Last year was the first edition of the mezcal-y holiday gift guide and it was a rousing success. Due to the overwhelming demand (can you believe a total of 3 people have asked me about it?!), I am back this year for Round 2!
So are you looking for that special gift for your favorite mezcal aficionado? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 33 reviews and 30 of them are 5 stars! You can’t make this stuff up (well, you actually could, but I didn’t!). The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced ($35 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
Throughout the mezcal making regions in Mexico, you will find that a very common way to drink mezcal is in these cool little gourd cups- called jicaras. They feel like a thin wood, and the have a rounded bottom so they roll around a tiny bit. But as long as you have mezcal in them (and why wouldn’t you) they balance quite nicely. They are a pleasure to sip mezcal out of and a nod to the traditions of mezcal as well. I have NEVER seen these sold in the U.S. and now my friend Eduardo at Artisanal Mezcals has them ready for you. Yes, they are cheaper in Oaxaca, but you are not in Oaxaca – sadly, neither of us is. So 4 cups for $10 is a bargain and you can buy them HERE! Also, check out the mezcals he has for sale. Most of these are only available in the U.S. through his site, and he has some damn good mezcal there!
Now that you have jicaras, you may want to check out some cool copitas. As you may know, another traditional way to drink mezcal is out of little clay cups. The Del Maguey team has popularized this in the U.S., and it is indeed an enjoyable way to experience this fine spirit. I came across these on Etsy, and I think you will like them as well. Six copitas for $40 and you can buy them HERE!
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog, just hosted their second annual bitchin’ mezcal event in San Francisco, and make some super cool T-shirts. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the current prints.
Sal de Gusano
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. The team behind Mezcal Vago is importing this now – much respect mon!
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 1)
So many great bottles to choose from. Lucky for you I have several guides geared to help you. Check out my Mezcal Starter Kit for some great ideas if you want to give some moderately priced mezcal bottles as a gift.
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 2)
If you want to elevate your gift to another level, check out my post on Mezcal – Premium Edition. When price is no object, this is the place to look. Some unbelievable bottles can be found here! Anyone of these will make a fine gift.
Experience Mezcal Tours
Experience Mezcal is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site. The 2016 dates have not been set, but you can contact Clayton and get a gift certificate. That would be one AMAZING gift!!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!
Over a year ago I published the Mezcal Starter Kit, which was intended to be a resource for people who are just beginning their heroic journey into the world of mezcal. So I focused on bottles that started at about $30 and did not list anything beyond $70 a bottle. As that post has been digested (perhaps ingested) over the past year, I frequently get emails from people asking “What’s next?” (more mezcal for sure!). These readers have tried a few of these starter bottles and now are looking for something more exotic and potentially more expensive.
Readers want to know about silvestres (wild agave varietals), aged mezcals, pechugas, and other premium selections. “Are they good?” “Should I buy them?” “Do I have to go to Oaxaca to get them?” “Did someone really invent a goldfish walker?”
So this post is a look at some amazing mezcals, that are available in the U.S., without regard to price. Yes, many of these are in excess of $100 or more a bottle. I have often said that with mezcal, you generally get what you pay for. So if they are on this list, and they are pricey, I doubt you will be disappointed. Also, many people will readily buy a $100 bottle of wine and it will be gone in a few hours. But if you purchase one of these brilliant mezcals, you might be enjoying it for the next few months or longer. If you drink it like wine, you probably need professional help!
However, you don’t always have to shell out $100 to get a great mezcal. There are many many in the $50-$100 range that are fantastic – I included many of those as well (and by the way, not that $50-$100 for a bottle of booze is a bargain – but remember this is the Premium Edition!).
Why are some of these mezcals so expensive? First, in general, mezcal is not an inexpensive spirit because it is hand-crafted, small batch, and labor intensive. There are no large column stills, industrial-sized ovens, or factory workers. An exceptional artisanal mezcal is produced at a small distillery, or palenque, and is essentially produced in a fashion that has been unchanged over several centuries.
Second, many of these mezcals are made from rare, wild agaves that are extremely limited in supply, difficult to find and harvest, and can take twenty plus years to mature. I snapped a shot of this wild tepeztate shown here in the cliffs outside Santiago Matatlan – a tepeztate can take thirty plus years to mature!
Third, when you move to aged mezcals, there are additional costs for the barrels, storage, and loss due to evaporation – the angel’s share, as you may know.
So yes, mezcals can be expensive. But again, if you can afford it, you will not be disappointed!
So where do I begin? So many great mezcals – what order should I put these in? Can I possibly rank them by my favorites? Not a chance – all amazing. By bottle height? (“How do you measure yourself against other golfers?”)? Price? That is not the goal of this exercise. So what order have I listed these in? Good ole boring alphabetical order. Not very creative but effective nevertheless. At any rate, you cannot go wrong with any of these…..here we go…..
Brand / Bottle
Where To Buy?
Brand / Bottle
Where To Buy?
Just arriving in the U.S.
Excellent Agave durangensis from Durango. Think passion fruit. Really unique.
Bruxo #4 Ensemble
Ensemble of espadin, barrill, cuishe. The best of their fine offerings I think.
Del Maguey Arroqueno
It does not get much better than this. Rich and robust.
Del Maguey Tobala
One of the original crowd pleasers. Amazing.
Del Maguey Madrecuixe
Beautiful madrecuixe - category defining I think.
Del Maquey Tepextate
Andrews Wine Cellar
Perfectly herbal tepeztate. Right down the middle of the category.
El Jolgorio Arroqueno
Working on it.
Every Jolgorio could be on this list. Arroqueno is ripe bananas and oh so good. The only problem is finding it right now.
El Jolgorio Tepeztate
Old Town Liquor
Gently herbal. From the hands of a master.
El Jolgorio Barril
Old Town Liquor
The barril-iest of the barrils says my friend Mario. Perfectly Karwinskii with crisp citrus and earthen roasted agave.
Yummy ensemble of tobasiche, mexicano, and espadin.
Another excellent Tep. Right there with Del Maguey and Jolgorio with a bit more power on the herbal quality.
Fidencio Tierra Blanco
Agave espadin grown in white soil - strong minerality to this one.
The one that started it all for me. Chocolate, orange, roasted agave, gentle smoke. Amazing.
Butterscotch, vanilla and roasted agave. Brilliant.
Marca Negra Ensemble
Old Town Liquor
Ensemble of bicuixe, madrecuishe and espadin. Probably my favorite of their line. Rich and fruity.
Marca Negra Arroqueno
Yes, I am a sucker for arroquenos, and this one knocks the cover off.
Marca Negra Tepeztate
My amigo Mario says this is one of the best. He knows. We call him Tepezario....
Mezcal Tosba Espadin
On sale as of this post. A steal at $45. Pick up a case.
Mezcal Vago Mexicano
Bright, fresh, green. Delicious.
Mezcal Vago Ensamble en Barro
The varietals in their ensembles may vary but they all rock!
Mezcal Vago Coyote
Like all Vago's, dark and mysterious. Here, dark fruit flavors and roasted agave.
Mezcalero Special Bottling #1
Caddell & Williams
Brilliant madrecuishe. Dusty and musty (that's good!). Get it while you can. Limited supply.
Pierde Almas Espadin
Andrews Wine Cellar
Up there with the best of espadins.
Pierde Almas Tobala
Andrews Wine Cellar
Recently tried after a long absence and was blown away. Rich floral with hints of anise on the finish.
