What is mezcal?
Mezcal is one of the oldest distilled spirits in the Americas, dating back some 500 years. It’s produced from the agave plant, of which there are many varieties found all around Mexico. The word mezcal comes from the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl, and means cooked agave.
Since 1994, a protected denomination of origin has been granted for mezcal; an international recognition that certifies that only products made in a specified area of Mexico can be called mezcal, similar to that for champagne. This status limits the production of agave spirits called mezcal to certain Mexican states (although this is always changing).
Mezcal is similar to tequila, but whereas tequila can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from many types of agave. It gets its characteristically smoky flavour from how it’s made – the agave is traditionally slow roasted in underground pits to convert the starch in the plant into sugar that can be fermented into alcohol and distilled.
The influence of terroir on the flavour of the agave is hugely important and contributes to producing complex and intricate differences from expression to expression. Different regional techniques play a part as well as generational learnings, location and climate.
The knowledge and techniques used in mezcal production are passed down through generations. Production methods are sacred pieces of a producer’s identity, their individual techniques form the integrity of their family’s mezcal. Communities are built on mezcal production and so the traditions and rituals of the process are essential to community life.
How to enjoy mezcal
Mezcal is best enjoyed straight-up at room temperature in order to appreciate the intricate and complex flavour profiles of each different expression. Never ‘shoot’ mezcal, sip it and take your time.
If you have never drunk mezcal before I would start simple and explore espadín, which is the most common agave varietal. Mezcal is so vast in flavour profiles and complexity and so ordering the most expensive, rare variety may not be the best place to start.
It is important to read the label and avoid any industrially produced mezcals. If it simply says ‘mezcal’ on the bottle I would stay away, go for the labels which say ‘mezcal artesenal’ or ‘mezcal ancestral’. These are made using traditional methods and practices.
Best mezcals to buy
Papadiablo Especial is one of the most special mezcals I have ever tried. There is limited stock left in the UK so get it while you can. This is herbaceous, spicy, peaty, and the flavours go on and on. A must for any mezcal enthusiast.
Koch mezcal is a great brand which works with many different producers all over Oaxaca and beyond. The mezcal is exceptional. This espadín is a great place to start in their range and is tropical with a peppery finish.
This mezcal is the go-to for an excellent quality espadín. Great to sip and also excellent for cocktails. QuiQuiRiQui should be a staple in every drinks cabinet.
Gente de Mezcal have a small and mighty selection of wild agave varieties and I love their tepeztate, which is bursting full of flavour. Spicy and herbaceous and a total joy!
Sin Gusano is an awesome project aimed at showcasing the diversity of mezcal regions and traditions and the batches are always super small. Look out for their MAS (Mezcal Appreciation Society) events around the UK. This tobalá is crisp and mineral and well worth a try.
A real exploration of the region of Miahuatlán, using madrecuishe and espadín agave. Expect roasted apricot, rich cacao and sweet agave. This is the first expression from Pensador and I think the more interesting.
A true legend in the mezcal world, Eduardo Javier Ángeles Carreño (Lalo), creates exceptional mezcals and this tobasiche is no exception. This one packs a punch but the craftsmanship of Lalo shines through every bottle.
Neta Spirits produce small-batch destilado de agaves and work very closely within the region of Miahuatlán. This is my favourite expression we have in the UK and an excellent investment.
This mezcal is steeped in Oaxacan coffee and then re-distilled for a third time. It’s the only café mezcal on the market, made with hand-grown, organic Naomquie coffee beans. The result is a rich and chocolatey mezcal, super smooth with hints of coffee. Perfect for after dinner!
About the expert
Thea Cumming is the founder of Dangerous Don, a UK drinks brand working with producers in Mexico to create premium mezcal. Dangerous Don currently has two pours, an Espadin and a Destilado Con Café, plus a third Destilado Con Mandarina launching in September 2021. Thea owns and runs Doña, a Stoke Newington-based, female-led cocktail bar, that offers a short agave-based cocktail list as well as an extensive range of mezcals.