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“At its most basic, mezcal is an agave distillate,” explains Ivy Mix, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda and author of Spirits of Latin America, “But it is not just smoky tequila.” Tequila is technically a mezcal, but it is only produced in Jaliso and three surrounding states using at least 51 percent blue agave. Mezcal is made from an array of different agaves in 13 different Mexican states. Most Americans know the mezcal of Oaxaca, where Espadín agave is roasted in a hole in the ground to prepare it for distilling, resulting in a smoky spirit. “But that’s just one of many different types of mezcal,” says Mix. “It’s like not all scotch is peaty Laphroig.”
“There are many factors that go into a mezcal’s flavor profile, such as terroir, agave species, and how the mezcalero chooses to cook, ferment, and distill the plants,” says bar consultant Deena Sayers of Drinks By Deena. “Not all varieties taste the same, and not every batch tastes the same. Trying mezcal should be a journey through flavors of flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, earth, cheese, or even sour notes until you find the perfect one for you. There is a mezcal for everyone.”
Yet, because mezcal production is high-cost—“Agave takes eight to 30 years to mature, and there’s no machine that harvests them, so it’s all manpower,” says Mix—bottles can be pricey. She suggests visiting a mezcal bar and sampling different one-ounce pours to figure out what you like before buying a bottle.
Here, the best mezcals available.
Best Overall: Rey Compero Tepextate
The brand name, meaning “King of the Countryside,” refers to the ethos of the family collective that produces this mezcal. They make sure to harvest sustainably, replanting the slopes and canyons of Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur to replace every plant they take. In this case, the agave is Tepextate, a slow-growing, wild variety that takes 15 to 25 years to mature, resulting in a complexity that is augmented by wild yeast fermentation in open, outdoor vats. “It’s like walking through a flower-strewn church with a lot of incense burning,” says Mix. With a “light, fragrant, floral” character balanced by “really light smoke,” it’s so good, she says, “I think it is perfect.”
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Best Espadín: Gracias a Dios
“The people who make Gracias a Dios are proud and passionate. Everything they do is for their people and land,” says Nelson Lemus, bartender at Brooklyn’s Aura Cocina. Created by fourth-generation distiller Oscar Hernández Santiago, this mezcal, says Lemus, “is a fantastic way to discover the spirit’s typical earthy and smoky nuances.” In his cocktail, the Oaxaca Smash, Lemus mixes fresh ginger, lime juice, angostura bitters, and black tea–infused sweet vermouth to balance the earthiness of the mezcal, which, he says, also offers “grassy and peppery notes with hints of mushroom and tobacco.” It pairs well, he notes, with refreshing seafood dishes like ceviche.
Best Tobala: Del Maguey
“The first time I tried it, I was like, ‘What is this?’ It was delicious, but I had never tasted anything like it before,” says Mix of this mezcal produced from Oaxaca’s diminutive Tobala agave, a species that only grows on specific mountain slopes, like “the truffle of the agave world,” she quips. It might be a bit more expensive than other mezcals, but it’s well worth its price for a unique sip. Mix describes it as “rich and full” with flavors of “tropical fruit that’s overripe in a good way,” with “a little hint of rose” and a “slight smokiness.”
Best Under $50: Vago Elote
When Judah Kuper, the American co-owner of a mezcal-focused beach bar in Oaxaca, fell in love with the daughter of a mezcalero, he and his business partner, Dylan Sloan, teamed up with the distiller, Aquilino García Lopéz, and formed Mezcal Vago. The brand sources from remote palenques (distilleries) all over the state, but the Elote is made by Lopéz himself in the mountain river town of Candaleria Yegolé. There, he places roasted corn grown on his ranch inside his small copper still with the fermented agave juice, resulting in a spirit with a unique character. “It has this cereal flavor and soft butteriness to it,” says Mix. “It’s really good.”
Best for a Margarita: Ilegal Joven
For the margaritas she serves at Leyenda, Mix likes to use this unaged mezcal produced by fourth-generation mezcaleros in Oaxaca’s Santiago Matatlan Valley. “I like its lightness,” she says. It’s made using Espadín agave, so “it’s still a bit smoky, but not aggressively so. It’s a little more citrusy with some vanilla.” Ilegal founder John Rexer used to smuggle mezcal out of Mexico to serve at his underground music club in Guatemala—hence the label’s name, in part. It also refers to the status of family members of the mezcaleros he works with, as they journey to the United States in search of a viable living. With recognition for the socioeconomic inequities involved in that migration, Rexer donates some of the proceeds of Ilegal sales to progressive causes.
