Food & Drink

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Mezcal, According to an Expert

Matthew Kelly/Supercall

A few short years ago, the majority of people outside of your nerdiest liquor-loving friends likely had no idea what mezcal was, and they certainly wouldn’t have found it on the average cocktail menu. But in lightning fast time, mezcal has exploded onto the U.S. market, going from a trendy spirit that was new to the American market, to holding a permanent spot on the back bar. Mezcal is definitely here to stay, so if you haven’t gotten hip to the agave spirit and still just think it’s smoky tequila, we’re here to set the record straight. To do this, we tapped Tess Rose Lampert, a mezcal expert who runs PalateTrip, which specializes in spirits consulting and education. A frequent visitor to the remote palenques (mezcal distilleries) of Mexico, Lampert answered all of your burning questions about the spirit—even the really basic ones you were too afraid to ask.

What is the difference between mezcal and tequila?

There are quite a few key differences between tequila and mezcal, and Lampert broke down several of them for us:

  1. The agave: “Tequila is made from one type of agave (blue) whereas mezcal can be made from around 20 different varieties of agave.”
  2. The origin: “Tequila mainly comes from in and around the town of Tequila, whereas mezcal comes from all over Mexico.”
  3. The production: “The production of tequila is much more industrialized in many cases, and while some mezcal companies want to head down that same path, most mezcals are still produced in a more old fashioned way, [which involves] cooking the agave hearts in underground stone pits.”
  4. The laws: “The laws of tequila allow for products that are not 100 percent agave based, that could contain additives, whereas mezcal must be 100 percent agave and generally does not include additives.”
  5. The aging: “Tequila follows the same aging trends as whiskey, whereas mezcal has a much more restrained tradition of aging in wood.” More on that later.

So all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila?

“Yes. Historically, 'mezcal' refers to any agave spirit made in Mexico, of which tequila is the most popular,” Lampert says. “If you want to go the familial route, mezcal is the grandmother of tequila. The first spirit from Tequila was called ‘vino de mezcal de tequila,' or 'mezcal wine from Tequila,' because there was no distinction between spirits and wine yet. Tequila is just one type of mezcal that blew up and had great marketing. Legally, however, mezcal has its own set of rules and it does not even overlap with tequila.”

Can mezcal only be made in Mexico?

“Mezcal can only be made in Mexico,” Lampert says. Even within Mexico, the spirits that can be called mezcal are limited. “People are making agave spirits all over Mexico,” says Lampert, “but right now the laws only recognize nine states of Mexico: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Durango, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Puebla. In reality, many more states are producing what would traditionally be recognized as mezcal.”

Does mezcal use the same age statements as tequila (blanco, reposado, añejo)?

“Mezcal does use the same aging statements, but it is less common to see aged mezcals. The plants take years to grow, so the main goal is to capture the flavor of the plant, and aging in wood risks covering that up, so the best mezcals are usually unaged.”

Is all mezcal smoky?

Mezcal is often referred to as the 'smoky cousin' of tequila, which drives me, and other agave nerds, up a wall,” Lampert says. “The process of cooking the agave hearts in an underground pit imparts a smokiness, but not all mezcal is smoky and it's very much the flavors beyond the smoke that make each mezcal uniquely delicious.”

What is the best way to drink mezcal straight?

While you can find mezcal served in shot glasses or snifters, or with orange slices and salt made from worms, Lampert says the best way to appreciate the flavor of mezcal is to “drink it neat at room temperature in small sips. A short and wide glass, or even small bowl, is the ideal vessel.” These bowls, sometimes called copitas, “give the spirit a chance to balance, delivering maximum flavor rather than a harsh hit of alcohol.”

Can you mix mezcal into a cocktail?

“Of course, but I wouldn't recommend mixing anything very special into a cocktail,” Lampert says. “If the other ingredients aren't going to make the mezcal taste even better, stick to straight sipping. If you do want to mix but don't know where to start, pick your favorite classic cocktail and replace the spirit with mezcal.” From there, we recommend checking out our list of our favorite mezcal cocktails.

What’s the deal with the worm in some mezcal bottles?

More technically called a larvae, “the worm is born, lives, breeds and dies on the agave plant, so it has an intimate connection with the agave plant,” Lampert says. “One theory is that the worm started as a way to mark or brand a specific person's mezcal, in order to keep track of which batch was made by who.” While some brands have the worm in the bottle purely as a marketing tool, Lampert says not all of them are gimmicks. “Some producers are making worm-infused mezcal as a nod to tradition; just because you see a worm in the bottle doesn't mean it will be good or bad—and it definitely won't make you hallucinate.”

Is pechuga mezcal actually made with raw chicken breast?

You may have heard that “pechuga mezcal” contains raw chicken breast. And it does—kind of. But we promise it won’t give you salmonella. “Pechuga means 'breast' and these mezcales are given that name because they are special mezcals of the heart, used at special occasions like weddings, births, funerals, etc.” Lampert says. “They are infused with proprietary recipes of fruits, nuts, spices and often a breast of an animal—such as chicken, rabbit, turkey and iguana—as a symbol of the heartfelt occasion they are made to celebrate.” The result does not taste like raw chicken breast at all though. “The fruits, nuts and spices give a round and fruity flavor to the final product [which is why] they can be softer and easier to drink for people new to the strong and pungent flavors of mezcal.”

What is the average amount of money you should be spending on a decent mezcal?

“I spend around $60 to $100 on a sipping mezcal, and $35 to $50 on a mixing mezcal,” Lampert says. Pick up both a sipping and mixing mezcal by consulting our list of the best mezcals under $75.  

What is a good entry-level, widely available mezcal brand for newbies?

“Montelobos is a good option that ticks all the boxes of flavor, sustainability and commitment to the category as a whole,” Lampert says. And once you’re ready to take your mezcal obsession into overdrive, read Lampert’s detailed guide for building out a pro mezcal collection.