There’s a growing number of this smoky agave spirit out there. We’ve found the very best ones.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that mezcals have been steadily encroaching on liquor store shelf space that was formerly occupied only by tequilas. That confirms a Future Market Insights study that accurately predicted mezcal sales would increase nearly 18 percent by the end of 2022, and judging by the number of new brands, that trend is continuing into 2023. So it’s hardly surprising when August Sebastiani, fourth-generation member of the noted Sonoma Valley wine family and president of 3 Badge Beverage Corporation, revealed that his line of Bozal mezcals is now outselling his Pasote brand of tequilas.
Part of the impetus for this smoky distillate’s growing popularity is that tequila drinkers are now reaching for the next rung up on the agave ladder. In addition, whiskey drinkers are finding familiarity in mezcal’s varying nuances of smoke and oak, while bartenders have found that those same mezcal attributes complement certain cocktails, especially those incorporating bourbon or Scotch. But because not all mezcals are the same, we have gathered 12 of the best, so you can decide which on our list are the right ones for you.
Our Best Mezcal Picks
- Best Overall Mezcal: Código 1530 Ancestral Joven
- Best Joven Mezcal: Don Ramón Joven
- Best Reposado Mezcal: Gracias a Dios
- Best Cristalino Mezcal: Contraluz Cristalino
- Best Añejo Mezcal: Ilegal Añejo
- Best Smoky Mezcal: Lobos 1707 Mezcal Artesenal
- Best Lightly Smoky Mezcal: Convite Coyote
- Best Tobalá Mezcal: Fósforo Penca
- Best Pechuga Mezcal: Bosscal Pechuga de Conejo
- Best Organic Mezcal: Cráneo
- Best for Cocktails Mezcal: El Silencio
- Best Vegetarian Mezcal: Bozal Guías de Calabaza Sacrificio
Best Overall Mezcal
You’ll find the majority of premium mezcals—including those on our list—are made by the Artesanal method, which permits either tahona (stone) grinding wheels or the mechanical shredding of agaves to extract their juices. Plus, copper pot distillation is allowed (but not column distillation). However, the requirements for producing the harder-to-find Ancestral mezcals dictate that agave crushing can only be done by tahonas or by hand, thus preserving the agave fibers to be included as part of the distillation process, which must be done in fire-heated clay pots. In addition, fermentation is often in hollowed-out tree trunks or stone vessels. No steel tanks or mechanization of any kind can be used. Obviously, this is a much more laborious and primitive method, but it produces some of the most historically accurate tasting mezcals. This is the case with Código 1530 Ancestral Mezcal, with its sweetly delicate smoked grass and earthy flavors laced with floral notes and a bright minerality. The hand mashing of the single village Papalomé agaves and fermentation in leather adds to the distinctiveness of this mezcal.
Best Joven Mezcal
“Joven” means “young,” or in the case of mezcal, unaged or aged for less than two months. Although clear in color and similar to a “blanco” tequila in appearance, a joven mezcal will not taste anything like a blanco tequila (for one thing, it’s made with different agaves) and will have mezcal’s signature smokiness. However, you will have to search for the smokiness in this particular joven. Slightly earthy and pleasantly wrapped in herbal elements mixed with citrus, the delicacy of this mezcal is due to the fact that it made with salmiana agave, a species from Central Mexico not commonly used by other distillers. Besides its taste, this joven is also readily distinguished by its dramatic metallic silver bottlecap shaped like the head of a jaguar, an ancient Mayan deity symbolizing elegance and authority—which is what you may be feeling after a few copitas of this mildly spicy libation.
Best Reposado Mezcal
Floral, fruity and light on smoke, this mezcal’s colloquial-sounding name translates as “Thanks be to God,” a phrase that Querétaro, México bar owners Pablo Lopez, Enrique Jimenez and Xaime Niembro may have uttered when they met their future partner, fourth-generation mezcalero Oscar Hernández in Matatlán and discovered his pale gold elixir. Fermented in pinewood tanks for up to 15 days then aged for two months in a combination of new and once-used American oak barrels, the vegetal flavor has underlying hints of chocolate and curry, resulting in an extremely smooth sipping mezcal.
Best Añejo Mezcal
Who wouldn’t want a mezcal marked “Ilegal” on its label? But you don’t have to hide in the trunk of a car or dodge border guards to enjoy this añejo, which has been aged for 13 months in a combination of American and French oak barrels after the agaves have been roasted using mesquite and eucalyptus wood. The result is a smooth intertwining of cloves, blood oranges and sweet agave that lingers on the palate with a touch of spice. As for Ilegal’s intriguing name, it originated “back in the day,” when a gringo named John Rexer began smuggling this mezcal out of Oaxaca and into his bar, Café No Sé (which means, “I Don’t Know”), in Antigua, Guatemala. Today, Ilegal’s legitimacy is enhanced by the fact that drinks giant Bacardi is now part owner of the brand.