Sotol Por Siempre
Excellent sotol Crushes Hacienda de Chihuahua. Worthy in a fine mezcal collection.
Viejo Indecente Espadin
Just reaching the U.S. now. Great ensemble as well.
Just one of many in their great line of mezcals. Sadly, hard to find these days!
Old Town Liquor
One of the best ensembles to be found. Infinitely drinkable. Sublime....
Now there are many things left unsaid, or bottles not listed, because they cannot be currently found in the U.S. or for other reasons. For example, I love Real Minero but you cannot get that fine ensemble anywhere right now. They sell many varietals in Mexico, but they are not to be found north of the border. And there are many like that. Also, for certain brands like El Jolgorio, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, or Vago for example, I readily could have included all or most of their whole line – yes they are that good. But I did not want to overload the list with a few brands.
What else? Well, I can’t find much of Siete Misterios in the U.S. anymore (other than their Doba-Yej and Tobala), though they tell me on Twitter that they are shipping their Barrill to the U.S. soon. Also, I am looking forward to the rumored arrival of special offerings from Mezcaloteca, Rey Campero, and Mezcal Koch, but they are not here yet.
At any rate, this is more than enough to get you going if you are searching for your next great mezcal. Nothing on this list will disappoint you. Are some better than others? Well, it is really a matter or palate and opinion – not better or worse when you are playing at this level. For example, I did not put an Agave cupreata on this list because they are not my favorite, though I know many mezcal lovers who disagree. So you have to find what you like and even then it is likely to vary on the day you are drinking it, the food you are drinking it with, and the company you are keeping at the time. It all matters. And it is fun to keep trying the broad range of mezcals to be had. I am sure you are doing just that!
And as you have probably figured out, I do most of my mezcal buying online so I have listed where you can find these bottles. These are the places that I have found to have the best selection – though it is usually best to shop around between them to find the best price.
Finally, if you are a brand owner, representative, importer, fellow blogger (my amigos at Mezcalistas?) or other and think I have missed something important here, please let me know. I have omniscient-like powers of revision! In the interim, drink mezcal!!
People ask me all the time how many bottles of mezcal I have. I look around my apartment and I see bottles stashed everywhere: closets, cabinets, laundry room, kitchen, billiard room, parlor, library, conservatory, observation wing, theater, gazebo, tanning room (for hides not skin of course), and even the laboratory! With all these rooms, how can I find them to count them? Well OK, maybe that is not really the set up in NYC apartment. But I do have a lot of bottles and they are spread out a bit, and I have never taken the time to count them up….until now….
So people ask how many bottles I have, and then they usually ask me how that stacks up to other mezcal fans or bars and restaurants. Do I have more mezcal than any individual in NYC? In the U.S.? Or do I have more mezcals than any bars in the City? Of course, I really don’t know the answer to any of these, though I suspect I have more mezcal than any bar. That really is not that hard when you realize that the bars are pretty much limited to what they can buy commercially in the U.S. – things like liquor laws, tax stamps, importers and distributors come into play, so they are handicapped. Whereas, a private collection is uninhibited by such restrictions. So if you buy what is commercially available in the U.S. (which I pretty much do), plus you bring back a lot of bottles from Mexico (which I also do), then it is hard for a bar to keep up with that due to the restrictions they face.
So yes, I THINK I have more mezcals than any bar in the country but I don’t know if I have more than any private collection here in NYC or beyond. In fact, I highly doubt it. My friends at Mezcalistas on the West Coast may be killing me! (But no combining collections Max and Susan). But I don’t know. That’s what this post is all about. Take the Mezcal Challenge!
Are there bottles in the US that I don’t have? Absolutely. I buy what interests me. I don’t buy to artificially expand my collection. For example, I love most of the Del Maguey line but I really don’t need all 18 of their bottles in my apartment! I’ve tried them all, and I buy the ones I really like. Also, budgetary and storage constraints come into play (we are actually renovating our apartment in part to create more mezcal storage space….really). But I still have acquired much of what is out there, and probably tasted almost all of it.
I have acquired it but that doesn’t mean I still have it. My mezcal collection, probably like yours, is a living and breathing entity. Bottles come in, bottles are consumed, bottles go out. And there is a fair amount of turnover here as I drink a LOT of mezcal (not all on my own mind you…OK, maybe most of it).
So the Mezcal Challenge is a snapshot in time. How many bottles of mezcal do you have RIGHT NOW? But first, we need a few rules. I know, I know. Mezcal don’t need no stinkin’ rules! But we had to have a few. And yes, there is of course subjectivity, but we needed a methodology to count our bottles. For example, I have a lot of little sample bottles, but should those count? It does not feel right to me since they disappear with one swig. So they are out. What about mezcals you may have brought back from Mexico that have no label? Fantastic. They are in. Or the 200ml flask that fits in your back pocket? I say yes. So you see, there are a few considerations, and I have clearly given it deep meditative thought….
Bottle Counting Rules:
Size matters. No 2 ounce sample bottles. Size has to be 200ml or greater.
Bacanora, Sotol, Distillates de Agave, and Raicilla count. You deserve the credit if you have some of these.
Tequila does not count. No offense to tequila but this is about other agave distillates. My friends at Agave Idiots can run the Tequila Challenge.
This is a unique bottle competition. What does that mean? Well, if you have a case of Ilegal Joven or Del Maguey Vida in a closet, that does not count as 6 bottles – it is just one. Even if you have 2 of your favorite bottles, it still only counts as 1. But if you have 4 different expressions from Pierde Almas, that’s 4. Unique bottles only.
Different lots do not equal different bottles. This one is admittedly tricky. Different lots of the same brand can taste different for sure, but it is the same brand and same expression, so I am going to say it does not count. Tough call though and it would inflate my totals for sure.
Honor system. Ernst and Young will not show up at your door seeking verification. Photographic evidence may be requested for bold claims!
Personal Category and Professional Category
As I am anticipating an onslaught of entries (Mario help me out here!), I will have two categories. The Personal Category for individuals and The Professional Category for bars and restaurants. Depending on the geographic breakdown of entries, I may make a few categories for the winners (like US, Europe, Mexico, International, etc). Many bars want to claim that they have the largest selection of mezcal (I know because they want to be included on my Mezcal Joints page and they make these types of claims). I get that. Submit your entry. Let’s see how it goes, and maybe some obvious sub-categories will develop. Or perhaps, I will only get a handful of submissions (lame). We will find out!
But man am I curious. I would love to know you if you are a serious collector of mezcal, and I would love to know what bar or restaurant has the largest mezcal selection in the US and beyond!
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
Since I am initiating the Mezcal Challenge, you probably want to know how many unique bottles I have in my collection??? Should I disclose now or wait until other entries come in? Well, I want to set the tone so I will disclose my current unique bottles count with the complete list at the end of this post. So…….
I have 142 unique bottles of mezcal currently in my possession.
I guess it is a good number but it seems small when I think of tequila collectors I know (Hello Mark!) who have something like 2,000 bottles in their private collections (though that is probably not unique bottles). But anyway, it feels small. Well not small small, but big small. With me? But maybe not. You tell me. What have you got?? You don’t even have to list them all – just give me a number.
I will publish the results. You can send me an email to email@example.com or respond to this post. But either way, I will publish a results post in a few weeks time.
I am working on producing Mezcal PhD T-shirts – the logo design is in process. While not there yet, I will have these in the coming months, and that my friends will go to the lucky winners of the Mezcal Challenge!
