezcal (CRM), requires that the spirit meet certain guidelines to gain mezcal classification. It must only be made from certain agave plants, and though the CRM allows almost 30 types of these succulents to be distilled into mezcal, the most common plant harvested for the spirit is espadín. It should be noted that tequila, the most common agave spirit, is made only from Blue Agave. Mezcal can either be Type I (made from 100 percent agave) or Type II (made from at least 80 percent agave) and can be either joven (aged for less than 2 months), reposado (aged 2 months to 1 year in oak barrels) or añejo (aged from 1 year to 3 years in oak barrels). Though tequila connoisseurs lust after a great añejo, mezcal lovers are preferential to joven spirits because oak aging can overpower the unique terroir expression of a mezcal.
The list below features a wide variety of some of the best mezcals on the market, but it is in no way the definitive list. You will, however, find spirits for the introspective and spirits with deceptive twists and turns, and all uniquely reflect both the place and person behind the bottle.
100% Espadín Agave
One Agave, Plenty of Diversity
Alipús – Santa Ana del Rio
Alipús is a brand which highlights different mezcal producers in small villages across Oaxaca. Each mezcal is made from 100 percent espadín in order to show the consumer the difference in terroir and fermentation from producer to producer. The Santa Ana del Rio is made by Eduardo Hernández Melchor (who runs his own sustainable agave nursery) and has 47.9% ABV.
Tasting Notes: A buttery richness on the nose gives way to flavors of tropical fruit and pepper. An herbaceous aftertaste lingers on the palate.
Los Amantes – Joven
This un-aged mezcal from Los Amantes is distilled three times for 40% ABV. Produced in Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oaxaca, this bottle is the result of Guillermo Olguín and Ignacio Carballido’s quest to produce the best Oaxacan mezcal.
Tasting Notes: With scents of citrus and pine, this mezcal tastes of sweet agave and anise mixed with light smoke — it has an oily mouthfeel and hints of cardamom and grass on the finish.
Fidencio – Clásico
Made by Master Mezcalero Enrique Jimenez in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, this mezcal is made from espadín harvested after 12 years of growth. After harvest, it is pit-roasted over black oak for five days. Coming in at 45.5% ABV from a double distillation, this well-rounded mezcal received 93 points in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in 2011.
Tasting Notes: With buttery scents of pepper and wood, this mezcal has a charred taste of pipe tobacco and pine with a slight tingle, and a long finish.
Mezcal Vago – Elote
Mezcal Vago is a brand created by Judah Kuper to showcase the incredible mezcal made by his in-laws in Oaxaca. This espadín expression is unique: Mezcalero Aquilino García López infuses the mezcal with toasted corn (grown on his farm) between the second and third distillations. The corn adds not only flavor, but a silky, luxurious mouthfeel (it comes in at 50.6% ABV, but you wouldn’t know it).
Tasting Notes: With a nose of toasted corn, the taste is sweet — honey and wood mingle with hints of smoke and a clean base of sweetcorn. There is a slow whiskey-esque burn at the end and a residual vegetal aftertaste.
How Mezcal Is Made
The techniques for making mezcal have gone essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. The beverage itself is an evolution of the pre-colonization beverage Pulque, a fermented drink made from crushed agave. To make mezcal, agave is harvested by removing the long, sharp leaves from the body and then removing the body from the roots (the body of the agave is called the “piña” because of its resemblance to an oversize pineapple). At the distillery (called a palenque), the piñas are split into pieces and roasted (traditionally in a stone-lined pit) to break down sugars before fermentation. Then, the roasted agave is either muddled by hand or crushed on a tahona (a grinding stone wheel made of rose quartz) pulled by a donkey. The crushed agave is then rinsed and the resulting liquid is left in open pine vats to ferment for close to a week (this open-air fermentation relies on wild yeasts to create alcohol). The fermented liquid is then distilled (usually twice, but sometimes three times) in either copper or traditional clay stills. Impurities in the distillation process are present in the beginning and end of the cycle, so only the corazón (heart) of the liquid is used. It’s also worth noting that because of individual variance, ABV ranges quite widely in mezcal (from percentages in the low 40s to the mid-50s).
