Two decades ago, mezcal was almost non-existent in the U.S. spirits market. Today, it has established itself as perhaps the last big spirit category to be “discovered” in the modern era—kicking off a boom in interest that shows no signs of slowing.
Types of Mezcal Production
The most traditional style of mezcal, made from techniques that date back hundreds of years. In short, the agave must be cooked in pit ovens, milled by way of a tahona (stone wheel), mallets or an Egyptian or Chilean mill; fermented with agave fibers in wood, clay, animal skins or tree trunks; and distilled with agave fibers over direct fire in clay stills.
A slightly more modern version of the ancestral method. Agave must be cooked in pits or elevated stone ovens; mechanical shredders are allowed, though many producers do not use them; fermentation is in the same vessels, but agave fibers are not required; distillation must happen over direct fire in copper or clay stills.
The most commercial type of mezcal production, which allows for use of autoclaves and diffusers for cooking; shredders; stainless steels tanks for fermentation; and the use of copper or stainless steel column stills.
In 1995, when Ron Cooper launched the beloved mezcal brand, Del Maguey, he struggled for years to get buyers in the U.S. to even taste mezcal. Now his single-village bottlings go for upwards of $200 per bottle. And, in what is perhaps the most well-publicized symbol of the category’s growth, this year, the multi-national spirits giant, Pernod-Ricard, purchased a majority stake in the brand; the sale was met with fear from longtime fans that mezcal was about to go the way of much of tequila—that is, toward banal commercialization. (This came the heels of Bacardi’s purchase of a minority stake in Ilegal Mezcal in February and Diageo’s distribution deal with Mezcal Union last year.)
For a spirit that, particularly in the case of the ancestral method producers, is made via production techniques that have been largely unchanged for hundreds of years—mashing the roasted agave hearts by hand with mallets; fermenting, in some villages, in tree trunks or animal skins; distilling in clay—the threat of corporatization felt even more profound. (For what it’s worth, given Del Maguey’s mission of fair trade with its producers and a respect for the culture and tradition of mezcal production, these fears are likely unfounded, at least in its case.)
Further, unlike tequila, mezcal is often produced from wild agave species that have resisted cultivation. These raw materials that are so expressive and singular in spirit form are finite resources—some of them taking more than 30 years to mature—and cannot be replanted. Even espadín, the most common variety of agave used in the production of mezcal, which is able to be cultivated, takes a minimum of six to seven years to mature. In other words, this is a spirit that is intimately reflective of its process and the plants themselves, and growth can be a scary prospect for a product that relies on a certain slowness for sustainability.
Thus, considering the preservation of an unbroken tradition and economic justice for small producers, the sustainability of agave is part of appreciating mezcal—even if you’re just looking for a bottle to uncork for under $50. In fact, especially if you’re looking for a bottle to uncork for under $50.
When we set out to get a sense of what was available in the market in this price range, we were shocked at the ease with which we were able to assemble a tasting of more than 20 mezcals, all under $50. With prices for mezcal (rightfully) soaring into the hundreds of dollars for brands like Del Maguey, El Jolgorio, Mezcales de Leyenda, Mezcal Vago and Real Minero, what did the category’s entry-level bottlings and more affordable producers have to offer?
For the tasting we were joined by Dan Greenbaum, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s Diamond Reef and a longtime mezcal lover. Unsurprisingly, all but one of the bottlings were either 100-percent espadín or a blend of primarily espadín and other varieties. The tasting yielded some singular bottlings, alongside a number of others that were either muted and lacking character or showed obvious flaws, and still others that we found to be exceptional at their price point, like Del Maguey’s Vida, but perhaps better suited to mixing over sipping.
Ultimately, the top-five vote-getters from the panel were chosen for their quality, of course, but also for their distinctiveness—their ability to encourage the drinker to go back again and again as the spirit changes in the glass.
Sombra Mezcal Joven
This is made in the artisanal method from espadín, which is crushed by a mechanized limestone tahona, fermented with native yeasts and distilled in copper. The distillery has also undergone a number of efforts aimed at water conservation (collecting rainwater for use in distillation), upcycling (using byproducts to create adobe bricks and biofuel) and more. The panel found it clean, mineral-driven and showing that creaminess on the palate typical of espadín—the perfect “gateway” mezcal.
- Price: $36
- ABV: 45 percent
Nuestra Soledad Lachigui (2016)
Nuestra Soledad is El Jolgorio’s line of six single-village artisanal method mezcals, all made from cultivated espadín that averages around ten years of age. While each is worthy of a spot on this list, it was the Lachigui from the mountainous district of Miahuatlán that made the cut. Rich and creamy with notes of fresh-cut grass and tropical fruit, the panel declared that it, “ticks all the boxes.”
- Price: $49
- ABV: 48 percent
Mezcal Amarás Cupreata (2017)
The only bottling in our tasting not made from espadín, Mezcal Amarás’ artisanal method mezcal is made from cupreata, a type of wild agave typically grown at higher elevations, in this case near Mazatlán, in the state of Guerrero, north of Oaxaca. Cupreata is known for its floral, herbal aromatics and this is no exception. The most distinctive bottling in the line up, this showed high-toned notes of bitter melon and fresh aloe vera.
- Price: $49
- ABV: 43 percent
Espiritu Corsa Mezcal Santa Pedrera (2016)
This is another 100-percent espadín bottling made in the artisanal method in the village of San Agustín Amatengo, in Oaxaca. While concentrated and intense at 46-percent alcohol, the panel felt that it still “wore it well,” showing notes of green pepper, roasted pineapple and mint.
- Price: $50
- ABV: 46 percent
Mezcal Alipús San Andrés
Like Nuestra Soledad, Mezcal Alipús features a line of single-village, 100-percent espadín mezcals. The panel found this bottling, from the village of San Andrés Miahuatlán, and made from agave grown at around 5,000 feet above sea level, to be “punchy and saline” with notes of pine resin and green melon.
- Price: $46
- ABV: 47.3%