I first published this post in 2012. At the time, mezcal was little known. And while the battle for recognition is still uphill, mezcal is far more popular today than it was back then. Since 2012, mezcal sales are up almost four times, and the vast majority of bars, restaurants and liquor stores, carry at least one brand.
I still spend a lot of time spreading the gospel of mezcal, and more times than not, the conversation begins with the comparison of mezcal to tequila. I use it as an opener at cocktail parties. I just walk up to a random person and ask them “Do you know what the difference is between tequila and mezcal?” They usually turn and walk away. OK, maybe that is not the way it goes down, but it could happen that way!
But this question usually is the starting point when people are curious about mezcal. In many ways, mezcal can best be understood by simply tasting it next to tequila. What will you find? Most notably, you will find mezcal to be smoky by comparison. Intense and smoky like a campfire to some, or subtle and gentle to others. The person who finds the smoke to be light is usually a scotch, bourbon or whiskey drinker, and is used to bold spirits. If you find mezcal to be intensely smoky, there is a good chance you are not accustomed to drinking spirits neat.
This post gives you the basics, but if you really want to understand and appreciate what separates mezcal from tequila, you need to read my book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). The book is available on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
I believe that for most people tequila leads to mezcal (even though all tequilas are mezcals, but we will come back to that). Tequila leads to mezcal because for most of us, it started with tequila. We traveled down a path that likely started with bad tequila, bad experiences, and bad results the next morning. Then we slowly found our way back to the good 100% agave tequilas that started showing up in the 90’s. And maybe we enjoyed the extra anejos that move tequila toward cognac. And then, what? What else is out there? Ahhh mezcal….I’ve heard about that. The rise of the extra anejos coincided with the arrival of fine mezcals and then they started to appear on the shelves at your local liquor store and on the cocktails menus of your favorite gin joints. So tequila brought us to this point and now mezcal joins the discussion…. (more…)
I definitely have not posted many cocktail recipes to the blog. This is a personal failing as I have learned over the years mezcal cocktails are a fantastic way to introduce people to the wonderful world of mezcal. And as I am all about spreading the gospel and mezcal education, I should be more proactive about relaying amazing cocktails. While I’d like to think this will be a new trend, the reality is that it probably will not be! But know my heart is in the right place….
So with that, I bring you an amazing mezcal cocktail which I discovered this summer at Matsuhisa in Vail, CO. Well, it was actually on the cocktail menu made with Hendrick’s Gin. But after chatting with Andreas Harl, the Beverage Director, I ordered it with Ilegal Mezcal instead of Hendrick’s. Andreas, who I have known a number of years, is not a huge mezcal fan, but he does have a particular affection for Ilegal, and it is the only mezcal he carries. Good choice.
Andreas gave me this recipe and I’ve been making it ever since. Everyone I know who has tried it is simply floored. It is that good. I had a friend over a few weeks ago, who is quite adept on the NYC cocktail scene, and he declared it the best cocktail he’d ever had! So here it is, and Andreas informs me that his colleague Jeff Woods is the original architect of this masterpiece (albeit with gin!). Cheers, Jeff.
Start by making this puree:
60 grams cilantro (basically one bunch but you should weigh it)
25 grams peeled ginger
12 grams serrano pepper
25 ounces simple syrup (half sugar, half water)
Put this all in a blender and fire it up to puree consistency. Then strain it with a fine strainer. I know this sounds like a lot of effort, and you’re right. But this makes a lot of syrup and you can freeze it and use it for months. Once you have the puree, the cocktail is super simple.
2 oz Ilegal Joven
1 oz fresh limejuice
1 oz puree
Put it in a shaker and serve it straight up in a coupe or martini glass.
There you have it. Suck it up and take the time to make the puree. It will be the gift that keeps on giving for months as you work through 30 ounces of this special puree. And as always, drink mezcal!
If you are a long time reader of my blog, you are likely aware that I have great respect for the El Jolgorio brand, the family behind it, and how highly they value the tradition and culture of mezcal. The face of the brand is Asis Cortes, and he is well known in mezcal circles for his knowledge, passion and spiritual-like belief in the wonders of mezcal.
Over the past few years, Asis has become a good friend. But I am not writing this post in any way, shape, or form just because he is a friend, or because he asked to me to put something up – he would never do that if you know him. I am writing this because there is a super cool story behind the creation of Origin Raiz Mezcal, and I am seriously floored by how good it is!
The story starts with Bildo Saravia. He is from a Mexican farming and ranching family from Durango. In his twenties, wanderlust and love led him to Sydney. OK, it was probably just the love part – isn’t it always? Once there, and being a mezcal lover, Bildo decided to open a Mexican restaurant, Mr. Moustache. Somehow he got his hands on El Jolgorio, started carrying it at his bar, and fell deeply in love with it (see, it’s not just me). He met the Cortes family, they hit it off, and became the distributor for them in Australia. After a few years, Bildo’s personal situation changed, and he decided to move back home to the mountainous and forested state of Durango, where his family has a sizable cattle ranch.
