We’re living in the golden age of spirits. Never before have there been more bottles of booze vying for a parking space on your bar cart. We lean on the pros to help you build a bottle list from scratch.
The mezcal movement has never been stronger in American bars, but when it comes to drinking Mexico’s native spirit at home, many people still don't know where to start. What's available on store shelves for everyday consumers, and how can you build a diverse collection for the home bar?
We turned to two trusted experts to help guide you through the process. Josh Phillips is a certified master mezcalier and serves as the general manager of Washington, D.C.'s Espita Mezcaleria, one of the country's best mezcal bars. Danny Kuehner is the bar manager at San Diego's Madison on Park. When he's not behind the stick, he's making frequent trips to Oaxaca in the name of hard work and research.
Between the two of them, they came up with the five essential mezcals for your home bar.
For his first choice, Phillips turns to what he says is the most common go-to when he and his team are looking for a casual sip. "Buho is one of the single best values in mezcal," he says. "It is our house mezcal at Espita. It's versatile and wallet-friendly enough to find its way into most of our cocktails but downright tasty enough to drink neat."
"A little bit of earth, banana and sweet custard are what I usually associate with the latest release of Buho," says Phillips. "Light smoke, but enough to show in cocktails if that's what you're looking for. This would be the mezcal I would use as a straight substitute for tequila and expect excellent results."
“The agave used to make this mezcal is wild and takes 25 to 35 years to mature,” says Kuehner. “It’s another must-have from an amazing producer. This is a sipping mezcal, to be served neat with sal de gusano [worm salt] and orange wedges. Find a floral nose and mineral notes on the palate with a long finish.”
Kuehner also highlights a few additional aspects of the producer. “They use the spent agave pulp as paper for the label and employ only women for bottling and labeling to create equality,” he says.
"Espadín is the most common agave usec in mezcal production," says Kuehner. Therefore, a second take on the variety is in order, and for his selection, Kuehner turns to El Silencio.
"This mezcal is a great sipper that also works extremely well in cocktails," says Kuehner. "I find spices on the nose, and then it's deep and earthy on the palate. Take your favorite cocktail and just swap out the base spirit with this."
Kuehner turns to a wild-grown agave for his next pick, tobalá, here showcased by the Del Maguey brand. "The agave used to distill tobalá is found only in the wild, in high altitude canyons, under the shade of oak trees," he says. "This is a small agave that takes 12 to 18 years to mature."
For mezcal drinkers, it's worth the wait. "This mezcal should be sipped neat, preferably with some sal de gusano and a couple of orange wedges," says Kuehner. "It has the flavor profile of a fruit and cheese plate on the nose, while it's smooth and complex on the palate."
Last but not least, Phillips chooses a mezcal for the whiskey drinker. "I find that mezcal made from agave Mexicano scratches my itch whenever I'm in a whiskey mood,” he says. “This one reminds me of a nice rye. It's made by Rómulo Sánchez in Yegole, Oaxaca. He's an incredibly relaxed, contemplative guy, and it shows in his mezcal."
"It's spicy and rich,” says Phillips. “It has a subtle smoke to it—soft, not ashy. It's just a crowd pleaser. This is a bottle that people at Espita frequently refer to as their favorite."
Enjoy it on its own or use it in place of whiskey in classic cocktails that let the base spirit shine. The favorite for Phillips? "This one will yield a far superior mezcal Old Fashioned than you find in most bars," he says.