It’s Cinco de Mayo, so everyone suddenly loves Mexico and all things Mexican, despite Donald J. Trump’s best efforts. Burrito specials pop up on restaurant menus (sometimes even at restaurants that don’t serve Mexican food), college students break out offensive fake mustaches and sombreros and slam Coronas, Taco Bell thinks about dusting off its “make a run for the border” slogan, and everyone talks about, and drinks, tequila. Now, we should all be drinking tequila – good tequila – all year round, not just on this day celebrating Mexico’s 1862 victory over the French. There is quite a bit of quality tequila to go around these days, and whiskey drinkers should particularly pay attention to some excellent anejo expressions that are available at the moment. But whiskey drinkers, as well as fans of spirits in general, also ought to take a closer look at the mezcal category.
Our Ask the Expert column recently broke down the differences and similarities between tequila and mezcal, so I won’t go too much into it here. Suffice it to say that mezcal is the broader category, meaning that tequila is a type of mezcal. Both are distilled from agave, but tequila is distilled from one species while mezcal can be distilled from multiple species. Mezcal is largely associated with Oaxaca, but can be made in other regions of Mexico as well. And it has a smoky flavor that comes from the agave pinas being cooked over a wood fire, picking up smoke in much the same way that scotch does when peat is burned to dry out barley.
“Mezcal is the real deal,” says Danny Mena, co-founder of Mezcales de Leyenda. “[It] has a long history dating back over 500 years, and maybe even longer – turning a beautiful, slow-growing plant into [a] spirit that captures the land, the producer… and the culture perfectly.” Founder, master distiller, and CEO at 123 Spirits, David Ravandi, thinks it’s only a matter of time before mezcal joins tequila in the ranks of popularity, and sees the rise in cocktail culture as being a significant factor. “Authentic, artisanal spirits like mezcal are the calling cards of industry’s most creative mixologists and industry professionals,” he says. “Everyone is looking for the next new, exotic ingredient for their signature cocktails, and mezcal fits the bill.”
Speaking of cocktails, you will find mezcal on the menus of sophisticated bars, as both a drink component and deserving of its own spirits list, more and more these days. Mezcal’s smoky, complex, and slightly floral flavor plays quite nicely with other spirits like whiskey, amaro, gin, and vermouth. “You can drink it neat and appreciate all its organoleptic qualities,” says Mena, “Just as easy, it can mix into cocktails ranging from fruity and acidic like margaritas… to ones expressing its floral qualities like Negronis, to its more roasted, darker qualities in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.”
Editor’s Note: Check out the companion piece detailing five mezcal cocktails
According to Ravandi, commercial, mass production of mezcal will not yield the same results as the authentic, old school production methods that are employed by most brands. “That’s not to say that mezcal production hasn’t been modernized,” he says, “but the category is still relatively small. Of course producers are going to evolve the flavor profiles to gain a wider audience, but I believe that it’s going to remain a relatively niche product with a loyal following. We know that consumers are driving demand for mezcal when we see upscale chains like P.F. Chang’s and Pappas Bros. adding mezcal to their bars.”
Here are some of mezcal brands that are worth exploring this Cinco de Mayo, and every other day of the year as well.
Craneo just launched this past November, under the 123 Spirits umbrella that also covers 123 Organic Tequila and El Luchador Organic Tequila Blanco 110. Craneo is distilled in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca from organic agave grown at 5,600 feet. The flavor is described as having slightly sweet barbecue smoke and citrus notes. The bottle is striking – the artwork features a picture of a skull that was inspired by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl.
Mezcales de Leyenda has a collection of different mezcals that are sourced from agave grown in five different regions of Mexico. There are six in the core range, with the newest hailing from Puebla and San Luis Potosi, and four limited releases. All of the mezcal released by Leyenda is USDA Organic and Fair Trade Certified, and each showcases a slightly different attribute of this intrinsically complex and robust spirit.
Montelobos is imported by William Grant & Sons, the company behind other notable spirits like Hendrick’s Gin, The Balvenie single malt, and Tullamore D.E.W. Irish whiskey. Montelobos is made in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca – sometimes referred to as the capital of mezcal. Chemist and mezcal expert Ivan Saldana is one of the driving forces behind the spirit, which is produced by Casa Montelobos. The bottle looks pretty impressive too, with a fierce looking wolf emblazoned on the label.
One of Sombra’s claims to fame is that a master sommelier is behind the wheel here – author, winemaker, and master sommelier Richard Betts. Sombra, founded in 2006, is distilled in Oaxaca at 90 proof from organically farmed espadin agave. Each bottle is its own work of art, as they are individually hand blown from recycled glass by local artists in Mexico.
If you’re looking for a celebrity endorsement in your mezcal, look no further than Cheech Marin’s Tres Papalote. The spirit is distilled from agave from Guerrero and is slightly smoky, but not overpoweringly so, with an earthy sweetness lurking just underneath. The bottle’s design was inspired by a glass sculpture in Marin’s Chicano art collection and pops just as much as the liquid contained within.