So that’s it. I hope that some of you – any of you stake your claim to the title and give me a unique bottle count. And for the bars and restaurants out there, the crown of most mezcals in the US, London, Australia, Canada, Paris or wherever hopefully has some appeal! I look forward to any and all submissions!
So after many months and hundreds of submissions (would you believe dozens?), the results are in! A bit to my surprise, it appears that I have the largest private mezcal collection in the U.S. While no one from Mexico submitted a larger list, I would bet that my collection can be readily topped south of the border by more than a few people.
At any rate, I thank those that submitted their collections and here are some of the notable numbers:
Mario (“Marwinski”) 85 bottles (Hated mezcal 3yrs ago!)
Max (Mezcalistas) 40-ish (Turnover high – excessive consumption)
Ken (Mezcal journalist) 30-ish
Mike Jones (enthusiastic contributor) 15
Judah (Mezcal Vago) Unknown (Talks a big game – can prob back it up)
So there you have it! I owe T-shirts to Mario and Mezcal Review, though I have to make them first. They are extremely well-designed and super cool in my head, but I am slow to execute. But I will get there. I may send out some more freebies as well! Thanks to all for contributing!
Marca Negra has been around for a few years – guessing that they came into the US market in 2011. I have always liked their super cool funky green bottle with the black hand print running from front to back, and found their mezcals to be really good. The first iteration of the brand was Mano Negra ( the Black Hand), but they had some trademark issues so they changed the name to Marca Negra (effectively, the Black Mark). I think I first tried it at Pulqueria in NYC about 3 years ago – it was their tobala and it was excellent! I looked forward to trying more.
Since that first tasting, I have bought a few more bottles over the years in exploration of the brand, and my mezcal-y mother-in-law swears by their espadin! But I do not see the brand around NYC that often so I have not tasted all of their offerings.
Then about a year ago I was in Oaxaca, and I met the founder of the brand, Pedro Quintanilla, a very nice guy who I am happy to drink mezcal with anytime! He promised to send me a bottle. Never came. And that is not very unusual as it happens with a fair amount of regularity (I never take it personally, though as a business guy I find it to be a bad practice). Then this summer (are you still with me?) in a thread to one on my posts I mentioned that Pedro never followed through. I quickly received an apologetic email from Pedro which was soon followed by a delivery of three 750ml bottles of Marca Negra! Maybe I should call people out more often??
But 3 bottles? Very generous. Overly generous. He sent an arroqueno, a tobala, and an ensamble. So then I went out and bought their espadin and their dobadaan – I wanted the complete set! With all five bottles now in hand, I felt a review was in order.
(Reviews are tricky sometimes and I really do not do that many. I should do more. I will do more. But they are tricky because sometimes people are kind enough to send me a sample, but then what do I do if I don’t really like it? Do I bluff and say I like it anyway? Hmmmm….not really my style. Or do I write something negative about a well-intentioned premium brand that generously sent me a bottle? That’s hard for me to do as well. So usually what I do is simply say nothing. If you have sent me a bottle and I have not reviewed your mezcal, it may also just be that I am way behind, which I am!).
If you are regular reader of the blog, you know that while I don’t do many full blown brand reviews, I frequently make qualitative comments about mezcals I am drinking on any given night (or morning). I put a lot of these one-off micro-reviews on FB and Twitter. And I only tend to do full brand reviews if a brand has a lot to offer, such as multiple expressions – be it agave varietals, special bottlings, or repos and anejos, for example.
Man, enough said. Let’s taste some mezcal! So I have all 5 of Marca Negra’s offerings (though they tell me a tepeztate is on the way soon as well). And I really like what they are doing here. Let’s check them out:
Arroqueno. When I first tasted this several months ago, I thought it was good, but I was getting a bit of alcohol on the finish (at 48.6% ABV this would not be very unusual). And a great arroqueno would not have that in my view. I mentioned this to Pedro and he suggested putting the bottle in a dark place for a few months to let it mellow since this batch was literally fresh off the still. So I did that, and man was he right! It went from good to excellent. On the nose, I find fresh tropical fruit – citrus, banana, and maybe pineapple. Rich and fruity! On the palate, it fills your mouth with robust flavors of fruit and sweet roasted agave. Really nice. The finish still fades a bit for me but the prominent alcohol taste has dwindled significantly. All in all, a lovely arroqueno!
Dobadaan. Dobadaan and Mexicano are synonymous (same varietal of Agave rhodacantha, just a different name). I believe the term “dobadaan” was popularized by Jonathan Barbeiri, founder of Pierde Almas. He told me that he found dobadaan was an old colloquial term for mexicano and it resonated with him, so he used it. The Marca Negra Dobadaan, clocking in at 48%, is really wonderful. It is not as fruity on the nose as the arroqueno, but still coaxes you in. The taste is full of ripe banana, and it also brings in spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It is really good and I could drink this all day (at least until I pass out).
Tobala. The tobala is called the King of Mezcal by many because of its rarity and robust flavor. While they grow wild, they are also being routinely cultivated these days, making them less
rare. They may not taste exactly the same, but directionally so. And if this allows us to drink more great mezcal, I am all for it. This Marca Negra is made from wild tobala and tips the ABV-scales at 52%. Wow! I can only think of one or two bottles in the US that have a higher ABV. The high ABV can be challenging on the palate because the alcohol can overpower everything else that is going on. In this case, while present, the high ABV does not overwhelm the mezcal and leaves plenty of room for the tropical fruit flavors to flourish. But like my original tasting of the arroqueno, perhaps I need to let this mellow in the dark because I do get a bit of medicinal alcohol on the finish. All in all, this tobala works but I suspect I might enjoy it more if the ABV were below 50…
Ensamble. This is a 47% ABV blend of espadin, and 2 Agave karwinski varietals, bicuixe and madrecuixe. And this works big time! On the nose I get chocolate and oddly, something really candy-like, as in bubble gum or cotton candy. Really rich and sweet with a bit of chocolate thrown in to balance out the super sweet aroma. Smells yummy. And the taste follows in a harmonious fashion with that light bubble gum sweetness and black pepper to bring it down. It also has a long lovely finish that lingers brilliantly on the palate. Great stuff!
Espadin. As you know, most mezcals are made from Agave angustifolia, varietal espadin, so they are quite common. At 51% ABV this is stronger than most but the alcohol does not overpower the spirit. It has a nice, soft perfume on the nose. On the palate I find nice notes of roasted agave and an elegant, medium finish. Like most espadins, and their accompanying price points, this will work great in a cocktail and you can enjoy it neat as well.
Now that was a fun tasting! Marca Negra has a really nice line of mezcals. They certainly do not shy away from bringin’ the pain with the high ABV offerings. But as I look across the 5, the two highest ABV’s were my least favorites – these are the tobala and the espadin. I preferred the arroqueno, dobadaan, and the ensemble, which are all below 50% ABV. While I almost always favor the arroquenos in such a lineup, in this case I think I would make the ensemble my number one draft choice. It is wonderfully balanced and just oh so drinkable.
But as usual when I am tasting great stuff, I am splitting hairs – and these are all excellent mezcals. And everybody’s palate is of course different. And my own palate changes based on so many factors – time of day, what I am eating, who I am with, how MY BOOK is selling. You know, all those important things!
So if you have not tried the Mezcal Marca Negra offerings, now is the time. Enjoy and as always, drink mezcal!
