Ten years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything other than a dusty $20 bottle of worm-drowning swill in the mezcal section of your liquor store. Today, you can easily drop $100 on wild-harvested, handcrafted tepextate or tobalá from any number of industrious importers. As a result of its popularity these last few years, there's also a swath of wonderful Mexican mezcals in between those two price point extremes. Some are lower-proof, cocktail-friendly expressions that rarely rise above 40 percent ABV; others neat-sipping entry points for higher-shelf brands. They're all joven (young, unaged) spirits, and produced the old-fashioned way (except for one), but from 100 percent cultivated espadín agave (the genetic mother to tequila's blue weber variety). Plus, they're all excellent. Get those glasses ready.
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, pretty much singlehandedly brought mezcal to the US back in the '90s. It’s also popular because it hits the sweet spot between smoke, spice, agave and earthiness. About half the price of its next cheapest sibling, the mixology-friendly Vida's sweet-savory balance plays nice in any cocktail.
El Jolgorio's high-end offerings are extremely diverse, tasty and pricey. But the brand's entry-level espadín line, Nuestra Soledad, offers a great range of sub-$40 options from four different regions in Oaxaca. The expression from La Compañía Ejutla is beautifully complex, bright, dry and floral with hints of cilantro and mint. Amazing on its own, but at this price, you shouldn't feel bad about mixing with it either.
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 in Santiago Matatlán to craft Unico, the brand's sin humo (without smoke) offering. As you might expect, Unico is a strongly agave-forward spirit, but it's also herbaceous, nutty and light on its feet at just 40 percent 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 percent. Made from organically farmed agave like its smoke-free counterpart, Clásico takes on a peppery, spicy minerality that gives it a lovely complexity. Drink neat, or let it really punch through in a citrus cocktail.
Ever since NPR ran a story about two business-minded cousins from Oaxaca and their long-range plan to bring jobs to their impoverished mountain village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag by starting their own distillery, bottles of Mezcal Tosba have become fairly scarce. But it's hardly just because of the hype. The 42-percent espadín is a beautifully round and complex expression of cooked agave, gently spiced smoke and burnt caramel—and is a steal at $34. If you can get your hands on it, buy it, because rumor has it that the next batch to find its way across the border may end up north of $40.
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-percent ABV), there's nothing novice about the product. The introductory espadín's flavors are subtle but gorgeously in tune—with hints of pepper, cinnamon and campfire ash. A clean, smooth sipper and a super cocktail companion.
Alipús is Los Danzantes' easy-on-the-wallet category of distinctly different 95-proof mezcals, each named for the Oaxacan town in which it's distilled. The San Juan Del Rio edition has a slightly citric nose, rounded out with a little sweetness and vanilla. A classic mezcal expression, and well worth its $40 price tag.
For a 40-percent ABV mezcal intended primarily for mixing, La Puritita Verdá is remarkably flavorful. It's got a nice tannic minerality to it, but what really stands out is its strong agave and ripe banana notes, which also make it pretty unique when taken neat. This one punches well above its weight class, and shows its Pierde Almas pedigree nicely.
Another spirit built with the bartender in mind, Primario is a light, 82-proof mezcal whose ripe fruit stands up well next to citrus juice and brown spirits. Some herbaceous mezcals like this can tend to have a rubbery scent to them, so newcomers might balk at first whiff. Trust us, it's better than it sounds. Those willing to step outside their comfort zone will experience an unexpected dimension in a smoky cocktail.