Don’t Shoot it. Savor it! (And other Tips for Enjoying Mezcal)

by Erlinda Alexandra Doherty  |  03.23.2022

It’s an understatement to say mezcal is having a moment. As the fastest growing premium spirit, Mexico’s national beverage grew 30% in production in 2019 to 7.4 million liters, and 10% to 7.9 million liters in 2020—impressive in the midst of the pandemic!

Mezcal, however, continues to be dwarfed by tequila which had a whopping 374 million liters produced in 2020, and always will be in far second place because of its artisanal production practices. But the mezcal-curious around the world are discovering what makes this almost 500-year old beverage versatile, fascinating, and timeless. 

So what is mezcal and what is the proper way to enjoy it?   

Image: Mezcal Amarás

Maguey All Day

The first step to joining this mezcal movement is to understand how mezcal is different than tequila. While both are distilled spirits from the agave plant, tequila can only be made from the Blue Weber agave species (Agave Tequilana) while mezcal can be derived from around 35 different cultivated or wild species, of which the most common is Espadín (Agave Angustifolia).  The distinct qualities of the agave—also known as “maguey”—are crucial to mezcal’s diversity in flavors and aromas.  Like wine grapes, agaves are expressive of the “terroir” in which its grown.  

The center of the mezcal universe is Oaxaca where most Espadín is cultivated and where upwards of 85% of mezcal is crafted.  A geographical denomination of origin (“DO”) was created in 1994 and legal production is also allowed in 8 other states. Tequila, however, can only be made in Jalisco, and in parts of 4 other Mexican states.

Know Smoking

Many who have tasted mezcal will likely detect a smoky flavor and aroma when compared to tequila. Distillers or “mezcaleros” honor the traditional method of roasting the agave hearts or “piñas” in earthen, wood-fired pits and distilling in small-batch copper pot stills. It is this roasting of the piñas that imparts mezcal’s characteristic smokiness, but it should by no means dominate the flavor profile of the final beverage. The type of wood—oak, mesquite, huisiche—and the length of the roasting can also impact the depth of smokiness. By contrast, agaves used for tequila are steamed in ovens which result in a more neutral flavor profile.

Image: Mezcal Amarás

Palenque Prowess

While the production methods for tequila are formulaic and strictly regulated, artisanal practices continue to be the hallmark of mezcal despite its explosive growth and investment by larger beverage corporations. For the most part, palenques are the driving force of mezcal production, crafting the spirit based on centuries-old family recipes. This largely unmechanized process results in a product that is more like art than science.  Countless variables affect mezcal’s ultimate profile: traditional recipes, agave selection, fermentation methods, number of distillations, yeasts, and overall “terroir” combined affect the final expression.   

Palenques, producers, and surrounding villages must also plan for the future and consider practices to safeguard agave harvests and preserve traditions. Agave spirits production is notorious for having an enormous environmental impact and incorporating sustainable practices during this growth period is tantamount to supporting local economies, while preserving the ecological future of mezcal.  

Your Mezcal Moment

Due in large part to its faithful adherence to tradition and artisanal practices, the complexity of mezcal is unmatched in the spirit world. Expect to experience an intriguing—and almost infinite—ensemble of aromas and flavors including herbs, spices, flowers, fruits, earth, and minerals.  As such, mezcal must be savored—not tossed back—to truly appreciate its traditional, batch-by-batch, and multidimensional nature.  

First-timers should sip mezcal neat, in a double shot glass or traditional “veladora.” The first sip should be short to wet the palate; the second should be longer to appreciate the complexity of flavors. Consider accompanying the mezcal with orange slices dusted with sal de gusano or tajín, as is traditional in Mexico. But most importantly, do not rush the experience.  Explore De Nopales “Riquezas de Oaxaca” or El Recuerdo de Oaxaca Joven Mezcal for an introductory tasting experience as these mezcals are classic Espadín: smooth, bright, with citrus and herbaceous aromas and flavors. 

Like enjoying wine, pay close attention to the textural elements—the “weight” of the liquid, the viscosity—the aromas and flavors—floral, fruit, earth, vegetal, herbaceous notes—and finally, the finish—the duration and complexity of flavors that linger after the mezcal is sipped. After enjoying mezcal neat, venture into some simple cocktails and pairing with food. Mezcal is extremely versatile and an obvious substitute for tequila in a margarita, paloma, or an Old Fashioned. Try Naro’ba Espadín Joven or Dos Hombres Espadín in your favorite cocktail, the subtle smokiness of these mezcals will add depth without overpowering the drink. 

Mezcal is one of the most food-friendly spirits due to its complexity and diversity of flavors. Pairing food with mezcal is uncomplicated and only enhances the meal. With a simple dish, pair mezcals from wild agaves such as Los Salvadores Tobalá Joven or Mezcal Amarás Verde and note how the sweet and herbal elements of these mezcals respectively compliment the ingredients. 

There is nothing more in mezcal than agave and water but its complexity will leave you believing there are an infinite number of ingredients steeped in this mystical beverage. Mezcal isn’t just having a moment—it’s here to stay.