Mezcal is a beautiful spirit. Its nuance and variety are matched by few things in the spirit world, and a lot of that is thanks to the type of agave used to make it. Unlike tequila, which is made exclusively from blue Weber agave, there are dozens of different types of agave used to make mezcal—estimates are as high as 50 varieties. While you can’t find a mezcal made from every type of agave in the States, you can find enough varieties to be confused. So here are the sorts of flavors you can expect from many of the agaves you’re likely to encounter.
An important note: The flavor of any individual mezcal will also be influenced by the way it is produced and by the region in which the agave grows. That’s why some mezcals are incredibly smoky or chalky, for example. But these broad strokes are a good place to start.
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Espadin is by degrees of magnitude the most common agave for mezcal. It’s estimated that 90 percent of mezcal is made with espadin, much of it farmed as opposed to wild. And because of that, it is one of the most variable agaves. Its flavor is impacted by where it comes from and how it is grown, but espadin from Oaxaca, which is the most common, tends to have more mineral flavors. Try: Montelobos Joven ($43)
These agave are small, rare and take close to 15 years to mature to the point at which they can be used in mezcal. The results are sweeter and fruitier, sometimes on the citrus end of the fruit spectrum, sometimes more tropical. Try: Mezcales de Leyenda Puebla ($80)
Tepeztate has one of the longest growing periods. It can take more than 30 years before a plant is ready to harvest. It often grows clinging to hillsides, and those harsher conditions give the agave earthy and more herbal notes. Try: Del Maguey Single Village ($108)
Arroqueño agaves are quite large and tend to have earthy and spiced flavors. Try: Mezcal Koch ($108)
From the Karwinskii family, tobaziche agave plants resemble small trees. Mezcal made with this agave tends to be more savory, herbaceous, even occasionally a little woody. Try: El Jolgorio ($149)
Because jabali are quite small it requires more of them to make a bottle of mezcal than some other agaves. But it’s worth it, because jabali-based mezcals can also be some of the most complex. A single bottle can be both fruity and earthy, with some real peppery spice. Try: Rey Campero ($107)
Cupreata (aka Papalote)
From the mountain slopes of Guerrero, Mexico, cupreata is a sweeter agave that can take on floral and sometimes fruity flavors. Try: Bozal ($100)
Mezcals made with this type of agave are just beginning to make it into markets outside of Mexico. It tends to grow in more mineral soil in the state of San Luis Potosi, and those mineral flavors generally come across upon tasting, as do green, vegetal notes. Try: Mezcales de Leyenda San Luis Potosi ($72)