What is Mezcal?
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What Is Mezcal? 7 Mezcal Brands To Try

The boom of agave-based spirits has led to the rise of Tequila, and the question "What is Mezcal?" We explore the lesser known agave-based spirit.

There’s been a certain tequila or agave-based spirit boom over recent years and this isn’t just something being seen in the UK or US, it’s a global trend. 

Think of the gin craze from 2017 – 2020. Not only did it seem like everyone was drinking gin (which included every flavour under the sun) but also that everyone seemed to have their own gin brand as well! This is the sort of trend we are seeing with tequila and another agave-based spirit – Mezcal. 

The thing is, Mezcal has never really been talked about much before and while bartenders know how and when to use it, most people are only just hearing about Mezcal now and keen to either learn more or try it themselves. 

Well, we’re here to help. 

In this article, we’ll not only explain what Mezcal is and who will be more likely to enjoy it but also what some of the best Mezcal brands are as well.

We don’t want your first Mezcal experience to be a bad one so read on to discover the wonderful spirit that is Mezcal…

What Is Mezcal

A bottle of Mezcal with shot glasses

Mezcal, pronounced m-e-s-c-a-l, is an agave-based, Mexican spirit that falls under the “tequila” umbrella (more on this later). 

Similar to how scotch and bourbon are both types of whisky, well the same is true of Mezcal and tequila. They share their similarities, yet are also very much different. 

Mezcal is often considered to be the smoky alternative to tequila, however, the key confusion to firstly address is that tequila is a type of Mezcal – not the other way around! 

While Mezcal was first distilled in the 16th century, it was the mid 20th century when this spirit became more widely popular.

This is in part due to a supposed marketing gimmick when a moth larva (found in the agave plant) made its way into the final batch, thus starting the craze for “authentic” Mezcal and tequila needing to have a worm in the bottle. 

This arguably did the spirit more damage than good as it’s been considered a frat party drink ever since, however, the emergence of artisanal and craft spirits means that Mezcal is finally being treated as a distinguished and standalone product – not just the smoky cousin to tequila. 

What Is The Difference Between Tequila & Mezcal

It’s quicker to list the similarities between tequila and Mezcal than the differences, because the only real similarity is that they are both distilled from the agave plant. 

Due to the popularity of tequila in the UK and US, it’s easy to assume that it’s the foundational spirit in this category but in fact, Mezcal is technically the base that leads to the distinction:

“All tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is tequila”

Tequila and Mezcal are both made differently, tequila must be made from 51% Blue Weber agave plant whereas Mezcal can be distilled using up to 30 different varieties of the agave plant, which include: Espadin (most popular), Tobala and Madre Cuixtle. 

This means that Mezcal brands can vary noticeably in taste. Tequila can also vary in taste but this will typically be a result of the quality of the product/brand rather than it being intentional. 

Tequila will have a sweet and smooth taste whereas Mezcal will tend to have a savoury, rich, and smokey flavour. These differences are not just the result of the plant used but also the production process. 

Besides taste, Mezcal and tequila are also made differently. Tequila is ‘oven baked’ when cooking the agave plant whereas Mezcal slowly roasts the agave in a fire pit to create the rich smoky flavour. 

How Is Mezcal Made

A farmer shows works agave plant as part of the Mezcal production process

All Mezcal is made from the agave-plant resident in Mexico and must be produced in one of the 9 certified/regulated states, though the state of Oaxaca is the biggest producer. The agave plant is a succulent native to Mexico and the 9 chosen states for Mezcal production can have up to 200 different types of agave plant between them. 

These plants have differing sugar content used in the distilling process for Mezcal and around 30 types of agave plants are most commonly used to create Mezcal. We mentioned that Mezcal dates back to the early 16th century and this means that the distilling process for a traditional Mezcal is rather unique. 

To create Mezcal traditionally, the agave plant core (also known as the “pina”) is harvested and cooked in an earthen pit that is surrounded by lava rock and filled with wood/charcoal to give the product its distinct rich and smoky flavour. 

Once roasted, the agave pina is then crushed and milled to extract the sugar before being distilled in clay pots. Finally, once distilled, many types of Mezcal are left to age in oak barrels to further enhance the famed smoky flavour – though some are bottled straight away. 

The aging process will then look like the following:

  • Joven Mezcal: 0-2 months
  • Reposado Mezcal: 2-12 months
  • Anejo Mezcal: 1 year minimum

This is the traditional distilling process for creating Mezcal and is still used by artisanal Mezcal producers, though other brands have adopted more modern production processes. 

How to Drink Mezcal

Mezcal is mostly consumed neat with the spirit maintaining room temperature. Its smoky profile ensures that it has enough flavour to be a standalone drink, however, many bartenders utilise Mezcal in a number of cocktails including Margaritas, Sours, Negroni and Old Fashioned. 

Due to the variance between ABV (38% – 55%) and the types of plant that can be used to create Mezcal – which is much more varied than tequila – there is a range of Mezcals that can be sampled, all of which will offer something different. 

Below, we list some of the best Mezcal brands to currently try.   

Best Mezcal Brands To Try

1) Ilegal Mezcal

Illegal Mezcal

Ilegal Mezcal is a 100% Espadin Mezcal originating from Oaxaca. 