ADDENDUM TO THIS POST
After I published this post, the brand owner Pedro, came back to me with a few interesting comments. First:
“Something that’s relevant to the piece you just wrote is that we go the extra mile to bring to market mezcal that is distilled to suit the tastes of the makers and the communities where it originated. We are not trying to speculate on what the greater market would embrace. So that is why the last batch of our tobalá is so rich in alcohol content – Jorge and family, that’s how they like it. Same as our espadín, which is also from San Luis del Rio. Abel, the master distiller, recently got married and at his wedding he gave exactly the same mezcal that was bottled in the current batch (they like their mezcal at 50%-51%). You can’t get more authentic than that.”
Pedro! I love this. Thank you for educating us on why Marca Negra tastes like it does. This also speaks to the cultural roots of mezcal – it has been made for centuries for the communities in which it is produced. They are not solving for the equation of what some guy in New York likes. They are making what they have always made and have confidence that others will want to share their world. I embrace the differences across brands and varietals as it is core to what mezcal is all about. Of course I prefer some more than others – we all do.
Pedro also commented on why they changed the name from Mano Negra to Marca Negra:
“In your piece you mention the fact that first off we were Mano Negra which is absolutely right. However, there weren’t really issues with registration in the US but there could have been in the future since there is a wine that’s called Black Hands, and according to our lawyer (John: it’s always the lawyers isn’t it?) our registration could’ve been contested. Then, a few days after we learned about that potential liability, something else came up: a maestro producer asked me why we had named our mezcal Mano Negra since we were all about bringing the truest, most honest product. You see, ‘mano negra’ is also an expression that denotes that something is fraudulent, that something has been rigged as an election would be, in which case you would say “there was mano negra in that election”. That did it. Marca Negra was the new name.”
Cool. I like a bit of the back story. Thanks Pedro.
This is a public service post. I am not an airline employee. I do not work for US Customs. I have not searched with an unrelenting fervor into all the rules and regulations on bringing bottles of booze back into the US from abroad. But I know enough to be dangerous and have several bottle-laden trips behind me so I have a bit of experience. Experience does NOT equal expertise so please do not take this as gospel.
When I post a bunch of bottle shots after a trip to Oaxaca, I frequently get asked how I was able to bring back that much mezcal (and I get asked even more frequently if I will share!). So here is a quick take on the way I see it.
What the Airlines Say
I think this is the trickiest piece of the puzzle, because it turns out that the airlines are more restrictive than US Customs. Living in NYC, I usually fly United through Houston to Oaxaca. Going through Houston gives me the added benefit of a stop at Papasito’s in the Houston airport – it’s mandatory if you have time! Looking into the United Airlines baggage policy, you will find that you can bring in 5 liters per person. 5 liters is equal to 6.67 typically sized bottles of 750 ml each. In other words, it rounds down to 6 bottles per person. That’s it. That’s their policy. 6 bottles. But I just brought back about 4 times that! How?
Well, the good news is that it does not appear to be the United Airlines employees’ responsibility to enforce that – at least not in Oaxaca. I had two suitcases this last trip – one was very heavy and one less so. The max limit on weight per bag is 23 Kilos, about 50 pounds. The counter agents told me they can give you leeway up to 25 kilos, or 55 pounds. Above that, you will pay a lot for excess weight (about $100 for every 5 lb overage). I was right at the 25 kilo leeway zone on one, and the other was probably 40 lbs. Two dense bags of 55 and 40 pounds is a lot of luggage for one person so I expected a few questions. To my now warmed mezcal heart, there were none! They checked the bags and on I went.
Now if someone from United Airlines is reading this, let’s not make a big deal out of it. The 5 liter limit seems arbitrary and unnecessary in the first place. If there is a reason, please let us know. We are not breaking any laws, US Customs or otherwise. The materials are not hazardous (unless CONSUMED in vast quantities). We are not bringing these back for commercial purposes. We are just mezcal geeks who love this shit and want to bring back as much of the stuff as possible that we cannot get in the US. That’s it. Nothing untoward.
That all said, I don’t think you want to be bragging to the people at the ticket counter about how much mezcal you scored! And my experience was with United. My friends Tom and Brenda recently came back from Oaxaca on AeroMexico and they got nailed. They were told they could only check 6 bottles PER BAG, and they actually had to give up 5 bottles. Imagine their pain! They had already checked the bags and they came and found them at the gate and told them them about the 6 per bag limit. Different from United Airlines where their website says 6 bottles PER PERSON. But United also did not come track me down at the gate, and one of my bags probably had 12 bottles of 750 ml (again, they never asked me about the weighty contents).
A mezcalero who regularly brings large quantities of mezcal to the US for tradeshows, etc told me that he is occasionally asked how many bottles he has in his very heavy luggage, and his response is always “4 bottles”. That’s his story and he is sticking with it. And it works. They don’t question it.
Bottom line: different airlines have different policies and different levels of enforcement. A number of us have had different experiences with different airlines so your experience may vary.
What US Customs Says
Most people think they can only bring back 1 or 2 bottles through US Customs. Not true. From the US Customs and Border Protection website:
“There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity – although travelers are still subject to state restrictions which may allow less.”
So you can bring back as much as you want as long as you declare it! The only catch is you are likely to have to pay tax above the 1 bottle limit. But note the “state restrictions” comment. I have only come through customs in Houston and if you go to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, it says you can only bring in 1 gallon of distilled spirits. It seems this is not being enforced by the US Customs people in Houston. Right on my people! I have not looked into what other states say and have no idea if they enforce any limits. Maybe you know?
When I came through recently they asked me no questions and I went right through. My buddy Mario was pulled over and had a few less bottles than me (he could not keep up!) and he paid a total tax of $19. That’s it. No issue with the quantity he had.
So it appears US Customs has no issue with quantity as long as you will pay the tax (again with the caveat that some US states may enforce things differently).
The final piece of this public service announcement contains a few packing tips:
Take an empty suitcase. If you are really planning on loading up, it’s a pretty good idea to take an empty suitcase down there filled with packing tape, bubble wrap and WINE SKINS.
Buy Wine Skins. These things are fantastic! You can buy them at the Container Store or Amazon. They are wine-bottle shaped bubble wraps – sleak and compact yet highly protective. They will handle almost any-shaped mezcal bottle that you come across. The bubble wrap and packing tape are handy if you run out of Wine Skins or for smaller bottles.
Saran Wrap your bags. When you are leaving, at the Oaxaca airport, there is a guy there with one of those Saran Wrap machines (not sure what else to call it) where they wrap your bag about 30 times with a thin plastic cellophane. As your bag is likely to be heavy, this will help the structural integrity of the bag and keep everything nice and tight. It costs about $15 per bag, but I think it is a good investment.
I am sure I am forgetting a few other things, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. Remember this is based on a handful of experiences and is not gospel. So please no nasty hate mail if you follow this advice and you have to give up bottles. But again, this is all perfectly legal and not even perfectly legal with a wink of an eye. The US government says you can bring back as much as you want. So try it, or if you have an experience to share, reply to this post. Good luck in your mezcal adventures, and as always, drink mezcal!
Many people in and around the mezcal world know that “change is a comin'” to the Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994, which is the law that governs the application of Mezcals’ Denomination of Origin – the rules and regulations of mezcal production, certification, classification, regions, labeling and everything else. The law was passed in 1994, and while it set mezcal on a path to legitimization, it was controversial from the start.
