Two decades ago, mezcal was almost nonexistent in the U.S. spirits market. Today, it has established itself as perhaps the last big spirit category to be “discovered” in the modern era—kicking off a boom in interest that shows no signs of slowing.
In 1995, Ron Cooper launched the beloved mezcal brand Del Maguey, but he struggled for years to get buyers in the United States to even taste mezcal. Now, his single-village bottlings go for upwards of $200 each. And in what is perhaps the most well-publicized symbol of the category’s growth, in 2017 the multinational spirits giant Pernod Ricard purchased a majority stake in the brand; the sale was met with fear from longtime fans that mezcal was about to go the way of tequila—that is, toward celebrity-backed commercialization.
For a spirit that is often produced by techniques that have been largely unchanged for hundreds of years—mashing roasted agave hearts by hand with mallets; fermenting, in some villages, in tree trunks or animal skins; distilling in clay—the threat of corporatization feels even more profound. This is not to mention that many of the wild agave species that form the base of the most coveted mezcals are finite resources that can take as long as 30 years to mature, and cannot be replanted. Thus, to understand mezcal today is to understand what threatens it—and, further, to get to know the producers and enthusiasts who are working to establish a more sustainable model for its growth, even if you’re just looking for a great bottle under $50.
In that spirit, here are our mezcal essentials, from bottles to books.
The range of flavor profiles that mezcal is capable of expressing is seemingly infinite. Yes, mezcal is often smoky, but it’s what lies beyond that profile—honeydew to cut grass to roasted meats and tropical fruit—that has made it so beloved by enthusiasts. Those flavors are determined by agave type, where it’s grown and how it is roasted, fermented and distilled.
Mezcal Vida: To the point about species sustainability, having an everyday house mezcal made from espadín (which can be cultivated) is key. For its versatility as a sipping mezcal and a mixing mezcal, Vida remains the best all-purpose bottling for our money.
El Jolgorio Nuestra Soledad San Luis del Río: Nuestra Soledad is El Jolgorio’s line of six single-village, artisanal-method mezcals, all made from cultivated espadín that averages around 10 years of age. While each is worthy of a spot here, look for the San Luis del Río (pepper, earth, mineral notes) from Tlacolula or the Lachiguí (fresh-cut grass, tropical fruit) from the mountainous district of Miahuatlán.
Lalocura San Martinero (Barril): Eduardo Ángeles is one of the great mezcal producers working today. After working at his family’s distillery, the excellent Real Minero, Ángeles launched Lalocura in the town of Minas, which is famous not just for its distillation in clay pots, but for its wild or semiwild Agave karwinskii varieties (Barril, Tobasiche, Cuixe, Bicuixe, etc.). This is his Barril, a type of Karwinskii known for its high-toned flavors of jalapeño, bitter melon and pronounced salinity. This is all the proof you need of mezcal’s infinite flavor spectrum.
Learning about mezcal is like learning about wine in its regional complexity, multiplicity of species and varied cultural history. These resources will give you a base to build from.
Mezcal, by Emma Janzen: Janzen’s modern guide to mezcal acts as an excellent primer on styles, regions and producers, but also offers a look at how the mezcal boom happened, and as such, includes a nice collection of mezcal cocktail recipes.
Bebidas de Oaxaca, by Salvador Cueva and Ricardo Bonilla: Over the course of a year, photographer Salvador Cueva and writer and historian Ricardo Bonilla set out to document the 77 traditional beverages of all eight regions of Oaxaca. While not a guidebook, it offers a lens through which to understand the singular place that gave us mezcal.
Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails, by Robert Simonson: Like sherry, another once-obscure beverage that has found a modern audience, mezcal mania cannot be understood without considering mixed drinks’ role in bringing it to the masses. Simonson’s survey of the modern mezcal cocktail, with images from our own Lizzie Munro, is a look at just how far beyond the Margarita and Paloma mezcal has gone.
This online community of mezcal nerds features an ever-expanding database of mezcal bottlings (over 1,200) and is a great place to get topline info on bottlings, reviews and links to retailers.
Oaxaca is home to one of the country’s greatest concentrations of artisan producers, working with everything from hand-blown glass to ceramics to textiles. If you’re going to buy any accessories related to mezcal, buy from local artisans. Black clay pottery is a fixture in Oaxaca, and up until the midcentury, mezcal was often stored in it. We love this small set of six black clay copitas made by a community of makers in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
If you’ve traveled to Mexico to drink mezcal, you know that, like an aperitivo drink in Italy, mezcal is always served with a sidekick, whether it’s chilled, sweetened agua de jamaica, cacahuates botaneros (peanuts roasted with chiles and garlic) or sliced fruit with sal de gusano (worm salt). For worm salt, head to Gran Mitla or Rancho Gordo, and for stellar Oaxacan snacking peanuts, try this recipe from Javier Cabral and Bricia Lopez’s Oaxaca.