It should be noted that just because you like smoky scotch and tequila, that does not mean you will necessarily enjoy mezcal. I learned this the hard way myself—well, the long way, to be precise. For years, I’d enjoyed the aggressive peat of a good Islay single malt, as well as the earthy and sweet notes of a finely tuned, 100-percent agave tequila.
So… mezcal should have been immediately appealing, right? Not really. It didn’t catch on with me until the past couple of years, for a variety of reasons. For one, I wasn’t sure if I had space to add another spirit to my palate, as crowded as it is with all the bourbon, rum, gin, and tequila I’m tasting from week to week. Besides, mezcal is a singular spirit, for better or for worse.
It’s equal parts smoky, vegetal, crisp, sweet, and funky. But as I started to try more and more bottles, and especially after a brief trip to Oaxaca, mezcal really started to grow on me, and I’m very pleased that it has.
Mezcal is getting more popular here in the U.S., although it’s still nowhere near the scale of tequila as far as sales, availability, or even familiarity. Bartenders love making cocktails with it, though (we miss you, bartenders!), and more and more people are drinking it at home, either neat or using it to mix up their own concoctions. Also, environmental initiatives seem to be a focus of many mezcal brands, with distilleries implementing recycling and upcycling efforts to sustain the earth and ensure their own survival as the planet changes.
Del Maguey, which celebrates 25 years this year, was one of the first widely available mezcals in America. The brand was founded by artist Ron Cooper, and is now part of the Pernod Ricard portfolio. The focus is on mezcal made by family palenques located in single villages. Each expression uses a different type of maguey (though some are blends of different types) that brings unique flavors to the spirit, from the entry level VIDA, to the limited edition Vino de Mezcal series, to Ibérico, a collaboration with Chef José Andrés that incorporates Ibérico ham into the distillation process to impart new flavors. The newest village to join the line is Las Milpas, the first addition to the core range in 25 years.
There are currently three different types of mezcal available from Montelobos, with another one on the way. The brand, which is owned by Campari, has an Espadín expression, a mix of three different agave types called Ensamble, and an expression that uses the rarer Tobalá agave. The newcomer to the lineup is Pechuga, a triple-distilled mezcal that incorporates turkey breast, fruit, and spices into the last distillation to add flavor and texture to the spirit.
Like other mezcal brands, Sombra focuses on two varieties, a 100-percent Espadín expression, and a limited edition Ensamble made using Tepeztate and Tobalá agave (only 2,000 bottles of this were produced). Sombra is one of the few mezcal brands that owns and operates its own distillery—whereas most other liquid is sourced from small farms or distilleries that make mezcal for a number of brands. One interesting feature of Sombra’s sustainability efforts is that leftover fibers and vinasa (liquid byproduct) from distillation are used to make adobe bricks for building homes.
Mezcales de Leyenda
Mezcales de Leyenda offers an impressive lineup of mezcal expressions that are made using agave types that range far beyond Espadín. The flagship line consists of different mezcals that are made in six of the states in which mezcal can be produced, including Oaxaca and Durango, each using a different type of maguey, and each the work of a specific mezcalero. There are also four special editions from “hyper-small producers, unique agaves, as well as biosphere reserves,” according to the brand.
The Ángeles family behind the Real Minero brand of mezcal has been making the spirit for four generations, and it quite literally remains a family-run operation today. Their mezcal, which is held in high esteem around the world, is distilled in clay pots and made using a variety of agave types that are either distilled separately and blended, or combined in the mash before distillation. One example is the Real Minero Blend of 4, made from Barril, Largo, Tripon, and Espadín agave. This mezcal was put into glass containers to rest for a decade before bottling in 2014.
Doña Vega is a relatively new mezcal brand founded by Sonya Auvray, president of PR company Wetherly Group. Doña Vega’s mezcalera is a woman who runs the farm where it’s distilled with her three daughters. There are two expressions available, each made from a different type of agave—the commonly used Espadín, and the much rarer Tobalá from the high desert region.