One main point of consternation was that this law closely mirrored the tequila NOM, and many producers and stakeholders recognized from the beginning that this was a poor place to start given that mezcal is different (and way better!) from tequila in so many fundamental ways. But it was a starting point, and I would argue that, while flawed, mezcal has benefitted tremendously from regulation.
The mezcal world is different from where it was in 1994. For example, I recently met someone who had actually heard of it! Wahoo! We are making progress and the industry is energizing in the right direction to create a mezcal regulatory framework that is separate and distinct from tequila, while also recognizing the unique characteristics and history of mezcal.
With that quick backdrop, the other night I attended a small gathering (maybe 15 people) at Salon Hecho where Juan Lozoya, the secretary of COMERCAM (now CRM) was going to discuss the proposed changes to the NOM. But Juan’s flight was delayed so Danny Mena, owner of Salon Hecho as well the fine brand Mezcales de Leyenda, opted to pinch hit for Juan. Danny has been very involved with the process and is well-versed on the proposed new NOM. He gave an excellent presentation and also noted comments from the audience of brand owners, importers, distributors, bartenders, and store owners, among others.
I will start with the proposed 3 new Categories for mezcal as these are the most important pieces to the new NOM. Keep in mind, today we just have one general category called Mezcal, which captures everything from industrial mezcals to small batch mezcals made in rural communities. In the current law and with this new proposal, a producer will still have to go through the certification process to put “mezcal” on the label, but now there will be 3 categories of mezcal. Here are the proposed Categories with the specifically allowed production techniques for each Category:
Three New Categories
Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills
Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks
Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel
Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder
Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers
Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers
Pit ovens only
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets
Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process must use maguey fibers
Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process must include maguey fibers
In short, the key points are:
“Mezcal” Category: you can use autoclaves (pressure cookers), shredders, stainless steel fermentation, and column still distillation. This basically allows industrial production to continue for unnamed brands (that begin with the last letter of the alphabet). One key point is that a diffuser can no longer be used in this Category (or any other) for mezcal production.
“Artisanal Mezcal” Category: no autoclaves, shredders still OK, no stainless steel fermentation, but single batch distillation only in clay pots or copper stills.
“Ancestral Mezcal” Category: pit ovens only, no shredders, no stainless steel fermentation and must use maguey fibers, and only clay pot distillation where maguey fibers must be used.
So what does this all mean? Well, the industrial boys fought hard to protect their investments in industrial processes, and they had some success. The ability to use diffusers is still desired by the industrial producers, and there are conflicting views as to whether they will be allowed to or not. Though their use is unlikely to be allowed in the current way, under one proposal diffusers may still be allowed if the agave is cooked first. Others have said they should not be allowed at all. Something to keep an eye.
Either, some amount of industrial production is likely to persist in mezcal. They can still call it “Mezcal” despite significant opposition and the push for an “Industrial” Category (which did not happen). The only meaningful and practical difference between Artisanal and Ancestral is that Ancestral must use clay pot stills. In today’s reality, most of the premium mezcals that you drink and read about here, are Artisanal under this definition and they use the same process as Ancestral except most distill in copper stills.
Assuming these changes actually go through, Artisanal Mezcal labels will dominate the U.S. market because these are the premium mezcals that are already here. Ancestral Mezcal will be less frequent though some producers may invest in this type of production because they can likely command a premium price. The investment is really one of time because clay pots are not expensive, but the batches are small so the production process is longer. And the brands that currently are somewhat or completely industrialized will have the simple Mezcal label. Will the average consumer actually know the difference? I doubt it. That’s why I struggle with the whole thing. The mezcal geeks (present company included) understand all this, but does it help the mezcal category? The understanding of what mezcal is? I’m not so sure.
I think the motivation was largely around protecting the old ways of production – techniques handed down from generation to generation. Keeping mezcal pure. Small batch. Hand crafted. But is this defeated by having a “Mezcal” category that allows for autoclaves, stainless steel fermentation tanks, and column stills? It may be. Because I don’t think the average consumer will really appreciate the differences, or notice the labeling, between these categories – they simply look for “Mezcal” on the label. Of course, I hope I am wrong.
This stuff has been, and is being, debated by sharper agave minds than mine, but despite my misgivings, it is a step in the right direction for mezcal. We are not going backward here. And I know the premium brands, producers and mezcal aficionados will work hard to educate the influencers on the front lines (the bartenders, store owners, media, etc), so maybe it will work more than I expect. But either way, while not perfect, this is a good move for mezcal. And I stress, this proposal is not fully baked and is likely to undergo further revisions.
Let me touch on a few other points in the proposed regs:
They have defined Mezcal as: ” Mexican alcoholic beverage, 100% maguey, obtained by means of the distillation of juices fermented with Mexican yeasts, whether spontaneous or cultivated, and juices that have been extracted from the mature cooked heads of magueys harvested within the territory included in the Denomination of Origin, Mezcal.”
This definition eliminates the Type I (100% agave) and Type II (80% agave) distinctions that were in the original law. Now mezcal must be 100% agave. This is practical as well because the Type II category was little used.
Any species of agave can be used as long as it was grown in the Denomination of Origin areas. This is great because it recognizes that mezcal can be made with any type of agave which has enough sugars to produce alcohol.
Now there are four Classes of mezcal: White, Matured in Glass, Reposado, and Anejo. So it appears the term “joven” is replaced by “white”, or blanco. And Matured in Glass is a new class though it is not very common.
Mezcal can be flavored with additives of up to 5% of volume including; insects, fruit, herbs, honey, coloring agents (hmmm..), and meat, among others.
Mezcal can be distilled with similar additives – thus allowing for pechugas and creativity.
ABV must be from 36% to 55%. Same as the current NOM.
Label must include the Category, the Class, the species of agave, and length of aging, among other things. Previously the agave species was not required.
Export in bulk form is prohibited. So you cannot bottle in the U.S. for example as tequila permits.
There are more details in the proposal, but I think these are the most relevant. Something else that is surprising is that they think this law could be enacted in the first half of 2015! That would be impressive, but I’ll take the over.
There were some other interesting points that I took away from the presentation:
COMERCAM has changed their name to CRM, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. And oh man, I just wrote a 200 page book on mezcal that uses the term “COMERCAM” about 50 times! But I get it – they are conforming the naming convention of the regulator with the tequila regulatory body, Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or CRT. (This is a bit of irony in that they are trying hard to move away from tequila, yet at the same time changing the name to look like tequila!).
CRM is doing some internal streamlining to ease the pain of certification for producers – they are trying to make it easier and to eliminate some of the red tape.
CRM’s goal is for mezcal to be the premium white spirit in the world. Lofty goals indeed when you consider that tequila outsells mezcal by more than 100 to 1. Not to mention rum and vodka. But over 20+ years, maybe the cream will rise to the top. I am the eternal mezcal optimist!
Interestingly, Danny made the point that the growing regions of mezcal are about 5 times larger than that of tequila and even larger still than other denomination of origin regions like Cognac, for example. Again, over the long term, if utilized thoughtfully, the land resource for mezcal suggests the potential for becoming the premier premium spirit.
Clayton Szczech, from Experience Mezcal, has been following this closely and is providing a great service to the mezcal community by keeping us informed. Some of this article is pulled from his work. You can read more on his blog if you are interested. So thank you Clayton.
All in all, it was an informative meeting, and as I expressed earlier, this proposal is a step forward for mezcal. Will this legislation be the lynchpin that propels mezcal to new heights? Your guess is as good as mine, so while we all contemplate, let’s simply drink mezcal! Happy Holidays everyone.
