Mezcal has long been something that most Americans only knew as the stuff bottled with a worm and generally tasted on a dare during spring break. (Not to mention the confusion with that other Mexican spirit.) Fortunately, mezcal’s image has recently been given an extreme makeover and small-batch bottlings are becoming more widely available on this side of the border.
First: All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. While premium tequila is made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from other varieties of the plant. Second: Tequila distillers generally steam the agave before fermentation, while for mezcal the agave is usually slow-roasted in oven-like pits lined with hot rocks. This process gives the spirit its signature earthy and smoky dimension.
There is a vast range of flavors and aromas found among the different mezcals. Some should be sipped like whiskies, while others can be mixed in cocktails. Here are a few of the best.
You can thank Ron Cooper for the surge in popularity of mezcal. Since 1995, he’s been finding traditional single village spirits and now imports seven stunning mezcals. Try the Chichicapa ($70), made in a village about 7,000 feet above sea level, which delivers a lot of smoke and a bit of mint.
While most mezcal has a pronounced smokiness, Fidencio ($50) is instead surprisingly floral. The biodynamiclly grown agave is roasted in a custom radiant heat oven instead of in a traditional pit.
Ilegal hits the nose with aromas of caramelized apples. You can taste the smoke, as well as a velvety, creamy sweetness on the palate. The brand produces a joven ($45) and a reposado ($55).
Spanish for “shadow,” Sombra ($49) is complex and smoky enough to be sipped, but light and citrusy enough to be mixed in cocktails.