So here is Bildo, mezcal lover extraordinaire, living in a state that is in the mezcal denomination of origin, on the family ranch, surrounded by land and a lot of agave cenizo. What would you do? What would I do? Well, I am trying to figure out how to make mezcal in Tribeca, so I know what I’d do! But what did Bildo do? He decided to pursue a career in accounting! OK, maybe not. No. Bildo, got in touch with Asis Cortes from El Jolgorio.
Bildo loved mezcal but did not know how to produce it, but he did know people who produced some of the best – the Cortes family. He proposed a partnership. I bring the land and agave and you bring the mezcal expertise. Asis was intrigued, so he, his father and Master Mezcalero Valentine, and fellow Master Mezcalero Rolando (Asis’ uncle), made the trip up to Durango (two flights and 800+ miles).
As the Cortes family surveyed the land, soil, and prolific agaves, things seemed promising. While Durango has more than a dozen agave varietals in the state, cenizo is the dominant agave, and virtually all the agave on Bildo’s family ranch is cenizo. While the Cortes family had never used cenizo to produce mezcal, they believed it could produce an excellent mezcal. The next day Bildo took them on a tour of a few other palenques in the region, and they began sampling other producers’ cenizo mezcals.
As they tasted mezcals from these other producers, the Cortes family was discouraged. They were not impressed, and in fact, far from it. These were not good mezcals. They were not industrial, and they were being made with traditional methods, but they were just not high quality mezcals. But as they began to look closer, and examine the production methodologies these producers were using, they saw techniques and distillation set-ups which seemed less than optimal. For example, they saw the hearts of the agave placed directly on the fire, stills with vapor collection systems 40 feet away from the stills, and fires that were burning too hot beneath the stills, among other things. After thinking through it all, they became convinced these cenizos, with their rich soil, could produce a great mezcal if produced in a thoughtful way. And so the partnership was on!
Team Cortes brought materials and supervised the construction of the entire palenque: the roasting pit (horno), the tahona (grinding mill), the fermentation vats and the stills. And if you are wondering how much cenizo the Sarvia family ranch has, they did a survey. They found they have about 1 million kilos of cenizo plants on the property, all wild of course. 1 million. Wow. While it takes cenizo 12-14 years to mature, they still have pretty much more agave than they can ever use. And even with all that agave, they already have a forestation plan in place. And they have also begun working with sotol, which is plentiful on the property, and they are planning to use other agaves which grow wild in Durango.
So it is a cool to see how it all came together – I hope you agree! But how does it taste? Amazing. It is not often I taste a new mezcal and say “Wow”, but I did this time. They had generously offered to send me a sample, but I heard is was available at Astor Wines in NYC so I just went and bought it. My mezcal-y instincts told me anything the Cortes family was involved with was worth my investment – about $80 in this case. It was a good decision.
Origen Mezcal is rich with tropical fruits (think bananas, mangos, oranges) and roasted agave with gentle smoke and a finish that lingers wonderfully. It also has a great mouth feel with medium viscosity. Man, I am telling you, this is really excellent.
So try to find Origen Raiz, which by the way translates to “Original Roots”. They are just rolling it out, and the only retail store I am aware of that has it is Astro Wines in NYC. But I am sure it will be more widely distributed soon enough. Go find it and always remember to DRINK MEZCAL!
I am excited to have just released the new and improved version of my book: Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition. I think it is bigger, better, and more in-depth than the 1st edition. In fact, I would venture to say that it goes far deeper than any other mezcal book. It’s 272 pages versus the 1st Edition of Holy Smoke! at 204 pages! This baby is fat. There are other good books on mezcal these days, but I bet you will find Holy Smoke! to be substantially different, wholly entertaining, and uniquely insightful (plus I think a few of the others have borrowed my content without proper citation, but that is for another day).
Just because my book goes deeper, does not mean it is better. Some people may want a fast read that covers the basics. Me? You know I want to know as much as possible about mezcal, which is why I go to Oaxaca regularly, observe, listen, research, and ask a ton of questions. I always marvel at how much I don’t know! And with each new edition of Holy Smoke! I want to bring you with me – to Oaxaca, the palenques, the agave fields. I want to take you inside the minds of the mezcaleros and their nuanced production techniques, and then bring it all back to what’s in your glass. If that’s what you want, then my new book is for you.
Here is what a few people in the industry have said:
I am honored and humbled that these deeply passionate brand owners value my efforts. Bringing you the 2nd edition of Holy Smoke! has been a labor of love for me – it took me all of 2017 to bring it together. So with great pride I now release it.
The full color version is expensive and I want you to understand why. It kills me because I want it to be accessible and price competitive to other mezcal books. As I have come to learn, it is very expensive to self-publish a full color book. Why? Because self-publishing platforms (I use CreateSpace) do not do large print runs of 5,000 or 10,000 books – they print-on-demand (POD). That means the physical manifestation of the book does not exist until you order it on Amazon. And the price differential between POD and large print runs is substantial.