P.S. I am back in Oaxaca in mid-January – hope to see you there!
Do you have loved ones who are mezcal-crazed? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 18 reviews and all 5 stars! Exciting stuff for me. The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced (about $30 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
These are traditional small clay cups for drinking mezcal. The wide rim and shallow depth allow the aromas of a mezcal to flow freely and not concentrate the alcohol on the nose as many narrow mouthed glasses do. Previously, these things have been impossible to find in the U.S. But finally, Del Maguey started importing and selling them through Cocktail Kingdom, and you can now buy them. You can get 12 of them for $17.95! Bargain.
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts thru Etsy for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the three prints.
In Italian, malfatti means “mis-shapen”. In this case, they are wonderfully imperfect. They are elegant, impossibly light, and calling them gorgeous is an understatement. They are “malfatti” because they are individually hand-blown and each one is slightly different from the next. I have bought too many to count over the years as gifts for Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and for simply no reason at all. At $28 a glass, they are a special gift for someone and worth every penny. They are about 3 inches high and probably hold about 5 ounces of liquid. So they are perfect for a nice 2oz pour of your favorite mezcal. And the mouth of the glass is wide enough that the alcohol does not overpower you on the nose. They are quite strong too as they are made from borosilicate glass which you can read about HERE. All this is done by the amazing people at Ten Willow Studio.
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. I am not sure I should be promoting the folks at Gran Mitla since in the past they promised to send me samples, which they never did! But I am all about good karma, and hey, there are worse things than not receiving salt in the mail!
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 1
It is incredibly difficult to pick just 3 bottles from all of the great brands and varietals that are available. But I know people are looking for some guidance, so much so that I did a whole post on this subject which you can view HERE. But if you are looking to buy a few bottles as an awesome gift, and don’t want to break the bank, here are 3 premium mezcals that are quite different from each other, yet are all made from agave espadin, and are great for sipping or cocktails. We have Wahaka Espadin ($34), Ilegal Joven ($47) and Marca Negra Espadin ($52). As I said, it is virtually impossible to choose just 3, but all 3 are well worth their weight in mezcal. All 3 are available from DrinkUpNY. Total damage for all is $133. In choosing these I also tried to stay with one website to limit shipping costs for you – so that was another constraint in picking these bottles.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 2
OK, prices are not that much higher here but I am bringing in different offerings. Again, very difficult choices here but I tried to stay in the mid-range of price (less than $75 a bottle) while still choosing amazing mezcals. We have Mezcal Vago Ensemble de Barro ($70), El Silencio Joven ($50), and Ocho Cientos Sotol ($43). The Vago and Silencio are yummy ensembles and the Ocho is a great sotol which tastes very much like a great mezcal. Total damage here is $163 and they can be purchased at K&L Wines.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 3
Let’s get crazy. Let’s get nuts. Here are a few super-premium bottles. While they have the prices to show it, they also have the quality as well. In fact, they are all unbelievable! We have Del Maguey Arroqueno ($100), which won my arroqueno throw down, El Jolgorio Mexicano ($120), and the amazing Pierde Almas Conejo ($190). The stunning total cost here is $410 and they are all available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars.
These 3 sample packs are tricky because there are many excellent mezcals as I said. You can feel free to mix and match of course but each is available at the websites mentioned. You have to select them individually at these websites since they have not figured out how cool it would be to have the “Mezcal PhD Premium Package” as an offering. As the shipping costs can get high, it is always better to buy multiple bottles at the same time.
This is a special bottling by Ilegal – only 180 bottles – that they created for Esquire magazine. It is a blend of 80% mezcal anejo that’s been aged in American oak for one year and 20% mezcal anejo aged in French oak for two years. I had the pleasure of trying this amazing anejo a few weeks ago and it was off the charts, as it should be for $140 – worth every penny. I have already bought several for Christmas gifts (and a few for myself perhaps…). Get it while you can.
Here is another cool idea. Get your special person a subscription to the Mezcal’s Club, which sends out quarterly care packs of lovely mezcals, all of which they say you cannot buy in the U.S. While their low price point for a regular membership clocks in at a hefty $395, you are getting 3 carefully selected bottles and you don’t have to go to Mexico to get them! According to the folks at Mezcal Club, the mezcal value is around $200 and the shipping is around $150. Their current membership drive expires December 1, but if you miss this slot, they will be reoffering new memberships this summer – so you can always give the gift of a forward membership if you miss this one.
This is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site but the spring 2015 dates are March 16-19 and April 26-29. Pricing is on his website but it is around $1,000 a person. I am sure it is worth every penny, and I wish I could join you!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!
Over the past few months I have been trading emails with Rachel Glueck. She and her husband are living the dream – granted it is not a well-funded dream, but a dream nevertheless. So I am trying to help them out a bit. A friend in need is a friend in need of mezcal (and maybe a little cash in this case). Rachel and her husband Noel, are traveling Mexico in search of brilliant, ultra-small batch and undiscovered mezcals with the goal to start importing some of these under their own label, El Amor del Diablo Mezcal (translated as “The Devil’s Love”). But I am ahead of myself. Who are Rachel and Noel?
Their story is an old but familiar tale: Boy is Tezcatlipoca dancer. Girl sails the Caribbean in homemade boat. Girl meets boy at Aztec sweat lodge. Boy and girl do mezcal body shots. Girl and boy fall in love. Common but classic.
So what are these love birds doing? Well, Noel has mezcal blood running through his veins as both his father and grandfather were mezcaleros. And Rachel, well as far as I can tell, she is up for anything. So they are starting a brand and to do so they are crowd funding their research and start-up expenses. They are focused on supporting mezcaleros who only produce small-batch mezcals and value sustainability. I have no doubt that they are uncovering hidden gems deep in the heart of Mexico.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of small batch producers in Mexico who have been making mezcal for generations. They have great pride in their products yet have little ability to sell their fine mezcals beyond their immediate communities. This is where El Amor Diablo comes in. They cannot help them all, but even if they help a few, that is a worthy cause, and we as consumers will be happy they have made their way to the U.S.
I give Rachel and Noel a ton of credit for their passion, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit. They are really doing this on a shoestring – in fact, more like a tiny little piece of thread. They are traveling light, sleeping under the stars, eating ramen, and generally using their limited funds very wisely.
If you are inspired at all and want to contribute you can do that HERE. I did. And they have some really cool swag as well depending on the level of support you provide. Contributions start as low as $10. Me? I favor the $125 contribution because you get a whole host of items including the amazing book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!. Oh yeah I remember now, I wrote that!
So that is about it. It is a cool story and they are nice people trying to do something to help small producers. And I know any support you provide them will be greatly appreciated! In the meantime, drink mezcal!
P.S. I almost entitled this post “Save Rachel’s Purse!” They are so frugal (to their credit) that Rachel is trying to sell her purse for about $200 to pay for the registration of their business name. We cannot let that happen. God save the purse!
I am just back from an unbelievable Mezcal Fest (Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle) that was put on this weekend in San Francisco by my friends at Mezcalistas. They are likely to make this an annual event so pay attention next year and do what you have to do to get there! It was of the finest collection of mezcals you will ever see (unless you come to my apartment!) with most of the top brands and many many offerings that can only be found in Mexico. The event has me dreaming of wild agaves and beautiful mezcals with luscious flavors swirling down my throat. So it seems appropriate to put up this post on arroqueños, which has been lingering in my draft file for too long!