Wild Agave and Beyond
Explore All the Options
Koch el Mezcal – Ensamble
A blend of four wild agaves — tobalá, tobasiche, lumbre and cirial — Koch’s Ensamble is made in San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca, by Cirilo Hernández. The agaves are roasted over red oak and mesquite and distilled two times, resulting in 46.2% ABV. This blend lets each agave expression breathe, with no overpowering notes from one specific varietal.
Tasting Notes: With scents of fruity perfume and spiced wood, this mezcal has a balanced, light fruit flavor with elements of smoke, pepper and herbs. It has a long finish that is, on the whole, salty, but beginning with dark fruit and hints of leather throughout.
Los Siete Misterios – Doba-yej
Los Siete Misterios was founded in 2010 with the goal of rescuing traditional mezcal while stimulating local economies and preserving local cultures. This mezcal is made in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, from wild doba-yej agave and sits at 45% ABV.
Tasting Notes: The doba-yej has a nose of savory sweetness: hints of citrus and caramelized onions. This mezcal is beautifully understated; it doesn’t have the bombastic flavor twists of some others, but it blooms on the palate with hints of smoke and citrus, with a long finish reminiscent of the smell of flowers on a summer breeze.
Del Maguey – Pechuga
Many producers make pechuga, but Del Maguey’s is unique. It is sourced from Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, and starts as a double-distilled minero mezcal. Then, the mezcalero adds apples, plums, plantains, pineapples, almonds and rice to the spirit. After that, a whole chicken breast (other producers use turkey or rabbit) is hung above the still for a third, day-long distillation. The breast meat adds an unctuous, smooth mouthfeel to the finished mezcal and, flavor-wise, it balances out the sweetness of the fruit.
Tasting Notes: Del Maguey’s take on pechuga smells fresh: briny citrus with green herbs and fruit. On the palate, a complex sweetness blends with a mineral, smokey quality with hints of baking spices and salinity.
How to Properly Enjoy Mezcal
Mezcal is traditionally enjoyed neat and is sipped out of small cups called copitas. Del Maguey makes a beautiful terra-cotta clay copita. Often, while sipping, the mezcal is accompanied by a slice of citrus fruit (orange is typical) and a salt called Sal de Gusano (which is a mixture of sea salt, chile costeño and toasted and ground agave worms). Another frequent accompaniment for sipped mezcal is a citrusy, spicy sangrita. More frequently in contemporary bar culture, mezcal is enjoyed in cocktails, imparting a smoky, complex quality to a drink. Del Maguey has a nice list of cocktail recipes.
Pierde Almas – Coyote
Pierde Almas, founded by Jonathan Barbieri, is a brand that prides itself on being culturally and environmentally responsible. Pierde Almas asserts that it was the first brand to designate agave species on its labels, the first to bottle mezcal at its original proof and the first to use handmade paper on its labels. A wild agave mezcal, the Coyote expression (with a price tag of $140 and 46% ABV) is rare, uniquely complex and really, really good.
Tasting Notes: The scent could pass as perfume: floral, pear sweetness with a shimmer of woody vanilla. The mezcal tastes of greenery intermingling with smoke and fall fruits and has a long, smooth finish with hints of juniper.
La Venenosa – Sur de Jalisco
In the 1780s, mezcal producers in Jalisco adapted the name “raicilla” to circumvent a mezcal tax levied by the Spanish Crown. These raicillas are incredible spirits — complex, deceptive, surprising and above all, fun to sip. La Venenosa Sur is made by Arturo Campos in San Juan Espanatica, Tuxpan, from wild cenzino agave, distilled twice in a ceramic still for 47% ABV.
Tasting Notes: This raicilla smells of mesquite smoke and game, humid air, vegetal matter and earth. On the palate, roast meat intermingles with berry sweetness, and hints of greenery give way to a dry finish of bitter herbs.
Read More in Our Magazine
A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $35