Though they both come from agave plants, mezcal and tequila aren’t the same. There are more than 200 species of agaves out there but only the blue weber agave can be used to make tequila. Mezcal, on the other hand, can come from a variety of agave species with the espadin being one of the most common.
Another big difference between tequila and mezcal is the price point. Yes, you can get fancy tequila that’s on the more expensive side. These prices are nothing compared to mezcal, however. Why is that? It mostly has to do with the complicated and involved process as well as the maturation time of the agaves. Bottom line – the best mezcal is never cheap.
Some agave varietals take up to 20 years to mature, compared to the 7-10 years of the blue weber agave. This rivals well-aged whiskey that sits in a barrel for 15-20 years. The time comes at a different step in the process, but still the same idea. Harvesting also requires quite the effort, as there is no machinery involved.
Some plants only grow in limited areas, many not accessible by truck so horses and donkeys are required to transport heavy loads of the plant from one place to another. Even trimming the leaves is a job done carefully by hand as this can impact the flavor.
Lastly, even the distilleries are often located in remote areas, some not fully reachable by car. While the spirit is slowly growing in popularity, it’s still mostly produced in old, small areas of Mexico. The tradition of mezcal is passed down through so many generations that almost nothing is automated, not even the cooking process. The distillers just know when it’s ready.
When you put all of this together, it makes sense that mezcal costs so much. The popular espadin agave is perhaps most like the blue weber and can be harvested at around ten years. Mezcal from this varietal might come in at a more conservative $40, give or take. For the best of the best, though, don’t expect anything less than $100 for a bottle.
You might occasionally see the ‘tequila’ worm in mezcal, but this isn’t evidence of excellent mezcal. These days the worm is most often found in low quality mezcal expressions.
The Best Mezcal For Every Budget
Bottom Shelf Mezcal
1. Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Ilegal Mezcal’s name is apt considering the story behind this popular drink. Bar owner John Rexer wanted a good agave-based spirit for his bar but getting one was hard. So, he started smuggling a nice brand of artisanal mezcal into Guatemala with bribes, boats, bandits, and late-night deals.
It began as an illegal pursuit to serve the sweet spirit to his customers. Today it’s become its own brand. Located in Tlacolula, Mexico, current Master Distiller Eric Hernandez selects only the best agave plants to harvest, all of them roughly a decade old. The whole process is then overseen right at the distillery.
The resulting mezcal is unaged and flavorful. You’ll find notes of sweet agave, minerals, eucalyptus, and light floral tones. Fruitier notes like apples, pears, and citrus appear in the middle before a long finish.
2. Agave De Cortes Joven Mezcal
Agave De Cortes Joven Mezcal comes from an old distillery in Santiago Matatlan, still run by the Cortes family after many, many generations. Made from espadin agave, this expression is fairly new to the scene having just been released in 2015.
The family also owns and operates a restaurant, which they can conveniently stock with their own spirits. They have a wide range of mezcals available including collections under two additional brands.
The nose on this one offers mild smoke and vegetal ripeness with subtle floral notes. The palate follows with bright acidity and flavors of lemongrass, earth, and minerals with silky smoothness and a rich body.
3. Sombra Mezcal Artesanal Joven
Sombra Mezcal Artesanal Joven is another one made in Santiago Matatlan with espadin agaves. What differentiates this one is the unique and complex flavor profile that features an amazing combination of exotic fruit and spice. Once harvested, the agave hearts are slow-roasted over an oak fire in a rock pit. Ground and fermented before being expertly distilled, Sombra offers an exquisite result.
The brand began as a passion project and has carried on as such. The owners love mezcal but they also love the environment, pouring much of their passion into creating environmentally friendly production methods to produce their spirits as ethically as possible.
They also do what they can to reuse and recycle, offering leftover fibers from distillation to create upcycled bricks. These are then used to build new homes for those devastated by earthquakes in Mexico.
Middle Shelf Mezcal
1. Alipus San Juan Del Rio Mezcal
Alipus San Juan Del Rio Mezcal is produced by two identical twins who went into business together. They began in the restaurant industry, owning five restaurants in Mexico. It was in 1997 that they acquired a small distillery in Santiago Matatlán. Their goal was to provide their own restaurants with quality mezcal.
Their expressions have gone on to be quite successful outside their establishments. The distillery expanded in 2009 and they’re still going strong. 66 percent of this mezcal is aged in French Oak barrels with the other 33 percent aging in American white oak barrels. The result is a deep, complex profile
This smokey mezcal has a strong vegetal essence with notable flavors of agave and an intense smokey quality. It’s aged slightly, sitting in the barrels for about nine months before bottling.
2. Mezcal Vago Elote
This unique expression comes from a scenic distillery nestled along the bank of the Rio Atoyac River in a tiny village called Candelaria Yegole. Owner Aquilino Lopez watches as the espadin agaves grow and mature right on the estate.
3,500 feet above sea level, the estate enjoys a warm, dry climate with nutrient-rich soil, offering the perfect environment for the agave to thrive. The agave grows for about a decade before being harvested at its peak.
These agaves go through a careful and deliberate process involving a traditional stone wheel, corn infusion, and triple-distillation. The result is their Mezcal Vago Elote which offers an enticing aroma of minerals and smokey corn. Spices, honey, smokey oak, and tropical fruits follow on the palate with a finish full of mint, roasted nuts, and a touch of papaya.
3. Yola Mezcal
Yola Mezcal is produced by a strong and successful woman-owned distillery. Yola Jimenez inherited the distillery from her grandfather, who shared her passion for mezcal. She employs only women to craft and distill the mezcal. They strive for sustainability, contributing to reforestation efforts, using solar power, using rainwater catching systems, and more.
This mezcal is made using the popular Epadin agave blended with Madre-cuixe. The blend is roasted longer than the average mezcal and is double-distilled in copper pot stills. The process pays homage to tradition while balancing modern, innovative methods.
The result is mezcal with a lovely profile, offering clean agave on the nose and a most refreshing palate that balances smokey flavors with notes of earthy minerals. It finishes long with sweeter notes of fruit and citrus.
Top Shelf Mezcal
1. Real Minero Largo
Real Minero Largo is a rare and exquisite treat. It’s made in extremely small batches with clay pot stills and it’s made with the rare largo agaves matured for 14 years. Real Minero is a family-operated distillery that’s famous in Mexico and known around the world as one of the ultimate mezcal masters.
They began distilling in the 1970s but have been growing agaves for much longer. After distillation, the spirit rests in glass before being bottled, adding a unique softness to the profile.
The premium mezcal offers a tropical, fruity aroma with a complex array of flavor notes. You’ll find a combination of salty, spicy, and peppery flavors with a subtle touch of smoke. The palate is quite bold and strong, offering a very flavorful experience.
2. Del Maguey Tobala Mezcal
Del Maguey is the creation of Ron Cooper and it’s a unique, somewhat mysterious series of mezcal. It’s produced in Oaxaca with help from many different producers within the remote villages, many of them of indigenous Zapotec Mexican Indian descent.
The drink is made using a series of ancient and organic processes. This, paired with the different microclimates of the different regions, produces a series of drinks that are varied and unique.
The Tobala Mezcal has a sweet and fruity palate with notes of mango and cinnamon. The finish is long and unbelievably smooth. It comes from the agave Tobala and is roasted for 30 days with oak wood and distilled in a traditional copper pot still.
3. El Jolgorio Barril Mezcal
El Jolgorio Baril Mezcal is produced in a careful, natural, unhurried way. It uses traditional family recipes that have been passed down for many generations and the family is not in a rush to get it right.
Once crushed and fermented, the Master Mezcaleros examine the taste, sight, and smell of the wash as they slowly determine when it’s ready to be distilled. Once ready, it’s distilled in copper stills heated ovewor a wood fire. It’s a long process before this expression hits the bottle, but every step is worth the complex and flavorful result.
The palate opens with fresh herbs and spices, followed by spicy notes of black pepper. The finish offers a sweeter touch of vanilla, apples, and citrus.