If you are a regular reader of this blog or have read my book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!,you are likely aware of the ongoing lovefest I have with mezcals made from Agave americana var. oaxacensis, sub-varietal arroqueño (say that ten times fast!). Or simply known as an arroqueño. Arroqueños are HUGE agaves and known to be the genetic mother of the Agave espadin (A. angustifolia), the most common type of agave from which mezcal is made.
So arroqueño is related to espadin and the taste profile is consistent with their respective genetics. However, my palate finds an arroqueño to be like a turbo-charged version of an espadin – powerful fruit and roasted agave surging upfront with great viscosity and a long lovely finish. And unlike some other wild agave varietals, an arroqueño has nothing polarizing in the flavor. My golf analogy would be that an arroqueño is a beautiful 325 yard drive right down the middle of the fairway – while I am not a golfer, that is one long drive. While it is smack down the middle, an arroqueño surpasses almost all others. You taste a great arroqueño and you instantly understand why people like me are nuts about mezcal (Me? Nuts about mezcal? Well OK, a tiny bit…).
As you may guess, I search out every bottle and brand of arroqueño I can find, and happily that are now several brands available in the U.S. Also, I have collected a few others in my travels that cannot yet be found stateside. So as I was surveying my mezcal collection, I realized that I now have eight unique bottles of arroqueño. What a gift from the agave gods! Here is what I have:
Mezcalero Release #9
Destileria Tlacolula, Special Bottling
MarcaNegra (a late addition to the post)
So I’ve been drinking these with my friends and fellow mezcal junkies, and also shipping multiple vials back and forth (don’t tell the Feds!) with my friend Mario who lives on the West Coast to share impressions on this handful of great mezcals. But due to random comings and goings of my friends, and varied acquisition times of bottles, we were unfortunately unable to do a full scale side-by-side tasting of these arroqueños. Still, some favorites emerged from our machinations and what follows is a collection of our opinions.
Key contributors were my friend John who has a mezcal palate that far exceeds mine (not hard to do) so he is a real asset to have around a bottle of mezcal – which he always seems to have with him! And my afore mentioned friend Mario, who if you read my book, you would know has undergone a Faceoff-like transformation from mezcal doubter to mezcal evangelist (and who’s with me on the Faceoff reference??!!).
A few comments on the bottles. Of the eight listed, five can be found in the U.S.: Mezcalero, Vago, Jolgorio, Del Maguey, and MarcaNegra. You probably have to buy them online unless you have a very good local liquor store. On Mezcalero, all other Mezcalero releases (two through eight – I never did see Release #1 and am not sure it ever existed) are ensembles and most are excellent. So I was psyched when Release #9 came out as a single expression arroqueño. Siete Misterios was the first arroqueño available in the U.S. and it wows, but sadly can no longer be found – let’s hope it does a Lebron and returns to Cleveland….er….uh….the U.S. MarcaNegra has just released three new offerings to complement their fine espadin and tobala – they now have this arroqueño, a dobadan, and a yummy ensemble.
Vago and Jolgorio are relative newcomers to the scene (both arrived in 2013) and they each have several amazing mezcals. You see the Nizabisahio brand regularly in the Oaxaca area and it means “spiritual water of kindness” in Zapotec….very calming. And I obtained a specially bottled arroqueño at the Destileria Tlacolula which is where Ilegal is produced. The producer had made a batch of mezcal with arroqueños and he was not sure what he was going to do with it. I thought giving a bottle to me was a great idea! OK, I paid for it, and gladly.
That all said, here are our collective impressions.
Mezcalero Release #9. It is fruit-forward as I find most arroqueños to be, though this one seemed to have a bit more smoke than we would like – overpowering the flavor a tad. Also, I get a bit more alcohol here than some of the others though it is has a lower ABV than most of these. My friend John found it to be “rougher” which could be due to the perceived stronger presence of alcohol. And he also tasted a bit of tar, which fortunately was absent for me.
Mezcal Vago. Decidedly less fruit forward than the rest of the group, and by far the most complex. I find most of the Mezcal Vago line to be fairly complex and inconsistently wonderful with the rest of the mezcal world. Trust me, that’s a compliment. Here, the roasted agave and earthiness jump out more so than the fruit, and the finish has a bit of alcohol. Overall, it feels dark: dark fruit, brown sugar, cooked agave, ash. John found it to be “alive” and changing with each sip. No doubt this is a great mezcal, and I will drink it happily, but I would never guess it is an arroqueño. It is truly a mezcal lover’s mezcal due to its deep complexity with a bit of roughness.
El Jolgorio. On the nose, this is rich with the smell of ripe bananas. For me, it screams bananas but my friends did not find this as pronounced as I did. I can literally smell it from three feet away. The fruitiness carries over to the palate with full citrus. I get a bit of alcohol on the finish, but man is this a great arroqueño, and a great mezcal in general. At the time we did the tasting, I only had a sample bottle, but it is so good, I now have the big boy (which can run $150+ depending on where you buy it).
Del Maguey. For me, Del Maguey keeps it right down the middle – and gloriously at that. This is from their Vino de Mezcal series – they have a release of a limited batch varietal and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Their arroqueño is the quintessential arroqueño – fruit forward with roasted agave, citrus, a bit of smoke, and a velvety texture with a great finish. Soooo good.
Siete Misterios. This is my first arroqueño love so it will be hard to knock it off the top of the mountain. Just like in sports, you are still the champion until someone beats you. And while I am not certain it is still the champ, it’s really good. Siete has a wine-like viscosity – smooth and creamy. It bursts with fruitiness upfront with a bit of heat, yet it is floral as well. Floral and heat are not usually found together in a mezcal, and it works very well here. It has a little more earthiness to it than the others in the tasting and finishes cleanly. That said, this was a fresh bottle of Siete (having gone through many others previously), and maybe my memory is faulty, but this seemed a step below previous bottles. Unfortunately, I cannot confirm whether they are different lots. Either way, it is really good.
Nizabisahio. This is a very interesting mezcal. It is quite herbal, both on the nose and on the tongue. It has a bit of fruit and roasted agave but that herbal quality is ever present. When I taste herbal, I think tepeztate. So to me, this is closer to an arroqueño and tepeztate blend than a pure arroqueno. None of us were very interested in this. It is OK, but like the Vago, I would never guess that it is an arroqueño, and it is not in the Vago’s league as a mezcal.
Destileria Tlacolula. As I mentioned, this is from the producer of Ilegal who makes a lovely, light smoke, approachable espadin. I find that this arroqueño follows that pattern. It does not overpower you with its fruitiness or smoke. We found it to be lightly floral with hints of butterscotch. It is very well-balanced, yet has that robustness that I love in an arroqueño.
Mezcal MarcaNegra. This bottle arrived long after this post was mostly finished (yet still unpublished), so I was the only one to try to it. The nose is brilliant – bursting with fresh fruit of citrus, mango,, and banana! My mouth was watering before my first taste. It is a classic arroqueño in both smell and taste – robust and fruity and yummy. At almost 49% ABV I did get a bit of alcohol on the finish, which was not as elegant as the body. But overall, really excellent.
So where does that leave us? Well, the two underperformers were the Mezcalero and Nizabisahio. I was the only one who tried the Niza and I would put it at the bottom of the list, though let’s be clear it is still a fine mezcal just not as good as the rest. The Mezcalero was good but both John and Mario had it at the bottom of their final list (they each only tried four of the eight). But to tell you how good all of these are, Mario initially thought the Mezcalero was one of the best, but once revisited, he moved it down. The things you taste in a mezcal change based on who you are drinking with, the time of day, what you are eating, and many other factors. There are few absolutes so I always try to revisit bottles even if my initial impressions were not favorable.