If I had wanted to use a publisher for Holy Smoke!, I would have had to submit many proposals across many publishing companies in the hope that they would accept me. And that is just the start of the lengthy process. So I chose to go my own route, at my own pace, and that means self-publishing. I chose CreateSpace, owned by Amazon, because after much research, they are the cheapest and also seamlessly integrated into Amazon. But the tradeoff is that the retail price, dictated by CreateSpace, is not a bargain for a full color book.
What I am doing to bring down the price? Well, there is nothing I can do for the full color version other than take a tiny royalty – $1 a book. But I have also published a black and white version of Holy Smoke!at about half the price! I thought the black and white pictures would diminish the experience for the reader, but happily I am wrong. I was thrilled (and surprised) when I received the black and white proof copy of the book. It looks great! Of course, we all may prefer color pictures, but this is as close to a zero compromise as you can get. I am psyched because I love the black and white version and I can sell it for $17! At that price, I am practically paying you to take it.
Whichever version you buy, I am confident you will love Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition! The entire book has been updated with new content, new stories, new pictures, and new information. I’ve touched it all – some areas more than others. For example, I’ve really expanded information on mezcal production and distillation and examined how varying techniques are evidenced in the mezcal you are drinking. Also, I have new chapters on the the updated regulatory environment, pechugas and aged in glass mezcals, expanded insights on the types of agave from which mezcal can be made, new analysis on the sustainability and future of mezcal, a guide to traveling in Oaxaca, and much more. On the other hand, a few sections were only tweaked, like the History of Mezcal chapter – the history is the history, and I like how I wrote it the first time. Overall, there is a ton of new stuff.
Now I turn it over to you. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – good and bad – just keep it clean! So pour yourself a nice mezcal, settle in, and enjoy it!
In the last few days I have been involved in a FB thread about Kimo Sabe mezcal. This started when the well-regarded mezcal pioneer Erick Rodriquez referenced a story on Medium about Kimo Sabe. The story has this graphic:
The story accompanying this graphic is full of interesting facts – perhaps alternative facts would be more appropriate. But first a quick history of Mezcal PhD’s knowledge of Kimo Sabe.
I bought a bottle of Kimo Sabe a few years ago when it popped up on a website where I buy a lot of mezcal. It looked legit so I took a $40 flyer and bought a bottle. I probably should have done even a tiny bit of research first because info was readily available, but I didn’t. It arrived a few days later and I enthusiastically poured a copita of what I thought was a new artisanal mezcal. It was so offensive on the first taste that I thought my palate was just being difficult. But after a few more sips, I simply realized that this mezcal is industrial and tastes every bit of it. On the way in it is acidic and chemically, and then it just disappears on the finish like water (actually water is far more enjoyable). Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what my friends at Mezcal Reviews say HERE.
So I hate to pick on a specific brand, but there are just so many things going on with Kimo Sabe that I had to comment. So back to the above graphic and the Medium story.
First, the headline: MEZCAL IS MADE IN 11 SPECIFIC REGIONS OF MEXICO. Ahhh, no it’s not. There are 9 designated regions where mezcal can be made. They have added State of Mexico and Morelos as recently approved, which is simply incorrect. They may be approved in the future but not yet. Second, let’s look at the Medium story. They say they have partnered with the state of Zacatecas to create over 1,000 new jobs, and they are helping over 2,000 independent producers. Wow. Really?
I am all for job creation in Mexico relating to mezcal, and this has factually happened already in many (maybe all) of the mezcal making regions. But your average palenque that exports a brand has maybe 10 employees. And a larger distillery might go to 20 or so. And yes, you also might want to count the farmers who grow the agave, though much agave is purchased by the palenque, not owned by the distiller. But to suggest that one brand is going to create over 1,000 new jobs seems quite audacious (the nicest word I can come up with). And what about the help Kimo Sabe is providing to over 2,000 independent producers? How is THAT possible? Please, show me the math. I am happy to be proven wrong.
If they are creating jobs and helping independent producers, I am all for it. But the extent of their claims is a bit hard to swallow (as is their mezcal so I guess there is symmetry). Still, they probably are creating some jobs, and I am not knocking that.
If you go to the Kimo Sabe website, you can watch this video which plainly shows some of the industrial methodology used to produce their mezcal. This is their choice as to how they want to produce mezcal. But what inflames the mezcal community is when an industrial brand masquerades as artisanal and uses the limited resource which is agave to mass produce their product. They don’t even tell us what agaves they use in their production. There is only so much agave to go around, and no, we don’t want it to be used for industrial purposes.
Kimo Sabe clearly spends a fortune on marketing – a bunch of brand ambassadors, sponsoring South by Southwest, and other projects – so they are apparently well-funded. Why didn’t they use some of that capital to invest in their production process and make a truly artisanal mezcal?
