In the past few years, mezcal has taken the U.S. by storm—here’s what you need to know about the Mexican liquor.

Michael Y. Park
June 28, 2021
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Mezcal has undergone a remarkable transformation in reputation in the United States in the last decade or so. No longer the slightly sinister liquor that sits on the back shelf until called out for that immature test of masculine bravado—doing shots and eating the worm from the bottle—mezcal is finally being recognized as a high-quality artisanal product that's a highly quaffable embodiment of the land, traditions and people of Mexico. So toss out your definition of mezcal as "basically smoky tequila" and learn the basics of America's new favorite liquor.

What Is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic drink that by definition and by Mexican law must be made from the agave plant, a slow-growing succulent native to Mexico and parts of Texas. Mezcal was first distilled in the 16th century by the conquistadors, who, as invading soldiers tend to do, made getting drunk a top priority in the hostile territory they were occupying and tried making booze out of anything local they could get their hands on.

The mezcal-making tradition eventually became an important part of Mexican culture, but mezcal didn't really become familiar to drinkers in the United States until Prohibition drove thirsty American tourists to Mexico in search of a legal buzz. In the mid-20th century, a shrewd producer found that moth larvae had infiltrated a batch and, instead of tossing it out, saw a marketing opportunity. It worked, but typecast mezcal as a low-quality drink in norteamericano eyes for decades.

What Kinds of Mezcals Are There?

Today, mezcal is produced in various regions of Mexico, but the vast majority comes from Oaxaca. Mexican regulations allow mezcal to be made in nine Mexican states, and producers can use any kind of agave grown in those areas. There are over 200 subspecies of agave, but differences in sugar content combined with the designation-of-origin laws mean mezcal can really be made from fewer than 50 varieties, such as cupreata, tobaziche, cuish, cirial, arroqueño, tepeztate, madrecuixe, jabalí and wild-grown tobalá (called the "king of agaves" because of its prized flavor and challenging sourcing). Still, most mezcal by far is made from the variety called espadín, which matures in a relatively swift six or seven years, compared to up to 30 for other agaves. Blended mezcals made from different kinds of agaves mixed together are also available—they're called ensembles.

The way the mezcal is produced creates a sometimes-confusing flowchart that determines a particular bottle's ultimate labeling. Mezcal can fall into three different categories, depending on how modern or traditional the production methods are, from just plain mezcal, which allows for fully modern production, to mezcal ancestral, in which producers use only traditional methods, including distilling in clay pots rather than stainless steel. In between is mezcal artesanal, which largely heeds traditional methods but is laxer when it comes to the laborious process of milling the agave and allows for copper or stainless-steel-bottomed stills.

After that, mezcal is further defined by its class. Joven ("young," formerly blanco, or "white") mezcal is unaged; madurado en vidrio ("matured in glass") is aged in a glass container for at least 12 months; reposado ("rested") is aged for at least two months but less than a year in wood; and añejo ("vintage") is aged in wood for over a year. Two other classes include abocado ("semisweet"), for flavored or infused mezcals, including those with the infamous maguey worm (actually a moth larva); and destilado con ("distilled with"), in which other flavors or ingredients are added during an additional distillation. Joven mezcal makes up the biggest chunk of the mezcal sold and drunk both in Mexico and in other countries, including the U.S., and is probably the only kind of mezcal all but the most esoteric drinkers need order—it's not traditional to age mezcal, and it only tends to lose its special characteristics after too much time in an oaken barrel.

Regardless of the category or class, the result of the mezcal distillation process is a liquor that ranges between 38% and 55% alcohol by volume and can vary widely in flavor and quality.

"It is really mind-boggling the variety of flavors in there," said Robert Simonson, author of Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails. "How your mezcal is going to taste is dependent on three things: one, the agave; two, where it's grown (an agave in the highlands will get a more vegetal, herbal taste, and if it's closer to water, people think that's more saline); and three, the mezcalero. They all have their own way of harvesting and fermenting and distilling, and really put their stamp on it with the traditions and skills they bring to the table, as well as the flavor they're going for."

2 glasses of mezcal on a designed background with an agave plant
Credit: Getty Images / Daniel Caja, Adobe Stock / Andrs

Tequila vs. Mezcal

In a nutshell, the difference between mezcal and tequila is this: Tequila is mezcal, but mezcal isn't necessarily tequila. In other words, tequila is a kind of mezcal—which, as already mentioned, is a broad category of spirit. Tequila is a mezcal that's made from the blue Weber agave, and it is made only in specific regions of Mexico, including around the eponymous city of Tequila and elsewhere in the state of Jalisco, as well as areas in four other states.