The Vago was John’s top choice (among his four of Vago, Tlacolula, Siete and Mezcalero) with the Tlacolula a close second. As I said he is a true mezcal lover and this is made for someone like him. Mario found the Vago to be excellent but he was looking for more true arroqueño, which is not the strength of this bottle. Me? I love it. It is dark and mysterious and wonderfully complex as described above, but I would never guess it is an arroqueño.
The Jolgorio is outstanding and clearly near the top. Mario found it to be the brightest mezcal he had ever tasted and speculated that the agaves are planted among a lot of citrus trees (Kaj?). Yet, his top pick remains the Siete. Perhaps like me, he holds a special place in his heart (or palate) for his first love, and the Siete arroqueño was in the U.S. before the others, so that positive bias is hard to shake. So he has the Siete at the top with the Jolgorio a close second.
My turn. The bottles in the top five are easy to choose, but ranking them is more challenging. In no particular order yet, Vago, Jolgorio, Tlacolula, Del Maguey, and MarcaNegra. You cannot go wrong with any of these five and don’t hesitate to spend your hard earned cash if you want an awesome mezcal. You will notice that sadly, Siete does not make the top five and has drifted away for me on a comparative basis. Still a great mezcal but these other five get the edge here.
I think for me, the Jolgorio and the Del Maguey are neck and neck for my favorite arroqueño. While I love the Vago, it is just not arroqueño-y enough! The Tlacolula has a bit too much alcohol on the finish so it falls back as does the MarcaNegra for similar reasons. Hmmm…..Jolgorio or Del Maguey……Del Maguey or Jolgorio? Caddyshack or Stripes? How can you choose??
In a photo finish I think I give the nod to the Del Maguey because in my mind it is exactly what an arroqueño should be: robust, fruity, smooth, light smoke and heat, velvety texture, and a lovely long roasted agave finish. The Jolgorio is right there as well, and I am really splitting hairs here with almost all of these great mezcals (I might set the Nizabisahio aside). As suggested, there are no mistakes among MarcaNegra, Del Maguey, Vago, Jolgorio, or Mezcalero (these are the five you can find in the U.S.). With a virtual certainty, I could go through round after round of tasting and reach different conclusions every time – they are all that good!
Arroqueños can take up to 30yrs to grow in the wild, though closer to 15yrs with some maintenance. So who knows what the future will hold with respect to their availability – like all agaves, the resource is not infinite. My recommendation is to buy them now because there is no guaranty you will find them in the future. You can tell your kids about them someday!!
I get a lot of emails asking me where to start when it comes to buying a bottle of mezcal. Some are from people looking to dip their toes into the mezcal waters, and others are from people who already know they love mezcal but are looking for that price/value tradeoff. Also, many want to know where they can buy mezcal since it is not available at their local liquor store.
With that in mind I thought it would be useful to put together a list of brands, prices, and online liquor stores for your convenience. My book, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! has a complete list of every brand available in the U.S. Now this list by no means contains every brand you can find (I have another post on that too), and I stopped it at $75 because we are clearly getting past the entry level at that price. I focused on the brands that are the most commonly seen PREMIUM mezcals, so admittedly it is a bit subjective (but that’s what I do). For the price comparison, I chose six online sellers that I think have a combination of wide selection and good pricing, and they also happen to be where I buy a lot of mezcal.
I generally took the entry point for each brand, which is usually the joven. In a few cases, brands have a cocktail oriented version which is even more attractively priced and I included those as well. But if a brand has a reposado or other expressions for under $75, I did not include those. Maybe next time. Again, the focus is the brand’s entry point.
Here are my Mezcal Starter Kit Recommendations:
Andrews Wine Cellar
Old Town Liquor
El Buho Mezcal
Del Maguey Vida
Fidencio Clasico Joven
Pierde Almas La Puritita
Don Amado Plata
Alipus San Andreas
Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Mezcal Vago Espadin
Mezcales de Leyenda Oaxaca
Delirio de Oaxaca Joven
Marca Negra Espadin
Los Amantes Joven
Los Nahuales Joven
Pierde Almas Espadin
Del Maguey Chichicapa
El Silencio Joven
I enjoyed putting this together because I learned a few things as well. A few observations:
There really are not a very large number of widely dispersed good mezcals. There are only twenty names on this list – so only twenty premium mezcals can be found at at least two places online. By comparison, if you did this with tequila, I am sure you would get well into the 100s of brands. That said, there are probably another 10-20 brands that are quite good but I could only find them at one place online.
You generally get what you pay for with mezcal. The brands at the top of the list with the lowest prices are geared toward cocktail consumption. Most of them I would sip in a pinch no problem, but if I really want a sipping mezcal I am moving into the $40+ price range.
I am not deeply familiar with every brand here. I have most of these bottles, and have tried them all, but a few I have tasted only sparingly.
There are some brands in the $30-$50 range which you will not find here even though they are readily available – names like Wild Shot and Zignum come readily to mind. They are not here because I don’t recommend them.
You also will not find cheaper brands like Monte Alban and Oro de Oaxaca here because I would not drink those either. If you are not willing to spend at least $30, you are not going to get a very good mezcal. If you have a different opinion, let me know!
A few brand specific comments:
Of the first five names on the list, I would give Wahaka Espadin the best marks for versatility because it works great in cocktails, but I also find it to be the best sipper of the five.
For another $10 or so Don Amado has a “Rustico”, which is an espadin joven and far better than their plata. I would spend the extra $10.
Alipus has four different versions – I think San Andreas is the best, and they are generally all priced the same. Last fall they came out with their Santa Ana Del Rio, and I was not very fond of it on one tasting.
Scorpion is a fine spirit but it lacks the smokiness that I love in mezcal as it is produced in above ground ovens. Still artisanally made, but a different taste profile if you like a smoky mezcal.
Ilegal is an excellent introductory mezcal as the smoke, while strongly present to the uninitiated mezcal drinker, is less pronounced than most other brands so it is more approachable.
Vago made a splash as a new brand in 2013 by bringing in excellent quality mezcals. They also have an “Elote” which has a roasted corn infusion for a few dollars more than the espadin. I cannot quite get the sweetness of the corn on my palate but it is a great mezcal.
Delirio is relatively unknown to me as I have only tried it once and it made an uninspiring impression. Admittedly, it needs more investigation. They are a west coast brand and I have never seen them in NYC.
Los Amantes is triple distilled so a very soft mezcal. This can be appealing to mezcal newbies.
Pierde Almas Espadin, while expensive, is worth every penny.
El Silencio, another 2013 newcomer, is pricey but also very good – it is an ensemble of three agaves (it does not say which on the bottle but I seem to recall espadin, tobasiche, and mexicano).
Of these online sellers, I use them all regularly depending on what I am buying. Andrews is great if you are buying many bottles because shipping is free with orders over $250.
So that’s it for now. I have been a bit quiet on the blog in recent months as I have been pouring my energy into a book. This is perhaps the first official mention of it (though I promise you will be bombarded in the future!). The book is “Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec”. I wrote it because I believe mezcal needs this book. It will be out in the next few months, and I am pretty sure it will not be a waste of your hard earned dollars. Until then, drink mezcal!