Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mezcal 101: Where do I start?

So you've decided to take the dive (or maybe just dip your toe) into mezcal!  I am excited for you.  Mezcal is a great spirit, highly complex and beautiful in taste, as well it has a colorful, interesting history and culture.  Settle in for a fun ride.

My opinion, my prediction really, is that within the next 5 years mezcal will be recognized by aficionados as having a taste as complex as scotch, having terroir as unique wines, bottles as rare as the high end cognacs and as sought after as american whiskeys are today.

The reality is that we are already well into a boom in mezcal.  The bubble has been growing for a few years now.  This is not all fun and games, there are some real issues, some sustainability issues, economic issues and cultural issues, that we should, as aware consumers, be cognizant of and be consciences of.  More on that later, for now, let's enjoy these fine spirits.

First things first.

You likely have already drank your first mezcal, we all know it as tequila.  Simply put, tequila is mezcal, mezcal made in the Tequila region.  Just like not all brandies are cognacs, yet all cognacs are brandies, so it is with tequila.  Not all mezcal is tequila, yet all tequila is mezcal.  In short, some say that any agave distillate from Mexico is mezcal.  Current regulations do not agree with that statement, I’ve never been one for arbitrary rules, myself.

Now there are some big differences in the production of these spirits.  The primary difference between between tequila and mezcal is that mezcal is made by cooking the agave hearts in an earthen pit. where tequila is made by steam cooking the agaves hearts.  

There are a large number of other differences, however we don't need to get into that just now.  The reason to bring up this key difference is to tackle the first and perhaps most important issue with drinking mezcal.  The smokiness.  

Mezcal should not be smoky.

You may have already tasted some mezcal, found it to taste like a freshly smoldered campfire, then put it down for good.  Smokiness in mezcal, is a fault of the production process.  

There is discussion in mezcal geek circles as to whether or not the agave is smoked. Well the process is more akin to a luau, than it is to a Texas BBQ. So, cooked in earthen pits, I think is more accurate than saying it is smoked.

Another significant differentiator is that tequila can only be made from the Weber Blue Agave (s. Agave tequilana), whereas mezcal can be made from nearly any agave.  More on that in future articles.  It is really one of my favorite things about mezcal.

The next thing to realize is that the industry typically recognizes 3 types of mezcal.  Ancestral, artisanal, and industrial.  There are laws in Mexico that are being implemented that will when fully rolled out require the producers of mezcal label their products with one of these 3 categories.  In my experience the sweet spot for value and quality is in the middle spot.  You want to find mezcal that was made by people that truly care about the quality of their product, more than their bottom line.  

The industrial producers are using sugar extraction methods that are designed to be efficient, not focused on making a complex robust tasting mezcal. Just say no to diffusers and other non-traditional methods of sugar extraction.

A quick word about cost.  The less it costs, the more industrialized the process likely was that created the bottle.  Creating mezcal, is a labor intensive process.  It takes backbreaking labor, time consuming attention to detail and years of experience to get it right.  As well many of the small producers are not rich people, they are making something they love to enjoy and share. They have, in my opinion, fairly earned their asking price.

Okay, let's call that the basics for now.  To recap, stay away from smoky mezcal, stay away from industrially producers and enjoy the many agave varietals.

Enough of the don'ts, let's talk do's!

Where to start…. Well if you have the option to go to a local mescal bar and start tasting with an expert, that is likely your best bet.  In my experience, finding a mezcal bar is hard, finding one where the staff truly cares about the product they are serving and is well trained, is very challenging.  

So, let’s work up an action plan for your first sitting at that local mezcal bar, that might not have the training we had hoped.  

Note: If you are lucky enough to have a bar keep that knows their agave spirits, put the list away, let the bar keep know your goal of learning about mezcal and enjoy the ride!

The Plan

Start with the most common agave, espadin.  Although common, it should not be discounted, there is a reason it is so common.  Okay, a few reasons it is so common.  One of them is is that it tastes great!  It can be quite complex.  Consider this your baseline.  Look for something that is at or below 45% alcohol.  This will smooth your landing into mescal.  

Note: A number of notable mezcal aficionados believe that mezcal should never be below 45%, some believe it is not mezcal below 45%. I see no reason to exclude things below 45%, however, I am opening to having my mind changed.

A few bottles that you are likely to find at your local watering hole at meet the above qualifications are:

  • Nuestra Soledad - San Luis Del Rio 2013 Espadin
  • Mezcal Vago - Espadin
  • Wahaka - Espadin
  • Pierde Almas - Espadín

Once you have tasted Espadin, I would recommend tasting a common wild varieties of agave, something from the Karwinski family will do just nicely.  These are typically not farmed plants, the plants grow in the wild, then harvested locally and made into delicious, arguably more complex mezcals than their espadin cousins.  These are more challenging to find, so be watchful.

Some bottles to you are more likely to find are:

  • Wahaka - Madre Cuishe
  • El Jolgorio - Barril
  • Pierde Almas - Tobaciche

No Mezcal Bar. Now What?

If you are working from either Internet purchasing or your local liquor store here are some ideas on how to get started.

Wahaka produces a great starter set (gift set.)  My recommendation would be to search your local liquor retailers to see if they have one of them. Please do support your local liquor store, they will only get you better mezcal if they know you will buy it.  Right?! Find the speciality liquor store in your town, one with many varieties of whiskey, scotch and/or tequila. Let them know what you are up to, they can likely special order some things if they do not have them there for you.

Some other easier to find brands that I like are:
Brand - Bottle Name

Under $50/bottle

  • Nuestra Soledad (Any of their bottles)
  • El Pelotón de la Muerte (Solid mixing mezcal.)

Between $50 and $100/bottle

  • Mezcal Vago - Espadin
  • Del Maguey (except Vida)
  • Illegal Mezcal
  • Pierde Almas
  • Don Amante
  • Los Amantes
  • Alipus
  • Mezcalero Series
  • Wahaka

Over $100/bottle 

My list for this is coming soon.  

Not recommended by me:

  • Del Maguey Vida (Very sweet, not meant to be drank alone.  I personally also avoid cocktails made with Vida)
  • El Senorio 
  • Zignum
  • Beneva (highly industrialized)
  • Any mezcal by the Jose Cuervo brand
  • Anything with a worm (that is just marketing)

Next Steps

Now you have a very basic baseline set.  Feel free to start exploring.  I recommend always looking to understand a few key things about your agave spirit.

What agave was used?

Where was the mezcal was produced?

  • What state?
  • What town?

How was it produced?  


  • In large volumes?
  • Small batch?

  • Distilled in copper?
  • Distilled in clay?


  • Fermented in wood barrels?
  • Stainless steel
  • Leather

Want more info?  Check out this article.

There are many more, in short, the more information on the bottle, the better chance it is craft and is delicious.

Take lots of tasting notes as you go.  Take pictures of the bottles you taste. Let the rest of us know what you find, what you like!

Please post your thoughts below, I want to hear your feedback.

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