If you already love tequila, odds are you’re ready to dig into mezcal, Mexico’s other well-known agave spirit.
What was once a niche spirit in the U.S. has gone fully mainstream: according to drinks analysis firm IWSR, mezcal sales in the U.S. increased 53% by value in 2021, compared with tequila, which grew just 27%. In other words, it’s a category that’s growing quickly and still has more room to run.
Of course, enthusiasm for tequila has helped drive interest in mezcal. But pros emphasize that mezcal is far more than just “tequila’s smoky cousin,” and represents a wide range of nuanced flavors. It’s also become a juggernaut for cocktail mixing, showing up in Oaxaca Old-Fashioneds, Mezcal Margaritas, the Naked & Famous, and more.
For those starting their journey into mezcal, here are five quick tips from the pros.
Start With an Open Mind: Mezcal Is a Diverse Category
“It’s not always smoky and it’s not always from Oaxaca,” says Greg Boehm, owner of The Cabinet, an agave spirit-focused bar in New York City. “Mezcal, like rum, runs the gamut from light to big and flavorful.”
Mezcal can be made from a wide range of agave varieties, more than 50 in total. By comparison, tequila is made from just one: blue Weber agave. As it can also be distilled across several different regions and microclimates, this stylistic breadth gives mezcal an incredibly diverse array of flavor profiles.
The More Info on the Label, the Better
In general, the pros suggest looking for mezcal bottled at 45% ABV (90 proof) or higher, in line with most industry standards. Take a few minutes to parse the information listed on the mezcal label. “I look for the name of the person who made it—the mezcalero or mezcalera—the town where it’s made, and the mezcal varietal, such as espadín,” says Boehm. “And the more information, the better.”
If you want to drill down further still, the liquor brand is likely to have additional info available on their website. “If they don’t have great info on their website, it may be a sign that it’s not an artisanal product,” warns Boehm.
Try a Copita
Sure, you can sip mezcal from a small wine glass or Champagne flute. But the pros suggest a traditional copita, a small clay bowl with a wide mouth. “It allows the nose to get close to the mezcal while making it easy to sip,” says Jon Bamonte, lead bartender at Philadelphia’s Vernick Fish, which partners with Mezonte mezcal for the bar’s agave program.
Boehm also recommends a veladora, or a small glass votive typically used to hold candles, as a traditional way to serve mezcal. Many are still commonly crafted with an imprint of a cross on the bottom of the glass as a nod to the vessel’s heritage within the Catholic church.
Sip, Don’t Shoot
Whichever drinkware you pick, sip slowly. “Mezcal is not meant to be consumed as a shot,” says Bamonte. “I prefer to drink mezcal slowly; very rarely is the first sip the same as the last sip. You miss out on that when you shoot it.”
Skip the Ice
There’s no room for ice in a copita or veladora, so take that as a cue to enjoy your mezcal neat.
“It’s very rare you’ll see people drinking mezcal on the rocks,” says Boehm. “Drink it at room temperature—chilling it can mask the subtleties.” Also make sure to take a moment to appreciate the aroma before taking your first sip. “The aroma and taste can be very different,” says Boehm.
Don’t Wiggle out of Worm Salt
This traditional accouterment, called gusano (which roughly translates to “worm” in Spanish), can help enhance the mezcal experience.
“It’s a salt that’s made of ground-up larvae that live in the agave plants and has a smoky, chile-like flavor that is a great complement to mezcal,” says Nichole Roberts, bartender at El Mero Taco in Memphis. “If a bar has the proper essentials for mezcal, sip it neat with slices of orange that are dipped or sprinkled with worm salt.” The ingredient can also be used in cocktails or as a glass rim to provide an extra smoky element to drinks, she adds.