Best Cristalino Mezcal
It had to happen. After unseating reposado as Mexico’s most asked-for style of tequila, clear-filtered cristalino has now vaulted into the mezcal arena. And the first to have entered is also one of the best. After resting for approximately six months in charred American oak barrels, this Espadín mezcal is charcoal filtered, using a proprietary small batch process perfected by mezcalero Don Carlos León Monterrubio. While the liquid is not crystal clear (it has a very faint tint to it), the flavor is complex, with lemon, bacon and cedar, blanketed by a buttery-smooth mouthfeel.
Best Smoky Mezcal
It’s too bad there is more hype than substance for this LeBron James-backed award-winning mezcal, because there is more to it than a cursory search of the internet might reveal. For example, it goes through a solera process that takes approximately two months. The mezcal is then finished for a short period in Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry barrels. Yet it emerges as a clear mezcal, with a healthy countenance of smoke and a thick underblanket of citrus and red fruit, along with a touch of cedar and green olives. This is a mezcal drinker’s mezcal, enhanced by the fact that a portion of its proceeds is donated to various wolf sanctuaries in the United States and Mexico.
Best Lightly Smoky Mezcal
Convite, the best-selling mezcal in Oaxaca, is distilled deep in the Zapotec mountains by sixth-generation master distiller brothers Daniel and Tucho “Cosme” Hernández, who strive to preserve many of mezcal’s artisanal methods. As such, this is one of the few mezcals that uses wild agaves in its distillation. Among these are the somewhat elusive Coyote varietal, considered the rarest and most scared of agaves, and which take 12 years to reach maturity. Cooked in an underground stone oven, traditionally ground with a tahona stone and naturally fermented in wooden vats before being double copper pot distilled, the flavor is sophisticated, buttery and delicately laced with sweet floral smoke.
Best Tobalá Mezcal
The Tobalá plant is often referred to as the “king of agaves” because of its popularity and scarcity. Seeing this as a challenge, mezcalero Aarón Alva Sánchez spent 20 years perfecting a sustainable process for cultivating this elusive but flavorful agave. His semi-isolated work of distilling mezcal from Tobalá agaves in the village of Huehuetlán el Grande, just outside of Puebla, Mexico, was eventually discovered by food and spirits aficionado Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money. Cramer and his wife Lisa Detwiler partnered with Sánchez and his wife, Mariana to bring Fósforo to the United States in 2022. Especially notable is Fósforo Penca, which owes its rich fruity flavor and dark golden hue to the fact that this Tobalá mezcal has been aged up to three months in glass vessels containing a cooked Tobalá penca (leaf). As a result, there is very little perceived smoke in this mezcal. In fact, at first sip, one might guess it was a reposado tequila. Of course, it is not a tequila and technically is not a reposado, as it was not aged in wooden barrels. Rather, it is an “abocado con penca,” or “flavored with” a Penca leaf. As a result, it is a gentle way to enter the mezcal world—especially for people who aren’t sure if they’d like mezcals. They’ll like this one.
Be forewarned: this is not a mezcal for vegetarians or vegans. Pechuga—Spanish for “breast”—is an ancient mezcal-making technique that involves a skinned animal breast being hung over the heated agave distillation. As the spirit distills and the vapors condense, the heat and steam slowly cook the meat, killing harmful bacteria while allowing the fat and juices to drip into the mezcal, thereby imparting a deeper and slightly more savory flavor. With their Pechuga de Conejo, Bosscal undergoes a unique triple distillation; during this third distillation the vapors—already enhanced by the use of locally harvested apples, along with other wild fruit—pass through the suspended breast of a rabbit (“conejo” in Spanish). Only mildly smoky with a sweet, wet grass aroma, the flavor is laced with anise, citrus and a gentle herbal undertone with a silky finish. Bosscal’s Pechuga de Conejo is only produced when apples are in season, but is especially fitting right now inasmuch as January 22, 2023 marks the beginning of the Chinese zodiac’s Year of the Rabbit.
Best Organic Mezcal
Dedicated to the preservation of ancient Oaxacan methods of artisanal distillation, noted tequilero David Ravandi, working closely with local maestro mezcaleros in Santiago Matatlán, in Oaxaca, created one of the first organic mezcals. Based in Healdsburg, California and traveling between the Mexican cities of Guadalajara and Oaxaca, Ravandi personally oversees every step of this single estate mezcal’s sustainable, organic processes, from growing, harvesting, distilling and bottling. The skull dramatically depicted on Craneo’s black and white label symbolizes the Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl and the celebration of life. This medium-strength mezcal starts out with sweet barbecue smoke, then transitions to citrus, black cherries and roasted agaves; it pairs well with a La Aroma de Cuba Pasión cigar from Nicaragua.