I am a capitalist and know that entrepreneurs make different choices. Kimo Sabe made this one. The problem in the mezcal world is the limited supply of agave and the early stages of the category where consumers are not necessarily well-informed as to what goes into a quality mezcal. So yes, consumers can be conned.
I don’t know if you are excited, but I sure am! I have been working on the 2nd Edition of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! for the better part of 2017, and I am finally getting close to publishing it. While I did not expect it to take this long, it turned out I had a lot to say!
So much has changed since the first printing of Holy Smoke! in the summer of 2014 – new brands, new regulations, new agaves, and I have learned so much as well. As I said then, mezcal cannot be mastered, and as I have continued to pursue this passionate hobby, my accumulated knowledge keeps expanding. I have more to say, more pictures to share, more stories to tell and hopefully a bit more good humor to entertain.
The Revised 2nd Edition is not a complete rewrite, so do not go in expecting that. But I have touched every chapter, written new chapters, combined old ones, and eliminated a few as well. There is more depth and granularity on all things mezcal.
As you may know, the last year or so has brought a few more books on mezcal, and I think a couple of them are very good. I also think one of the better ones took a few key concepts or points from Holy Smoke! without giving me credit, which is too bad. But I have moved on and tried to write the most in-depth book on mezcal that exists. My book is not for everyone – for example, vodka lovers may feel slighted. But if you want to know as much about mezcal as possible, I think The Revised Second Edition is the book for you. Mezcal and agave nerds stand by!
In the first edition, I really dug into the production process. Here, I went even deeper. I also added a new chapter, “Process Trumps Varietal”. In this chapter, I am bringing forth the concept that the process a mezcalero uses to produce his mezcal can almost always make the varietal indistinguishable. He is a sample from that chapter:
Typically, in mezcal production, the mezcalero only keeps the corazon from the first distillation. There may be other uses for the heads and the tails, but they are set aside. Then the heart of the first distillation is put back into the still for the second distillation. The second distillation is further cut into puntas, corazon, and colas, with the middle distillate being the highest quality alcohol, and this is the mezcal which is bottled. But what if the mezcalero makes an early cut on the puntas – meaning, some of the puntas become part of the corazon? Or what if he makes a late cut on the tails, which brings some of the tail into the corazon? Do you think that impacts the taste? You bet. Let’s see why.
All the vapors coming off the still have congeners. Congeners are substances that are produced during fermentation which are released by the heat of distillation. They are impurities, but they have flavor. The positive characteristics of a spirit are usually associated with a class of congeners called esters, which can bring apple, banana, mango, butter, anise, apricot and other tastes and smells to a spirit. The negative characteristics of congeners can bring odors and flavors such as nail polish remover, rubber, and rotten fruit. The names of some of these congeners are a bit scary: acetone, methanol, isobutanol, amyl alcohol, and ethyl butyrate to name a few. Amyl alcohol is often cited as the chief culprit in a hangover. But all these congeners are present in low, non-toxic, doses in almost any alcohol you drink. If you drank all the puntas or all the colas, you’d likely be in bad shape. But slices of either can be very beneficial to the mezcal. The distiller’s magic is to minimize the less desirable congeners and enhance the good ones.
Why am I telling you all this? Why should you care? When you bought a book on mezcal, you probably were not expecting a dissertation on the chemical process of distillation. I know, but stick with me – it’s about to come together.
So guess which part of the distillation primarily contains the esters? That’s rights. It’s the heart, or corazon. And guess which parts are dominated by the less desirable congeners? Right again. The puntas and the colas. So the taste of your mezcal is highly dependent on which congeners sneak in, and that process is controlled by where the mezcalero makes his cuts.
There is much before this excerpt and much after it as well, in this chapter. It is an important concept and maybe controversial too (I don’t mind stirring it up as you know), and a lot to expound upon at any rate. But this is just one small example of what I have tried to bring in the new edition: more depth, more analysis, more research, and more fun!
I have also added to the agave chart in the new version. As you may know, this chart details every unique agave from which mezcal can be made. I am up to 63 agaves now that I believe can make a unique mezcal! Over the years, I have received a lot of feedback from people who appreciate the research that went into that chapter as well as the result – many in the sprits industry tell me they use it as an ongoing reference. I love that, and now it is better and more refined. I even went nutty and alphabetized it.
I wish I could tell you this new version of Holy Smoke! would be out by Christmas, but sadly, it will not. While I have finished writing it, the editing and design process take time. So I hope to have it out in early 2018. I have not figured out to make this available on pre-order via Amazon, but I assure you I will let as many people as possible know when it is ready!
I think the Amazon price will be similar to the first edition, which admittedly is not cheap. But self-publishing a book with color pictures jacks up the publishing costs on every platform I have looked at. I use CreateSpace, because it is Amazon’s platform and they are the most efficient on everything for a self-published author, including price. On other platforms, the book would be priced north of $40, which is nuts. So you know, I make about $5 for every book sold no matter where Amazon chooses to sell it (usually $35). You can rightfully guess this is not really a money-making endeavor for me. On an hourly basis, I am sure Starbucks would be a better wage! But Starbucks is not a passion and mezcal is, so I don’t mind. I just want you to understand why the book costs what it does.
