Close your eyes and take a sip of a good mezcal and you might envision the bucolic scene from which it springs. Huge agave piñas roast over wood fire in an earthen pit. A horse slowly traces circles around a mill, pulling the stone wheel that grinds the raw material into juice. Airborne yeast ferments the liquid in wooden vats before a wood-fueled pot still distills it.
Once derided as a crude cousin of Tequila, mezcal is gaining respect and fans through the artisanal traditions that give it its spicy and smoky character. Understanding and tasting mezcal are the keys to appreciating it. First forget the worm. You’ll not encounter one in any listed here. Next, know that while Tequila has stricter production regulations (it is limited mainly to the state of Jalisco and made out of nothing but blue agave), mezcal, which can be made in nine Mexican states, takes advantage of the option to use any of about 30 agave species. Espadin is well known in the U.S. Tobalá is the most common of the wild agaves.
Mezcal uses some of the same age designations as Tequila. Joven (sometimes called blanca) is unaged. Reposado indicates two to nine months in wood, and añejo is matured at least a year. Many purists, however, reject aging as they prefer to taste the agave’s charms unadorned by wood.
After years of importing industrial mezcal, the U.S. is now privy to artisanal products. The latest is from George Clooney’s Casamigos (80 proof, $60), with pronounced fruits like peach and banana. Chichicapa (92 proof, $70), part of Del Maguey’s Single Village collection, smacks of mint, citrus, salt and oak. Sombra (90 proof, $45) is a slightly smoky joven, which delivers bright citrus, mint and bread dough flavors. Leyenda makes a blanco in the state of Puebla that is fermented from tobalá agave and quite fruity with a mint and toffee (94 proof, $85). The Kimo Sabe joven combines steamed and roasted agave to produce a bright profile with sweetness, lemon and tea (86 proof, $40). Cooked in an autoclave instead of oven roasted, Zignum Añejo lacks the smoke of the other mezcals, but at 18 months is smooth and sugary with vanilla (80 proof, $50). Creyente (80 proof, $60) blends mezcal from two regions for a meaty, peppery taste. Ilegal Añejo (80 proof, $110) shows chocolate, fruits and leather. Montelobos (86.4 proof, $40) achieves a good balance between smoke and spicy jalapeño.
In his comprehensive book Finding Mezcal (Ten Speed Press, $30), Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper lists 40 cocktails made with mezcal, but a good cigar also makes a great mixer.