“It’s kinda about preference—like, what do you like?” pondered Leanne Favre, halfway through our tasting of 17 expressions of mezcal priced under $50.
What the Leyenda head bartender meant was, there is now such an extraordinary selection of affordable and high-quality mezcal in America that the issue has become less about finding what is “good,” and more about figuring out what you’re looking for.
While mezcal has only really existed commercially since 1995, when Ron Cooper launched Del Maguey, it didn’t begin to gain a foothold in major American cities like New York and San Francisco until the last decade or so. It’s still, slowly but surely, branching out into secondary markets as it becomes more and more readily available (which is not necessarily a good thing).
Unlike, say, bourbon—which is still mostly produced in Kentucky or Tennessee using the exact same commodity grain distilled via massive, computer-controlled factories—mezcal often inherently uses artisanal, if not ancestral, methods: Agave plants are cooked in pits with hot stones; the hearts are mashed by hand with wooden mallets or a tahona (a large stone wheel); the products are fermented using ambient yeasts in everything from animal hides to hollowed-out tree trunks, and its distillation vessel, clay or copper, determined by where it comes from. Mezcal can be produced in different climates too, from high in the arid plateaus of San Luis Potosí to low in the narrow valleys of Oaxaca. Not to mention, it can be made from dozens of distinct agave varieties, many of them wild.
All of this results in an extremely diverse set of flavor profiles. Smokiness, which has become a shorthand descriptor for mezcal’s overall flavor profile, does not even begin to capture the range of flavors these distillates can produce, from ester-y tropical notes reminiscent of agricole rhum, to the grassy, peppery profiles that define so many of the mezcales made from Agave karwinskii varieties, to the earthy, red-fruited profile of those made from tobala. Even its signature smokiness exists on a spectrum that expresses itself in myriad ways. In other words, mezcal is not one thing.
“That’s what’s cool about mezcal,” says Favre, thinking of a typical customer that might be leery of the spirit. “I can always find one you’ll like.”
Our tasting confirmed not just this diversity, with an increase in options under $50 since our last tasting in October 2017, but also an impressive level of quality. In fact, it outperformed all other spirits categories we’ve blind-tasted in the last two years.
For this tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s editorial staff as well as two mezcal experts: Favre and Dan Greenbaum, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Diamond Reef. Here are our favorites.
In a vast sea of differing flavor profiles and opinions, this mezcal hit the mark for literally every judge. A very recent addition to the U.S. marketplace, this is produced in Charcas, in the high plateaus of central Mexico. Locally cultivated salmiana agaves (known for their giant leaves) that have grown for 13 to 15 years are cooked in stone ovens before copper-pot distillation. An explosion of fresh-cut jalapeño is immediately evident on the nose. The palate offers soft notes of roasted pineapple, along with red fruit and pits, baking soda and maraschino liqueur. It’s a bit salty, with a bunch of lingering vegetal and herbal notes, like dill pickle and green pepper.
- Price: $42
- ABV: 49 percent
Derrumbes San Luis Potosí
“Nachos,” Greenbaum declared immediately upon smelling this somewhat peculiar mezcal, crafted at high altitudes in the central Mexican plateau. Its savory, jalapeño-forward profile was backed up by a strong pineapple note (another taster said it was reminiscent of al pastor) and a cucumber, green melon freshness on the palate. This, too, is produced from salmiana agave, which is crushed by tahonas, cooked in aboveground hornos (cone-shaped earthen pits, using quiote, or the agave stalks, as fuel), fermented using the wild yeast inherent on the volcanic rocks used in the cook, and distilled in copper pots. This is a true mezcal-lover’s mezcal.
- Price: $49
- ABV: 43 percent
Del Maguey VIDA
The most ubiquitous mezcal in America was quickly IDed by our blind tasters, who were pleasantly surprised by how well it held up against some other, more esoteric bottlings. This mezcal joven utilizes 8-year-old espadín, roasted for three to eight days followed by eight to 10 days of wild fermentation before being twice distilled in wood-fired copper stills. More acidic than many of the other entrants, the palate has a tension between lean and lush, with archetypal espadín notes of roasted tropical fruit, a little salinity and a bit of pepper. One taster compared it to an Italian roast coffee as opposed to a new wave roast, in that it had bass notes to complement the acidity.
- Price: $34
- ABV: 42 percent
Mezcal Los Siete Misterios DOBA-YEJ
This bottle is atypical of Siete Misterios, whose other single-agave-varietal expressions are produced in Sola de Vega and distilled in clay pots. This espadín agave expression is their first to be produced outside of the region—this in Santiago Matatlán—and utilizing copper pots. It likewise differs from the other expressions in that it is milled by horse-drawn tahona and distilled in a copper still. The nose is reminiscent of tequila, combining a yeasty grassiness that betrays a completely unexpected palate. There are stone fruits and a bit of smoke initially, but it explodes with sweetness mid-palate, with notes of butterscotch and candied tropical fruit.
- Price: $41
- ABV: 44 percent
Fidencio Clásico (Lot C0419)
Fidencio’s flagship bottling is also produced from espadín in Santiago Matatlán. Their agave, too, is roasted in a stone-lined pit under a fire of local black oak, then fermented in open-top pine vats for six to eight days before it is twice distilled in copper alembic stills, similar to ones used in cognac production. Perhaps due to that latter method, it (not surprisingly) offered an almost “crossover” quality to many of the tasters. It starts out sweet, funky and ester-y—like a rhum agricole or white Jamaican rum—before moving toward more savory mezcal notes. It’s round and rich on the mid-palate, but finishes lean.
- Price: $38
- ABV: 47.7 percent
El Jolgorio Nuestra Soledad San Luis Del Rio (2017/Edition: 19)
This single-village mezcal, produced just east of the Valles Centrales region, is made from espadín. The agaves are pit-roasted with mesquite and oak, though there isn’t a ton of smoke on the nose. Instead, it veers more to green and peppery earthiness backed by ripe tropical fruit and minerality on the palate. It’s lively and highly concentrated in flavor, though very clean-tasting—a positive for some tasters, while a demerit for the more adventurous. Though a slight splurge at $58, most everyone had to agree, this was a standard-bearer for excellent mezcal at this price point.
- Price: $58
- ABV: 48 percent