On that point, I am going to convert the first edition of Holy Smoke! into a black and white only version, and sell it at a much cheaper price. I think a lot is lost without color pictures, but at least that price point might be more accessible (the publishing costs fall dramatically when you go with black and white). People will have a choice and make their own decision.
There you have it. I am excited to be nearing the publishing date. If you buy it, I think you will enjoy it, and I will spread the word as soon as it is available. In the meantime, DRINK MEZCAL!
Wow. Whoa. Holy shit. This week saw HUGE news in the mezcal world. Del Maguey Mezcal was acquired (a majority stake) by spirits industry giant Pernod Ricard. It is shocking, exciting, and troublesome to many as well. I’ll take the first two and pass on the third – not troubling to me at all.
First, a little background. Del Maguey, and it’s artist founder Ron Cooper, is the pioneering brand which brought the first premium mezcal to the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Prior to the beginning of Ron’s evangelical campaign, mezcal was thought of as this worm-infused, gag-inducing swill only a frat boy could love. Del Maguey was largely alone in this pursuit for as long as ten years. It was not until the late 2000’s when other premium brands like Ilegal, Los Nahuales, Fidencio, and Pierde Almas, among others, began to show up in the U.S.
While certainly those brands, and a few others, have helped drive mezcal to where it is today, Del Maguey clearly got it started, and they are the number one selling mezcal in the U.S as a result. They have an army of industry supporters who prosthelytize the wonders of mezcal and Del Maguey, which has been awesome for the mezcal category. Their leadership, passion, and education-driven approach to mezcal has helped bring it to the forefront of the artisanal world of spirits. Sometimes I find the brand approaches mezcal with a bit too much reverence, but I cannot argue with the results. I too hold mezcal in high regard, but this is still booze after all! If we’re on a mission from god, let’s make it the Blues Brothers version. Mezcal is fun and sexy, cool and exotic, and an amazing tradition-laden spirit, so I don’t get too carried away.
And Del Maguey is REALLY good mezcal, especially their Vinos de Mezcal series and Single Village line-up. Their cocktail-oriented Vida is likely the main driver of their revenue, and no, it is not as good as their single village line-up, but it is also costs $35-$40 a bottle and works well in cocktails.
So that all said, it is a shock to see them sell the brand. The word from Ron is nothing will change in the way they operate the business, and they will continue to support and work with their palenqueros as they always have. And I have no doubt it is true because I know he and his team care so much about mezcal and what it represents. They would not do a deal with someone who did not subscribe to their world view, which is why this is not troubling to me in the least. Plus, I am a capitalist so more power to them. Del Maguey will now have more money and resources, and they will continue to produce their mezcal in an honest, sustainable way. For another take on this move, my friends at Mezcalistas posted THIS.
While Del Maguey is the first brand to be sold to one of the large spirit companies, there has been other action in the category. Bacardi bought a minority stake in Ilegal in February and Diageo has a distribution deal (and likely some equity stake or options) with Mezcal Union. Cuervo also has their own brand Creyente in the U.S. market, which they claim is made in an artisanal way, though I cannot say it tastes like an artisanal mezcal (I am stretching to find the nicest words I can). Nevertheless, the large spirit companies are approaching mezcal in the right way for the most part. They seem to recognize this is an artisanal product which cannot be industrialized.
I have a lot more to say on this subject and what it means for the future of mezcal. So this post is just a preview as spurred on by this huge industry news. You may not care about what else I am thinking, or you may be interested to know that I have already written a chapter on this very subject for my new book, the Revised Second Edition of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!
Yes, I am revising the self-proclaimed best selling mezcal book of all time, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! Is it really the best selling mezcal book of all time? Well, I am not really sure but it’s possible. And there really are not many books on mezcal so it can’t be that far off. I hope to have this ready to bring to market sometime this Fall.
So that’s it for now. Big news for the mezcal category and its continued growth. Thanks for reading and as always, drink mezcal!
Everybody likes lists. I like lists. I frequently write in lists. You see a headline with “the 10 Longest” or “the 5 Firmest” or “the 50 Best” or whatever it is, and you click on it. And you tend to skip through the preamble (you are likely skipping this now!) and go directly to the list – I mean that’s why you clicked the link – not so you could read some blah blah blah. Get me to the list!
But I figure I will ramble on for a paragraph or three and tell you why I put this one together. I compiled this because, while it has been done in Tequila many times, I cannot find a similar list that exists for mezcal. And the reason I think this is relevant is because, on a relative basis, high end mezcal is far less expensive than ultra premium tequila – so it’s interesting. You don’t have to look far to find tequila starting at $300+ and there are many offerings at $500+ and a handful north of $1,000! In fact, the 10 mezcals below combined cost about the same as a bottle of Clase Azul Extra Anejo Ultra at $1,700 a bottle. Mezcal, on the other hand, rarely tips $200 a bottle.