The company’s backstory is an interesting one, founder John Rexer reportedly used to smuggle the Mezcal into the US in the early inception of the product to supply his bar  Café No Sé. There was even an occasion when he disguised himself as a priest to do this – hence where the brand’s name originates from.  

Ilegal is available in Joven, Resposado, and Anejo and is primarily a Mezcal used for mixing. Therefore, if you are looking to test Mezcal in a few agave-based cocktails, this is one of the best options to consider. 

Discover Illegal Mezcal

2) Del Maguey Chichicapa

Del Maguey is one of (if not the) most widely known Mezcal brands in Western societies and has been a go-to option for over 25 years due to its reputable reputation. 

While they have a few different Mezcal options, the Chichicapa is one of the most popular and a great entry-point option for Mezcal tasting. At 46% ABV, the Chichicapa is rich and smoky but also has elements of sweet and citrus notes. 

This is recommended for those that enjoy a neat Mezcal – though it can be utilised in a cocktail or two!

Discover Del Maguey Chichicapa

3) Bruxo X

Bruxo X Mezcal

Bruno X (pronounced Bruho) Mezcal is a blend of two agaves – espadin (80%) and barril (20%) created in the town of San Dionisio Ocotepec. The process to produce this blend is different from what you might expect in that both the espadin and barril are produced separately as a 100% Mezcal version, and then blended post-production. 

Bruxo X is rather unique in that the taste is non-smoky, almost the opposite of what you’d expect from a Mezcal. Its notes are still earthy due to the distilling process, however, they are accompanied by a more sweet and citrus profile. 

This crystal clear Mezcal is best enjoyed neat or with a mixer, unlike some of the other brands that are better suited to craft cocktails.

Discover Bruxo X Mezcal

4) Montelobos Mezcal Espadin

Montelobos Mezcal

Montelobos is widely considered to be the best Mezcal for beginners, mainly due to its favourable price point and the fact that it’s not overpowering on the taste buds. 

A sustainable brand owned by the Campari Group, Montelobos Espadin is made using 100% espadin agave and offers the rich, smoky flavour that is great for introducing beginners into the world of Mezcal. Enjoy this neat or utilise it in a Margarita. 

Discover Motelobos Espadin

5) Dangerous Don

Dangerous Don Mezcal

Dangerous Don is a UK based Mezcal that still originates from Oaxaca. What’s interesting about Dangerous Don?

This is a coffee Mezcal making it a rarer type of Mezcal and certainly one that will appeal to any coffee tequila lovers out there (XO Cafe Patron anyone?).

Rather than having strong notes of chocolate – like many expect – Dangerous Don instead has a more nutty taste accompanied by the citrus and earthy flavour that you’d expect from a Mezcal. You’ll still get the chocolate-rich notes on the nose and overall, this is a moreish Mezcal ideal for sipping. 

Discover Dangerous Don

6) Gem & Bolt Gem and Bolt Mezcal

 

Gem & Bolt use a fourth-generation distiller in Oaxaca to create an espadin Mezcal. This is a relatively standard process to produce Mezcal, however, Gem & Bolt are unique in that they add the Mexican herb Damiana into the batch during the second stage of distillation. 

This is said to give people a euphoric sensation when taken as a stimulant, though provides more herby and botanical notes when used in a Mezcal. The name also originates from a mythic story where a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, roasting the core and ultimately leading to the invention of Mezcal.  

This sustainable and clean Mezcal is best enjoyed neat, while it’s not necessarily a traditional Mezcal (though it does use some traditional methods), it’s still a good entry-level Mezcal for any beginners reading this.

Discover Gem & Bolt Mezcal

7) Quiquiriqui

quiquiriqui mezcal

Quiquiriqui (almost impossible to pronounce) is a value option Mezcal widely favoured in the UK. It acts as a great entry into Mezcal for beginners as it’s a non-aged, espadin Mezcal. This allows for the rich, smoky flavour you’d expect from a Mezcal without being overpowering or overwhelming, especially for beginner tasters. 

The artisanal Mezcal comes from Tlacolula Valley, a section of Oaxaca where the majority of UK mezcal comes from and should therefore provide familiarity for anyone that is used to the UK developed Mezcal – not that there are many!

This can be enjoyed neat as an entry into Mezcal with its hot and fiery profile but it’s most commonly used for craft cocktails, mainly Margaritas. 

Discover Quiquiriqui Mezcal

Final Thoughts

Mezcal has started to make its way into the mainstream market and you’ve undoubtedly taken note if you’re reading this. This rich, smoky spirit is a great base for modern craft cocktails and something you’ll definitely enjoy experimenting with. 

If you are completely new to Mezcal spirits, the first step should be label and brand checking.

An official Mezcal label should include a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana, i.e. Official Mexican Standard) number, which indicates it’s from a registered Mexican distillery. 

It would also be good to note if the product is made using the traditional, fire pit roasting process or if it’s a more modern manufacturing process – we’d actually recommend trying both to see the difference. Finally, check out some craft cocktail recipes to test out. 

While Mezcal can be enjoyed neat with a pinch of salt and orange wedge (to bring out the full flavour of the Mezcal), much of the fun will be in sampling it with different cocktails to really see what the current Mezcal hype is all about!

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