While tequila broadly speaking has had its place in the modern cocktail scene, mezcal in particular has only recently seen a surge in popularity. But, the once niche Mexican spirit has become just as much of a staple at cocktail bars. In fact, alongside the rise of Italian spirits, we’d make the case that Mezcal is the liquor of the moment. It’s versatile enough to work in a variety of cocktails but powerful enough to be enjoyed on its own. Plus, its smoky, complex flavor profile has earned it a cult reputation among cocktail enthusiasts.
And as the drink itself has risen in status, so too have some of the buzziest Mezcal brands. The difficulty is navigating the shelves of the liquor store and deciding which brands to try. We’ve done the hard part and narrowed down the list of the best mezcal to drink right now. But, before we do, it’s worth exploring the category itself. What exactly defines a Mezcal?
What Is Mezcal?
Much like the tequila you’ve been enjoying for years, Mezcal is a spirit distilled from agave or “maguey” which is native to Mexico. There are many agave varieties including tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, and arroqueño but espadín is by far the most commonly used for mezcal. Oaxaca is one of the prime regions where Mezcal is made but you can also find Mezcal from eight other states: Guerrero, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.
The word “mezcal” itself is derived from the Nahuatl language and means “oven-cooked maguey.” Farmers will grow the agave plant and separate the piña, the heart of the plant, to be roasted by the mezcalero in a large pit oven. The Mezcal distiller will mash the cooked piña and allow it to ferment in a barrel with water. After fermenting, the liquid is twice distilled in either clay or copper vessels before aging further or bottled unaged. Typically you’ll find one of three varieties of mezcal: Joven (unaged), Reposado (less than a year), or Añejo (one to three years).
Mezcal will usually land between 35% (a single distilled version) and up to 55% ABV. The defining characteristic of most mezcal is a strong smoky flavor, not unlike a Scotch. The intensity and quality of that smoky characteristic will vary between mezcals and you can certainly find an array of flavor profiles from fruity and floral to earthy and herbally.
Mezcal vs Tequila
Many drinkers will note that the main difference between mezcal and tequila is that smoky flavor. But the true distinction lies in the production process. In fact, mezcal is technically an umbrella term for all agave-based spirits. So, tequila is categorized as a mezcal.
But this new wave of artisanal mezcal which has risen in popularity does not go through an industrial production process like tequila. Commercial tequila is also made from the cooked piña of the agave plant, but it’s often steamed in industrial ovens whereas mezcaleros cook the piña in earthen pits using wood, charcoal, and lava rocks. This process doesn’t inherently make mezcal better but it does demonstrate the handmade touch of many mezcals.
How to Enjoy Mezcal
Part of mezcal’s rise in popularity has been its use in a variety of cocktails. The Mezcal Negroni and Oaxaca Old Fashioned are two of the most widespread examples but mezcal is also a common replacement for standard tequila in many drinks.
Historically, however, mezcal was simply enjoyed neat, sipped out of a shot glass. Excellent mezcals have a complex depth of flavors and are fantastic on their own. Alongside a glass of mezcal, drinkers usually have sliced citrus — oranges, lemons, limes — and a plate of sal de gusano, which means worm salt. The sal de gusano was a mixture of salts, herbs, chili peppers, and yes fried larvae. Now, though, you can find many modern examples of salt mixtures. Either dip a slice of orange into the salt to enjoy between sips of mezcal or sprinkle some salt on your sliced citrus for a pre-prepped mid-sip bite.
The Best Mezcal Brands to Try
Madre Mezcal has quickly become one of our favorite options for mezcal. Not only do they make a stellar product but their community has endeared many to this amazing agave spirit. Through stylish merch and home goods, a carefully curated series of playlists, and excellent branding, Madre has built a community of mezcal enthusiasts throughout North America. Madre Mezcal produces artisanal mezcal with three families in Oaxaca using two varities of the agave plant. The result is a mezcal perfect for sipping or for your favorite cocktail.
If you’ve seen bottles of mezcal at bars and restaurants, it’s probably del Maguey. The ubiquitous mezcal brand has a wide variety of offerings handmade throughout Mexico. In fact, each artful bottle tells the story of a singular village’s expression of mezcal. The flagship Vida is a classic Espadín from the village of San Luis Del Rio. But del Maguey’s mezcal spans various flavor profiles, a true representation of terroir in spirits. While many bars will use del Maguey mezcals in cocktails, sample them straight and enjoy the complex character of these unique spirits.
Mezcal Vago eschews cutesy branding for a purely informational label. Every label of Vago features the info on the producer, the mezcal’s origins, the variety of agave, the aging process, and more. It’s a straightforward, unfussy approach and we love it. Plus the handmade mezcal is excellent. You can find unique one-off releases from Vago as well as some tried and true standbys. Our pick, Elote is great for mixing in a cocktail while some of the rarer offerings should be sipped neat along with some sal de gusano.
Ojo de Tigre
Ojo de Tigre is another buzzy small-batch artisanal mezcal brand making waves in the US. The simple branding and pop-top bottles distinguish Ojo de Tigre from others while the mezcal itself, made from both espadín and tobalá agave, is tasty and complex. Based on our sampling we found Ojo de Tigre noticeably smokier than many other mezcals so we’d suggest either enjoying neat or in a cocktail where the smoke won’t overpower other components.
Ilegal Mezcal is one of the brands that kicked off the mezcal craze thanks to excellent social media marketing and thoughtful community building. Ilegal helped spread the good word by educating consumers on the spirit’s roots in Mexico and how it can be properly enjoyed. And they’ve managed to produce approachable and delicious mezcal, too. Plus, as the brand has grown, they’ve developed their offerings with Joven, Reposado, and Añejo mezcals.
El Jolgorio is another mezcal brand that has made the rounds at bars and restaurants around the country. If you’re searching for a high end mezcal, this is it. Handmade by a single family in Oaxaca, this beautiful mezcal is made from rare and wild agave variants for a truly unique drinking experience. If you’re able to find a bottle we’d highly enjoying this one as a sipper, not a cocktail mixer.
Like Mezcal Vago, Banhez Mezcal is a less flashy, more straightforward mezcal brand. In fact, the company sources its mezcal from the Banhez Cooperative, a group owned by 36 families in the village of San Miguel Ejutla. Banhez Mezcal is sustainably made, handcrafted, and delicious. While the bottles may seem pricey, these award-winning mezcals are more than worth it. Enjoy neat or craft your favorite cocktail with these special spirits.
Yola is a mezcal brand that seems to have flown under the radar for some time. And we’re not sure why. A mezcal recipe that has been passed down for generations. Stylish, refined branding and marketing. A handmade, delicious product that is perfect for new or experienced mezcal drinkers. It’s the ideal combination. Yola is a brand founded and run by women bringing the delicious flavors of Oaxaca to drinkers across the country.