So what’s with the discrepancy? I mean tequila is a mezcal (you all know that). Why are these crazy pricey tequilas so prevalent? We all know that most of it is marketing. But some of it is rooted in the fact that most expensive tequilas are extra anejos, and there is an economic reality to barrel aged spirits: about 10% of what is in the barrel evaporates every year. Plus, the barrels cost money and many of these special tequilas are aged in unique (and even more expensive) barrels or casks. And of course, you are frequently paying for fancy crystal bottles or that kind of thing. Add in the marketing to all this, and BOOM, you have a $500 bottle.
Mezcal, by contrast, does not even have an extra anejo category and many in the mezcal world don’t even believe in barrel aging. Frequent readers of my blog and my book, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! know that I disagree and think barrel aging can add complexity and depth to a mezcal while expanding the audience for the category. But nevertheless, there are not many mezcals aged for more than one year, so the economic loss factor of evaporation doesn’t really come into play. But also, given that mezcal is perceived as a “new” category, I doubt the market would support $500+ bottles of mezcal today. How a 500 year old spirit can be considered “new” is a rant for another day!
So let’s move to the list. As usual, when I talk about these things, I stick to things that you can readily buy. These are bottles that can be found at some high end liquor stores, like Astor Wines in NYC, or definitely online. Let’s start low and work our way up…
10. El Jolgorio Tobasiche, $150 at K&L. Jolgorio is one of the premier premium brands with many varietals in the $100-$150 range. They are all amazing and worth the loot.
9. Mezcalosfera de Mezcaloteca, $160 at K&L Wines. This ensamble of 5 varietals comes from the well-regarded tasting room Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca. I have not tried it because I struggle with the price given that this is from an unknown mezcalero. It may be great and worth the price but somehow I doubt it. Chime in if you know better! If I ever see it in a bar, I’m in.
8. Koch El Mezcal Coyote, $170 at Zee Tequila. Koch has a line of about 10 varietals offered in the US. I have tried many of them and I have several, though not this Coyote. Overall, I have been underwhelmed by the Koch line so shelling out $170 when the rest of the line is just OK does not seem like a wise use of my funds.
7. Real Minero Pechuga, $170 at K&L. I’ve never met a Real Minero that I don’t like and this is no exception. Many bottles in their line just missed this list clicking in at about $150. But they are all excellent and worth the price.
6. Del Maguey Pechuga, $180 at K&L. Much like Real Minero, El Jolgorio, and a few other really expensive brands, Del Maguey rarely misses. This pechuga set the standard as the first in the market a good 10+ years ago and it is still elite.
5. Pierde Almas Conejo and Pierde Almas Pechuga, both $200 at Zee. The conejo is made with the breast of a wild rabbit (so this is also a pechuga) and the “regular” pechuga is made with a wild turkey breast. The conejo has a strong licorice note, almost like a sambuca, and is really unique and excellent. The regular pechuga is a standout as well.
4. Del Maguey Ibercio, $200 at K&L. There are many in the mezcal world who rave about this mezcal. I suspect some feel they have to say they love it since it is from the excellent Del Maguey brand, who teamed-up with a celebrity chef, to create an Iberico ham pechuga. But I don’t get it – too salty for me which overpowers all else. One of the rare Del Maguey’s that I don’t love.
3. Clase Azul Durango (Cenizo), $200 at Zee. Mezcal brought to you from well known tequlia brand Clase Azul. It is a classic tequila move: big brand, cool bottle, good marketing = $200 bottle! Don’t fall for it in this case as it is just OK – certainly not worthy of the price for what’s in the bottle.
2. Wahaka Vino de Mezcal Series, $230+ at Zee. Wahaka is an excellent brand with a strong number of great bottles well under $100. But they also scour the far reaches of Mexico to bring unique, tiny batch, special bottlings that they market under their Vino de Mezcal Series. They are very limited release and Zee Tequila is the only place I know to buy them.
1A. Scorpion Mezcal Anejo (7 Year Aged) $230 and Scorpion Tobala Anejo $220 at Zee. Scorpion is a fine mezcal, though the taste profile is closer to a tequila. I have never gotten over the scorpion in the bottle gimmick so I have rarely tried it. But I have tried these deep anejo offerings and I feel the barrel has overwhelmed the mezcal, so they are not a favorite.
1B. Del Maguey Chichicapa Cask Finish 12 Year, $320 at Park Avenue Liquor. This is a late addition to the post (Chad F. – thanks for the tip). I bought this at least 5yrs ago at Park Ave and they still have it (as do I)! It is aged 12yrs in glass and then finished for 100 days in a Stags Leap Cabernet Barrel. Expensive but truly remarkable.
This is an interesting list, but the good news is you don’t have to pay near this much for a great mezcal. So many excellent mezcals can be found in the $50-$100 range. Check out a few of my previous posts if you want to see more.
