Until somewhat recently, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anything other than a dusty $20 bottle of drowned-worm swill in the mezcal section of your liquor store. But today, you can drop well over $100 on wild-harvested, handcrafted tepextate or tobalá from any number of industrious importers. As a result of its popularity in recent years, there is also a swath of wonderful Mexican mezcals available between those two price point extremes. Some are lower-proof, cocktail-friendly expressions that rarely rise above 40% ABV; others are neat-sipping entry points for higher-shelf brands.
These are five joven (young, unaged) mezcals produced the old-fashioned way (well, except for one), and each is made from 100% cultivated espadín agave, which is the genetic mother to tequila’s Weber blue variety. They include expressions that can be sipped straight, as well as those that are engineered for cocktails. But they’re all excellent, so get those glasses ready.
Del Maguey Vida ($35)
Vida is far and away the most commonly found mezcal behind the bar, primarily because of its Del Maguey lineage: The company’s founder, Ron Cooper, almost singlehandedly brought mezcal to the U.S. in the ’90s. It’s also popular because it hits the sweet spot between smoke, spice, agave and earthiness. Vida is sweet, savory and balanced, so it tastes great when poured straight into a glass. But considering that it’s half the price of its next-cheapest sibling, don’t hesitate to mix it into a cocktail like the Vida Paloma.
Fidencio Unico ($35) and Clásico ($40)
Aficionados often say that unaged joven mezcals are the spirit’s purest expression. So what about a mezcal whose agave has been cooked without the influence of an earthy, smoky fire? That’s the approach that mezcalero Enrique Jimenez took when he built a radiant-heat oven at Fidencio’s palenque (distillery) in Santiago Matatlán. And that’s where he crafts Único, the brand’s sin humo (without smoke) offering. As you might expect, Único is a strongly agave-forward spirit, but it’s also herbaceous, nutty and light on its feet at just 40% ABV. It’s a great appetizer for those just venturing into the world of mezcal. Fidencio’s Clásico, however, is a more potent version made in the traditional manner, with its agave hearts first roasted in underground pits. It’s distilled to proof at around 46% ABV. Made from organically farmed agave like its smoke-free counterpart, Clásico takes on a peppery, spicy minerality that gives it a lovely complexity. Drink it neat, or let it really punch through and announce itself as the backbone of a citrusy cocktail.
La Puritita Verdá ($40)
For a 40% ABV mezcal intended primarily for mixing, La Puritita Verdá—a joven mezcal that’s part of the Pierde Almas lineup and made in San Juan del Rio—is remarkably flavorful. It has a pleasing tannic minerality to it, but what stands out is its strong agave and ripe banana notes, which also make it quite unique when taken neat. This one punches well above its weight class, especially considering its entry-level price point, and it shows off its artisanal pedigree with aplomb.
Hailing from Santiago Matatlán, Primario is another spirit built with the bartender in mind. The light, 82-proof, small-batch mezcal boasts ripe fruits that stand up well next to citrus juice and brown spirits. Some herbaceous mezcals like this can exhibit a unique rubbery scent, so newcomers might balk at first whiff. But trust us, it’s better than it sounds. Those willing to step outside their comfort zone will experience a complex, unexpected dimension in their smoky cocktails.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
Though Wahaka may position itself as a sort of gateway mezcal (even the $90 Tobalá and Madre-Cuishe offerings top out at a relatively low 42% ABV), there’s nothing novice about the product. The introductory expression is distilled from estate-harvested espadín agave that’s cooked with pine wood in an earthen pit before it's crushed and left to ferment in wooden vats with wild yeast. That yields flavors that are subtle but gorgeously in tune, with hints of pepper, cinnamon and campfire ash. It’s a clean, smooth sipper and a super cocktail companion.