Mezcal is a class of handmade agave spirits from Mexico that’s suddenly the apple of everyone’s eye. If you’ve set foot in a cocktail bar in the past 10 years, you’ve probably sipped the spirit in some elaborate mixed drink, or overheard a bartender holding court on the stuff as a seductive, smoky elixir.
And it is, but if you really want to understand why this once-obscure spirit poured for Cancun revelers on dares is all the rage these days, you have to understand it on its home turf. All drinks come from somewhere, and reflect the values of those that make them. But nothing captures a place and a people like mezcal, a spirit that Mexicans have been making the same way for hundreds of years. That is, with Herculean labor guided by intuition and hard-won experience.
One of the mezcaleros whacked a machete into a heart, flicked his wrist, and dug out a steaming chunk of agave for me to taste. "You’ll understand mezcal a lot better after you try this," said Francisco Terrazas, my guide to the Mezcal Vago palenque (distillery) in rural Oaxaca.
Fresh roasted agave tastes like grilled corn and singed tropical fruit, mingled with the desert breeze. But more than that, it tastes distinctly of Mexico, specifically the vast arid plains and sun-soaked hills of places like rural Oaxaca. Sampling agave this way, it becomes clear these tastes couldn’t emerge anywhere else. You are acutely aware that it’s the product of this land and the people that live there.
Del Amigo espadín: This is Arenstein’s well mezcal, and it packs a lot of quality into a digestible price tag. It’s fresh and easy-drinking with a bright twang, bold smoke, and base salinity that make it great for mixing.
Vago Elote: A unique espadín with toasted corn infused into the mezcal during the second distillation, made at the palenque you see in the photos above. You don’t notice corn so much as a savory nutty richness that brilliantly complements the roasted agave.
Derrumbes San Luis Potosi: Little mezcal makes its way beyond the borders of San Luis Potosi, and this one is especially unusual. For environmental reasons (namely, not much firewood), the state is exempted from the government requirement to roast mezcal-bound agave in wood-fired pits. The piñas in this bottle were roasted in an above-ground oven, and consequently have no smoky flavor whatsoever. Instead, an extra-long ferment yields an impressively tangy spirit that suggests a lemony, feta-strewn Greek salad more than a typical mezcal. If you want to see just how unique and varied agave spirits can be, try this.
Vago Ensemble en Barro (2017 bottling): A small batch, so get it before it’s gone (look for the red label, not tan). This ensemble cuts espadín with small amounts of three wild varieties, all distilled in clay for a bracing mineral taste and soft, round texture. Gorgeously complex with a strong core, but never overpowering.