Tequila is made using somewhat different processes than other mezcals. It's cooked in aboveground ovens or autoclaves, resulting in a generally sweeter, less smoky final product than mezcal.

Notably, tequila's also largely made by multinational conglomerates, who favor highly industrialized production, rather than the typically much smaller mezcalero setup. In the mid-20th century, tequila makers began making a concerted effort to appeal to U.S. palates and pushed mass-produced tequila out onto the international market, which embraced it as the supposedly native Mexican liquor. Many Mexicans themselves began to regard it as no longer really authentically Mexican—even today, about 70% of tequila is shipped outside of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the little mezcal that could even be found in the U.S. came with an insect in each bottle. "It was a complete marketing ploy to get the spirit more attention, but it perpetuated an image in the United States that was on its head from what it was in Mexico," Simonson said. "Mezcal was a shot people took and woke up with a terrible hangover. Tequila was seen as the respectable spirit and mezcal was some rotgut, when really the opposite was true on the other side: mezcal was an artisanal heritage spirit made for hundreds of years, while tequila was what they mass-marketed to the world."

How to Drink Mezcal

Mezcal is normally consumed straight at room temperature. A good mezcal isn't intended to be downed in one gulp. "It really is a sipping spirit," Simonson said. "Don't shoot it back—it's not like tequila. Spend some time with it. You'd be surprised by all the flavors on your tongue."

As a key ingredient in a cocktail, though, mezcal can be a versatile ingredient that, as Simonson put it, "can taste like aspects of the air and the soil and sea," and either take center stage or play a supporting role. Any mezcal can sub in for gin in a Negroni, where the vermouth and Campari are going to be the predominant flavors. Or it can showcase the smoky, earthy flavors that have won over so many fans in a mezcal margarita, taking the place of timider tequila without making it unrecognizable as a margarita. "It tastes roughly the same, only with more punch, more character," Simonson said.

Try Mezcal in a Margarita

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In the last few years, a dizzying number of mezcals have appeared on the U.S. market, and it can be intimidating to wade in as a newbie. Simonson said to not worry about deciphering the Mexican-government-imposed labels and regulations and to instead find a local expert.

"A good piece of advice is to find a bar, find a bartender or liquor store owner who knows their agave spirits and the backstories on them and ask their advice," he said. "We're very lucky in that there are a lot of passionate people who love agave spirits who have made it their mission to spread the word. So go and say what you like and get into a great conversation."

The Best Mezcal to Buy

Here are some of Robert Simonson's favorite mezcals.

Del Maguey Vida (100% espadín from Oaxaca, a mixing mezcal)

Nose: fruit, banana, honey, vanilla

Palate: light spice, sandalwood, banana, pine

Ilegal Mezcal (100% espadín, from Oaxaca, a mixing mezcal)

Nose: wax, smoke, mesquite

Palate: vegetal, waxy, smoldering campfire, guava

Nuestra Soledad Joven Mezcal (100% espadín, from Oaxaca, highlands)

Nose: sweet smoke

Palate: sweet and spicy, tropical fruits, salt, has an edge

Mezcal Vago Elote (100% espadín from Oaxaca)

Nose: sweet, flowery, honey, sagebrush

Palate: very honeyed, vanilla, sweet, wood, spicy on finish. Roasted corn is added to the distillation, which comes through in the sweetness.

La Luna Mezcal (100% cupreata, from Michoacán, grown high in the mountains)

Nose: smoky, honey, ripe fruit, very pungent

Palate: viscous, fruit, papaya, lightly funky, melon, tropical

Mezcal Unión Joven (blend of 8- to 14-year-old espadín and wild-grown cirial, from Oaxaca, a mixing mezcal)

Nose: mute, light notes of asparagus, grass

Palate: silky, smooth, understated, saline, apple, vegetal

Mezcal Unión El Viejo (blend of 8- to 14-year-old espadín and tobalá, from Oaxaca)

Nose: light smoke, vegetal

Palate: medium spice, a bit of heat, asparagus, grass, green pepper

Banhez (blend of espadín and barril, from Oaxaca)

Nose: strong smoke, toast, earthy, banana

Palate: super smoky and spicy, cinnamon, pepper, vegetables in back, tropical fruit