As for pricey mezcals, you can expect to see more of them. As the category becomes more mainstream, brands will go after the ultra premium sector just as they have done in tequila. You will start to see fancy crystal bottles and that sort of thing. Some people don’t even care about what’s inside – they just want the cool bottle. For me, I want both. If the juice is good, I can definitely be persuaded to buy an expensive bottle even though I am likely overpaying.
One area where you can expect to see the emergence of expensive bottles is in the new mezcal category of “Aged in Glass”. This is part of the new mezcal NOM, and you will see producers rolling out mezcals that they have been aging in large glass bottles for 10+ years. It actually makes a notable difference and you will find the mezcal has more depth and has mellowed. So look for those as they will not be cheap but they are likely worth a premium price.
Sadly, it has been a few years since I did a deep dive and thorough update to this list. Yes, I have added a brand here and there, but I have not scoured the web in a few years to see what is really out there. And man have times changed!
When I last took a hard look, there were about 70 mezcal brands to be found in the U.S. Now I count 120+! Wow. Further, a few years ago there were around 50 brands that were traveling in the upper end of the market, and that has now risen to almost 90 brands in what I consider to be in the premium sector.
I used to have them all, and I can no longer say that. In my recent research, I found many brands I had never even heard of at premium prices and occasionally at premium packaging. A lot of these are definitely under the radar, which means they are not active on social media or apparently in the active promotion of their brand. I know because I follow this stuff. Also, when new brands are coming to the market they often issue press releases, and many contact me and are generous enough to send me a bottle – I am grateful every time! But many of the new brands below have done nothing to announce their presence in the U.S. market, so that is why I say under the radar. And if that is what they want to do, no problem! But I am curious about a good number of them and will be making some new purchases for sure.
You will find a lot of these brands if you read MY BOOK (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). I talk about all these brands in greater depth, plus I take a detailed look at how the many varieties of agave impact the flavor of a mezcal – much like grapes are to wine, agave is to mezcal. The book is Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! and it is on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
So here is my currently assembled list of the brands that can be found in the U.S. The list is organized from top to bottom by the brands I am most familiar with, which means among other things, I can find them and drink them regularly, I read about them, and/or they are actively promoting their brands through social media, etc. As the list progresses, many of these I have never tried and never seen other than on a website. So they are mainly pretty obscure but some of them look quite interesting with a price point to match.
Toward the bottom of the list, there is a bunch of crap (that usually stirs up some controversy) – a bunch of industrial mezcals and some random stuff, many of which I have tried, hence that is what I call this part of the list crap. If you are looking for something good, stay higher on the list and do some research. When you see a mezcal for under $30, it is rarely good (though there are exceptions). Comments like that usually draw out some criticism that I am being elitist or worse, but it is simply a reality. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to produce a good, artisanal mezcal. Just a fact.
But if you think something toward the back of the pack is good, first you should drink it, and then let me know. I am always happy to learn and reassess. With that, here is what I have….
Oaxaca is a special place, and there is no better way to enjoy it than to journey out to a palenque (distillery) to see how mezcal is made first hand. Many years ago, when I first began touring palenques I was under the illusion that I was going out there just to see how mezcal was made. I thought I was going to see the agave fields, the earthen roasting pits, the horse drawn stone grinding mill, the fermentation tanks, the copper or clay pot stills, and the many other things that are involved in the ultimate arrival of this magical elixir. Basically, I thought it was all about the mechanics of making mezcal.
It took me awhile to figure it out, but now I know that the mechanics of making mezcal are only one slice of a palenque tour. What am I talking about? What else could there be? Well, as I said it did not hit me right away. But the more time I spent with mezcaleros and mezcaleras (female mezcaleros as I recently learned), I began to understand that they were not just sharing the process of mezcal production, but they were sharing their family history, their culture, their generational passion, their life.
Mezcal is so much more to these traditional producers. From the time most of them were small children, they have been around the palenque, sat with their fathers, mothers, aunts, cousins, uncles and grandparents, and absorbed all there is to know about making mezcal. For these producers, mezcal is the center of their world – it is their past, present and future. Mezcal is revered and core to who they are. It is present at every major milestone of their lives: births, communions, weddings, funerals, and everything in between.
So when you are lucky enough to be invited into their world, you eventually understand that mezcal is so much more than cutting, baking, fermenting and distilling. It is with an immense source of pride, passion and knowledge that they bring you into their inner circle.
And so it was on my recent trip to Oaxaca that my friends and I were invited into the sanctuary of the palenque at Real Minero. William Scanlan of Heavy Metl Premium Imports, who imports Real Minero in the U.S., knew I was dying to see this highly regarded producer for myself so he generously arranged our visit.
We arrived at the well-kept little town of Santa Catarina Minas, the heart of a historic mezcal making region. I’ve been told that all mezcal is made in clay pots in Santa Catarina Minas, as this is their tradition. I cannot verify if this is 100% true (maybe there is a copper pot rebel up in their hills), but if so, it’s awesome that this tradition has been kept so vibrant.
