The best mezcal comes from clear plastic bottles straight from the suitcase of a friend who just got back from Mexico. Sadly, not everyone has a generous jet-setting friend. Luckily, liquor store shelves in the U.S. are packed with more mezcals than ever right now. But with variety also comes confusion about where to start, how much to spend and which brands to try. Good news, though: We’re here to help.
There are two basic categories of mezcal when it comes to stocking your bar: mezcals for mixing and mezcals for sipping. The ideal setup includes a bottle (or two) purely for cocktails, an entry level bottle for everyday sipping, and something a little different to round out the collection. Armed with these three tiers, you have all the makings to suit both the casual quaffer and the serious spirit nerd, while nurturing your inner agave thirst.
Mezcal is a tough spirit to get into, largely due to the fact that its regulations and categorization are so different from other spirits. It’s also expensive, and rightly so considering the amount of labor and care that goes into production, from the years it takes to grow the agave to the practiced expertise of the mezcalero. Of course, there are also plenty of brands that are charging a premium just because they can. One of the greatest challenges when trying to stock your bar with mezcal is knowing which bottles are worth their price tags.
Starting with expressions of mezcal around $50 is a good way to explore the basic flavor profiles, regions and production differences. For example, it’s worth investing in Don Amado Rustico ($55), which is distilled in clay pot stills, to see if you are a fan of the very particular flavor that comes from the clay, before blindly buying Del Maguey Minas ($100), which is also made in clay pot stills. Finding less expensive versions of wild and rare varieties can be tricky, but chances are, if you take the time to explore the entry level category to find your preferences, a friendly store clerk should be able to guide you in the right direction.
Once you find a bottle you like, it’s worth branching out to the other offerings from the brand. These days, most bottles also include the name of the mezcalero, so finding other bottles made by the same person is a good way to stay within the same style.
Whether putting together the building blocks of a professional collection, or just searching for a bottle to get the party started, there are appropriately priced bottles available on the shelf for every occasion. Dixibe!
Mixing mezcal into cocktails is a new phenomenon more or less invented by American bartenders. The traditional way to drink mezcal is neat, out of a wide and shallow glass or gourd, and many mezcalerias (mezcal bars) throughout Mexico don’t offer it any other way. When Ron Cooper paved the way for mezcal’s global presence with the Del Maguey brand, bartenders picked up on how special and intricate the spirit is. Naturally, they wanted to play with it in cocktails. While Del Maguey is about authentic and unadulterated mezcal, Cooper, as an artist, was in favor of innovation, and he created a mezcal to be used in cocktails: Vida. There is some competition on the scene now, but Vida is still a preferred go-to as an all purpose mixing mezcal.
For those who are intrigued but not yet smitten with the category, there are hybrid mezcals that are not too expensive or scarce to be used in cocktails, yet complex enough to enjoy as sippers in their own right:
Peloton De La Muerte ($35)
A clean, delicately smoky mezcal that works brilliantly in a Mezcal Hot Toddy or Margarita, and humors anyone who wants to do shots.
Buen Bichu ($35)
A straightforward spirit that serves as a benchmark for those who are just getting into mezcal. There’s no need to introduce your relatives to a rare $150 bottle of Barril at your cousin’s wedding. This will do just fine.
Nuestra Soledad Line ($45-$55)
This label features the espadin variety from six different towns, and while it’s mainly used for sipping, a few ounces upgrades any cocktail to super premium.
Everyday Sipping Mezcals
Once mezcal gets its hooks in you, it doesn’t let go, and it’s all too easy to find yourself staring longingly at a wall of agave spirits. While there is good mezcal available at reasonable prices, there is great mezcal available for just a little more. Quality made wild varieties are hard to come by for less than $50, which means you’ll want to broaden your budget when it comes time to delve a little deeper. These brands and bottles serve as a diverse and healthy advancement, and they are for sipping only.
Vago Ensemble En Barro ($80)
A regularly updated release, this bottling always features a masterful blend of different agaves distilled in clay for a well rounded, creamy and earthy flavor profile.
Derrumbes Michoacan ($80)
Hailing from outside of Oaxaca, this mezcal offers tons of acidity and fresh green herbal flavors that equally please the palate of novices and intrigue practised mezcal addicts. It is made from a blend of cenizo and cupreata that have been fermented in tanks lined with pine.
Del Maguey Chichicapa ($70)
One of the longtime benchmarks of the category, this bottling features the characteristic dark roast of espadin agaves, which lends a sweet caramelization that makes the mezcal go down way too easy.
Don Mateo Pechuga ($85)
This celebratory bottle of mezcal from Michoacan is infused with the maestro mezcalero’s mother’s recipe, which combines nuts, fruits and the symbolic poultry breast. The mezcalero infuses a 100-percent cenizo-made mezcal, rather than one made from the espadin variety as is more common for pechugas.
Those who are willing to spend the big bucks on mezcal deserve to get top quality, and while it may be hard to fathom any spirit worth $200 per bottle, there are people who would gladly pay double. Unlike any other spirit, once a bottling of mezcal is gone, it’s gone forever. These two bottles, made from wild and increasingly rare varieties, are worth every penny. Sip only, lest you risk offending Mayahuel.
Marca Negra Tepeztate ($120)
A large and long-lived variety, tepeztate can take up to 25 years to mature before it’s ready to be harvested for mezcal production. This expression is full of characteristic floral and earthy layers, which make a divine pairing for fine dark chocolate.
Jolgorio Arroqueno ($200)
Known as the king of agaves, arroqueno is capable of producing transcendental flavors, as it does here. The mezcal is made from plants that spent over 15 years in the ground and it’s produced on a tiny scale, so finding a bottle to buy is harder than convincing yourself to spend the money.