Best Mezcal for Cocktails
Do not confuse this with El Silencio’s other mezcal, the clear-bottled Ensamble, which is made with three different agaves. This newer, matte black glass bottle contains mezcal that is only made with 10- to 12-year-old organically-grown Espadín agaves, which coincides with the distillery’s sustainable practices of using fully mature plants. Espadín agaves carry that variety’s characteristic flavors of smoky vegetables and leather, but in El Silencio’s case, are enhanced by the unusual fact that the piñas are roasted above ground, rather than in pits. Made in small batches by ninth-generation master mezcalero Pedro Hernandez, this mezcal is specifically crafted for cocktails. Not that it can’t be sipped neat, but it really comes into its own in an Old Fashioned (instead of whiskey), a Bloody Maria (instead of tequila) and even a Negroni. A drop or two is also great for adding a bit of smoky spice to your next Martini.
Best Vegetarian Mezcal
For those vegetarians and vegans who may have felt left out by some of the other choices on our list, boy, have we got a mezcal for you. Sacrificial mezcals are typically produced in small batches for fiestas or local celebrations, often using pork, chicken or lamb in the final distillation. However, August Sebastiani decided to go a different route.
During the second distillation of this double copper pot distilled mezcal, pumpkin stems, in addition to local seasonal fruits and grains, are suspended inside the still in a basket. This locally harvested produce often includes pineapples, plantains and oranges, along with pumpkin seeds and chepiche, an aromatic Mexican herb commonly used for seasoning. The chepiche rounds out the vegetal flavors from the pumpkin stems and plantains, and creates a perfumed smoky aroma laced with orange blossoms and marzipan. The earthy flavor is rich with citrus peel and herbal notes, with a touch of eucalyptus in the finish.
How does mezcal differ from tequila?
Although both are exclusively made in Mexico and distilled from roasted agaves, tequila can only use the Blue Weber variety and must be distilled in the town of Tequila in Jalisco and four other specifically designated Mexican states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. On the other hand, Mezcal—which was not recognized by the Mexican government until 1994—can be made in any of nine specified Mexican states, primarily in Oaxaca, but also in Durango, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Puebla. In addition, approximately 40 different varieties of agave—many growing wild—can be used to make Mezcal, unlike most of tequila’s cultivated Blue Weber agaves.
Why is mezcal smoky?
But mezcal‘s real standout characteristic is the way it is produced. Unlike tequila, in which the piñas or hearts of the agaves are steam-cooked in ovens, the piñas of mezcal agaves are fire-roasted by burning wood or charcoal in open stone or brick-lined pits, or palenques, which are covered with palm leaves or other native plant materials for three to four days to condense the smoke (“mezcal” roughly translates as “roasted agave”). This is what gives mezcal is smoky countenance, much like drying malted barley over burning peat is what gives Islay single malts their smoky flavors.
How should you drink mezcal?
“Don’t shoot the mezcal!” is sage advice by knowledgeable aficionados south of the border, because despite its hearty flavors, mezcal is not a spirit to be knocked back in one gulp. Rather, it should be sipped slowly—traditionally in a small earthen copita or a vaso veladora (votive cup)—to gradually discover and savor the many nuances of flavor that different mezcals offer.
“There is a saying in Mexico, ‘Treat both women and mezcal with respect and kisses,’ which means to appreciate mezcal you need to take small sips—like kisses—to properly taste it,” says Paola Magalí Segovia Arce, a master mezcalier who oversees 250 mezcals at Bakan Wynwood Mexican Restaurant in Miami, Florida, “And always accompany your mezcal with a bit of water between tastings, to cleanse the palate and hydrate.”
Unlike other spirits, mezcal should be served at room temperature. Chilling it dulls mezcal’s many natural flavor congeners. In Mexico, they often follow each sip with a slice of orange or grapefruit sprinkled with smoked sotal plant ashes or gusanos de maguey (salt mixed with pulverized agave larva; stateside, you may opt to use kosher or lava salt mixed with a small pinch of chili powder instead).
How did I choose the mezcals on this list?
Believe it or not, the first thing I did was to see if they were readily available on the internet. Because if you can’t get it, what’s the point? Unlike most imported tequilas, where production is structured on a relatively large scale, many mezcals are small individual or family-run operations, and unless they are fortunate enough to have marketing and distribution connections, you may never find them on this side of the Rio Grande. But then comes the all-important element of taste. The degree of smokiness is not the deciding factor; while some of the best mezcals thunder out of the bottle with domineering smoke, other superbly crafted mezcals offer just a faint whiff. It’s the flavor beneath the smoke that matters most.
I start by nosing the liquid directly from the bottle, as that small opening provides an initial—although rudimentary—concentration of each mezcal’s personality. Then I pour a small amount into a Glencairn tasting glass and do a sniff, sip and spit routine, not actually swallowing the liquid but by “breathing” it though the nose, as there are far more taste receptors in our noses than in our mouths. Only then can I dissect more of the flavors, which are often hidden underneath mezcal’s varying degrees of smokiness.
Source: Robb Report