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Best for a Negroni: Derrumbes San Luis Potosí
This unique mezcal is produced in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, where wild-growing Salmiana agave is cooked to release its sugars, not through traditional pit roasting, but by steam roasting in a brick oven similar to those used by makers of tequila. The result is a mezcal that’s “a whole different beast,” says Mix. “You really get to taste the agave, and it’s super-green and vegetal, kind of like eucalyptus and green bell pepper,” with none of the spirit’s typical smokiness. “You’re surprised to find it’s still mezcal,” says Mix, “but it makes for a really interesting Negroni.”
Best for Sipping: Nuestra Soledad Zoquitlán
Sourcing Espadín agave from palenques in towns throughout the Valles Centrales of their native Oaxaca, Valentín, Rolando, and Asis Cortés have created a line of mezcals in which “you can taste the terroir,” says Mix. “They treat their employees right, and all of their mezcal is delicious stuff. I highly recommend it for sipping.” Mix insists that “you can’t go wrong” with any of the six expressions, but perhaps most interesting is this bottle from noted distiller Ignacio “Don Chucho” Parada and his son, José Parada Valera, who live in the mountain village of Santa Maria Zoquitlán, where the agave is grown in perfect conditions, at high, dry altitudes in mineral-laden soils. Creamy with a peppery finish, it has notes of citrus, melon, papaya, and bell pepper.
Best Smoky: Del Maguey Vida
Ivy Mix calls this “entry-level” mezcal produced in the Oaxacan village of San Luis Del Rio “a classic go-to” for that traditional Espadín flavor. “For a long time, people just wanted mezcal to be smoky and agave-ish, and Del Maguey Vida does that in a good way,” she says. “It has some burnt rubber to it, a nice bit of smoke, and a good bit of sweetness for a full, rich mezcal.” Best of all, it’s produced with bartenders like her in mind. Mix keeps a bottle in the well at Leyenda, where it’s “excellent” in more assertive cocktails like a Oaxacan Old Fashioned.
Best Barril: El Jolgorio
From the same producers that make Nuestra Soledad, the mezcal line El Jolgorio, meaning “The Revelry,” is named after the mezcal-fueled festivals of Oaxaca’s mountain villages. A limited-edition series, it is produced using rare, wild, and semi-cultivated agaves. In this case, it’s Barril, a subspecies of the Karwinskii family of wild agaves that grow on distinctive, long stalks that Ivy Mix says makes them look like “funny, little palm trees.” This variety of agave yields a mezcal that, while smoky from the roasting process, is also “tannic, acidic, and very, very green,” says Mix, with a pronounced “herbaceous, highly vegetal note.”
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Best Organic: Doña Vega Mezcal Espadín
The female team behind this brand includes its founder, Sonya Vega Auvray, and its fifth-generation distiller. Triple distilled from organically grown agave, this mezcal is big on drinkability and versatility. “It has become my go-to because it goes with everything,” says Deena Sayers. “For me, the higher proof and ‘burn’ of most mezcals is not enjoyable, and Doña Vega has perfected the smoothness without compromising the flavor. Its soft smoke, dried fruit, and vegetal notes offer an elevated drinking experience.” Sayers likes it alongside fresh fruit, hard cheeses, and blended salts. “I always encourage people to sip it at room temperature so they can enjoy the layers of flavor,” she says, “though it can turn a simple cocktail into something special.”
Best Value: El Recuerdo de Oaxaca Joven
UFC mixed martial arts fighter Jorge Masvidal is behind this brand produced, not in a small-town palenque, but in Oaxaca’s largest, most modern distillery—a state-of-the-art facility focused on green energy use. Oscar Lopez, bartender at Lique Miami, likes this gently priced joven for its “smoky yet mellow cooked-agave flavor with sweet, light, bitter, and earthy notes” and its “silky texture.” Though he enjoys mixing it in cocktails with tropical fruit, citrus, and herbs, he also likes to sip it with an orange slice dipped in cinnamon powder, which “complements all the flavors of the mezcal.” For fans of earthier flavors, El Recuerdo also produces a mezcal with an agave worm in the bottle.
Best for Beginners: Vamonos Riendo Mezcal
Vodka lovers who are new to the spirit will appreciate this just-launched mezcal for its lightness, sweetness, and muted smoke. It's and ensamble, which is a mezcal made from a combination of two to three agave species that are distilled together. Created from a blend of eight-year-old Espadín and 14-year-old Tobala sourced from high-altitude fields, it’s “a great choice for mixing in cocktails because it pairs perfectly with both citrus and bitter notes,” says bartender Erick Castro of San Diego’s Polite Provisions and Raised By Wolves. Jessica Stewart of Fort Oak, also in San Diego, agrees that it’s great in drinks but also notes that “it’s beautiful on its own.” Her favorite thing about it is “its rich, chocolate finish.”
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