Real Minero is a storied mezcal brand from a 4th generation mezcal family. These days, the brand is being run by Graciela Angeles Carreño, the great granddaughter of the brand’s founder, or it could be the great great granddaughter, or the great great great granddaughter…the thing is they really don’t know how far back it goes. Many of these longtime mezcal-making families lose the trail as they backtrack the family tree into the 1800’s, and so it is with Real Minero. All they know is that there is 100+ years of mezcal making in their family. Love it!
While Graciella is a “Master Mezcalera” herself, her father Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza is also at the heart of their mezcal making these days. I put the term “Master Mezcalera” (same thing with “Master Mezcalero”) in quotes because Graciella explained that this term is all marketing. She said it did not really even exist until about 10yrs ago when mezcal started gaining popularity. Before that, you just made mezcal. Now you are labeled a “master” for simply doing what you have always done – making great mezcal in her case!
Graciella gave us a full tour of the Real Minero palenque. We started at their very modern warehouse which had surrounding agave fields with various varietals at different stages of development. The warehouse was quite large and spotless with an office and a conference room up the stairs at one end. I have never seen such modern facilities at a palenque – Real Minero is clearly planning for the future.
An agave field and various varietals in staggered states of maturity could be found throughout the property. There were a handful of A. karwinskii var. tripon – Real Minero makes the only mezcal I have seen with the tripon varietal. The one expression they have had in the states for years is an ensemble of four agaves, though now Metl is bringing in their whole amazing line of varietals. I asked Graciella if they made a single expression tripon, and she said they did and that the might have a few for purchase (but good luck finding it in the U.S.!). Now, I would just have to beat my buddies to it….
The agave fields held some beauties (if you like this kind of thing, which clearly I do) with huge towering arroquenos and quite a few varieties of Agave karwinskii nearing maturity. There was also an Agave rhodacantha, best known for the varietal mexicano (also known as dobadaan). Graciella explained that this rhodacantha was a cuixe varietal. I have only known a cuixe as an A. karwinskii, so this was a new agave varietal for me. Yes, I was truly psyched! As we walked the property, Graciella provided other little tidbits.
For example, she said that sometimes you will find rocks in the middle of a mature agave. Why? Because as the quiote starts to sprout, and if the agave is large enough (like an arroqueno), one cannot get to the middle of the agave to cut off the quiote. The quiote is cut off to keep the sugars and energy of the agave concentrated in the pina. So if an agave farmer cannot reach the quiote to cut it off, they throw rocks at it to break it! I thought she was pulling our leg, but no, it is true. More cool stuff for a mezcal nerd!
We left the fields and the warehouse and made our way to where the Real Minero distills their mezcal. Again, it was the cleanest, most well-organized palenque I have seen. Nothing was out of place. No stray equipment or tools. You could practically eat off the brick and cement floor. But it was not an industrial setting. Just a great looking, well kept gorgeous palenque. They not were roasting or crushing agave at this time, but they were distilling. They had eight clay pot stills, of which four were in the midst of distillation. My mouth started watering as Graciella pulled out a large gourd bowl and began filling it from one of the stills. Still warm from the still, she passed around a scrumptious 50% ABV tobala.
I am not sure there is anything better on the planet than tasting a great artisanal mezcal, right off the still, from one of the world’s renowned agave spirits producers. And we tasted. And tasted. And tasted some more. Not that is wasn’t already, but soon enough, everything was REALLY right with the world.
In a room adjacent to the stills, Graciella showed us a room with perhaps 50 huge glass containers in which they have been aging mezcal for over ten years! With the coming changes to the mezcal NOM, “aged in glass” will be a category unto itself. You may ask if aging in glass actually does anything to the mezcal? I have not tasted many so I am by no means an expert, but people in the mezcal world absolutely revere mezcals that have been aged in glass for many years. It smooths and mellows the mezcal. You will find it to be richer with greater depth and character. That certainly has been my experience, and though Graciella could not tell us when her glass-aged mezcal would hit the market, I would like to be first in line when it does.
After my friends stopped me from asking even more questions (were a few hundred too many?), we made our way back to the warehouse and Graciella treated us to a grand tasting of all Real Minero offerings. OMG! Find them. Buy them. Drink them. Happily, as I mentioned, most of these can now be found in the U.S., and they are amazing. The mezcal-y wizardry of the many generations of the Angeles family is poured into every bottle. These are truly great mezcals by any measure, all clay pot distilled, and each one lives up to the family’s reputation. Naturally, my friend’s and I bought as much as we could carry (and then some).
By now it was after 3pm, we were feeling good, and we were starving – which by the way, is almost what always happens when you are touring palenques in Oaxaca. Important safety tip: eat a big breakfast and bring protein bars! Graciella invited us to lunch at her local. As we drank beer and ate great food, I reflected on a special day at one of the more amazing palenques I am likely to ever see.
Graciella, thanks for a fantastic experience! Until next time, drink mezcal!