“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 Jalisco 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.
In the below list, we've taken out a lot of the guesswork involved and selected the Oaxacan Rey Compero Tepextate as our overall favorite. Here are the best mezcals available to get right now.
Rey Compero Tepextate
Region: Oaxaca (Sierra Sur) | ABV: 48% | Tasting notes: White flowers, incense, light smoke
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 for Beginners
Region: Oaxaca (Santiago Matatlán) | ABV: 43.2% | Tasting notes: Grass, Honey, Smoke
Balance is the name of the game with this sustainable mezcal made from organic agave in Santiago Matatlán. The tastes of both green and cooked agave mingle with the smoke from the roasting pit, and all those flavors create a profile that tells the story of mezcal in every sip. In other words, it educates a newbie’s palate without blowing them away with smokiness.
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Gracias A Dios Espadín
Region: Oaxaca (Santiago Matatlán) | ABV: 45% | Tasting notes: Grass, pepper, tobacco
“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.
Del Maguey Tobala
Region: Oaxaca (Santa Maria Albarradas) | ABV: 45% | Tasting notes: Tropical fruit, hint of rose, slight smoke
“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
Mezcal Vago Elote
Region: Oaxaca (Candelaria Yegolé) | ABV: 50% (may vary) | Tasting notes: Sweet corn, Creamy butter, honeycomb
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 Candelaria 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 Sipping
Nuestra Soledad Santa Maria Zoquitlán
Region: Oaxaca (Santa Maria Zoquitlán) | ABV: 46% | Tasting notes: Cream, Pepper, Citrus
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 for a Mezcal Margarita
Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Region: Oaxaca (Santiago Matatlan Valley) | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Citrus, Vanilla, Smoke
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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Del Maguey Vida
Region: Oaxaca (San Luis Del Rio) | ABV: 42% | Tasting notes: Honey, Vanilla, Burnt Sandalwood
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 an Oaxacan Old Fashioned.
Best for a Mezcal Negroni
Derrumbes San Luis Potosí
Region: San Luis Potosi | ABV: 44.3% | Tasting notes: Eucalyptus, Green bell pepper, Umami
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.”
El Jolgorio Barril
Region: Oaxaca (Central Valleys) | ABV: 47% | Tasting notes: Apple, Black Pepper, Vegetal, Smoke
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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Cráneo Organic Mezcal
Region: Oaxaca | ABV: 42% | Tasting notes: Smoke, Grapefruit, Cotton candy
A single-estate mezcal from 123 Spirit's David Ravandi, this delicious bottle is produced from 100-percent organic agave grown in this Santiago Matatlán at nearly 6,000 feet, where its sugars develop slowly into complex layers of flavor: orange and grapefruit and plantain. Pit-roasted and tahona-crushed, then twice-distilled in copper-pot stills, it’s a traditional spirit that’s easy on the earth.
Region: Oaxaca (San Miguel Ejutla) | ABV: 42% | Tasting notes: Tropical fruit, Smoke, Pepper
Produced by 36 families in the Oaxacan municipality of San Miguel Ejutla, this mezcal is steeped in the traditions and terroir of its home. The cooperative members roast their own Espadín and Barril agave in earthen-pit ovens, grind with a horse-drawn tahona, and distill it in rustic stills to produce a mezcal rich in smoke flavor but with fruit-forward notes of ripe banana, guava, and pineapple. It’s a bargain for a mezcal Old Fashioned.
If you’re a fan of assertive, smoky espadín-based mezcals, go for Gracias a Dios (view at Drizly). But if you’re a fan of fruity tobala agave, try Del Maguey Tobala instead (view at Wine.com).
What's the difference between mezcal & tequila?
Mezcal is an agave-based spirit, and tequila, in fact, is a type of mezcal. Unlike the wider mezcal category, which encompasses spirits made from upwards of 30 different types of agave, tequila can be made only with blue agave in just five Mexican states. Production methods differ as well. Whereas the agave for tequila is steam-roasted, agave for mezcal is often pit roasted, giving it a smoky flavor.
How is mezcal made?
Mezcal is made by roasting the sweet hearts of the agave plant in an earthen pit, then crushing and fermenting them to yield a sweet mash that is distilled in copper alembic stills.
Is all mezcal smoky?
There are varying degrees of smoky flavor among mezcals. Some, like Del Maguey Vida, have a smoke profile to rival Scotch. Others, like Illegal Joven, are lighter on the smoke, emphasizing fruitiness and other flavors instead.
What's the best way to drink it?
You can swap in mezcal in any tequila-based drink, including Margaritas, but given its rich, intense character, it’s also a good substitute for scotch or whiskey in classics like the Old Fashioned. But it’s wonderful sipped neat in a traditional manner, followed by an orange slice dipped in sal de gusano, a salt blended with chiles and insect larva.
What to Look For
Many mezcals include information about how they are made on their labels. The more information, the better. This is helpful if you’re looking for a truly artisanal, hand-made product that has not been adulterated with additives. A mezcal label should also include a NOM (or Norma Oficial Mexicana, i.e. Official Mexican Standard) number, indicating which distillery it came from and designating it a true product of Mexico.
Agave takes eight to 30 years to come to maturity, and communities that make mezcal rely on a consistent supply of the piñas for their livelihood. Brands that invest in sustainable farming and harvesting of agave are the ones that are protecting the future of mezcal. Such brands often include information about sustainability on their websites and labels.
Drinkers new to mezcal are often shocked by the price tag. But most mezcals are still made via laborious, artisan methods. The agave that is their raw material is nowhere near as abundant as, say, grain for whiskey. So, a higher price tag simply reflects the expense of production. You should generally expect to pay more.
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Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. She has spent quality time in Mexico’s agave fields, distilleries, and mezcal bars.