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….
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!!
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!
I have been wanting to write this post for awhile as a follow up to my Zignum post, but have been slow to get to it. My friends at Mezcalistas recently put up an excellent piece that touches on many economic issues that need to be addressed by the multitude of stakeholders in the mezcal world. Continuing the sustainability theme, I want to highlight the few examples I know of where brands and producers are taking positive steps on the sustainability of the important natural resources that go into mezcal: primarily agave, wood and water.
The most significant issue is the sustainability of the agave population. As has been discussed by many, agaves take anywhere from eight to thirty years to reach maturity. Agave espadin, the predominant agave used to make mezcal, matures in eight to twelve years. Obviously, this is unlike other agricultural products used to make spirits which can be planted, grown and harvested within a year – think grapes, wheat, rye, barley, potatoes, and sugarcane to name a few.
Agave does not have it this good, and therein lies a large problem. Crop management is paramount. I will update this post if I hear from other brands about some of the things they may be doing around this theme of sustainability. Here are a few that I am aware of:
Pierde Almas. In 2013, founder Jonathan Barbieri and a resolute group of about 20 others, planted over 1,000 baby tobalas in the mountains outside San Baltazar Chichicapan. This is a fantastic reforestation effort as tobalas are rare and do not produce much mezcal per plant as they are quite small even at maturity. I have heard it is an annual event, but I am not sure how many times they have done this so far. Jonathan?
Agaves Silvestres (yes, “Agaves” is meant to be plural). This is a project started by the guys from Wahaka Mezcal. They purchased land in Oaxaca to start a nursery for madrecuixe and tobala. Then they partnered with the local schools to foster an “Adopt an Agave” program. Each child adopts an agave, replants it in the wild when the agave is 3-4 years old, then Wahaka pays market prices for the agaves at maturity. The funds go to buy books and supplies for the local schools. Great idea!
El Buho. I had a long discussion with John Henry, passionate founder of the brand. He is deeply concerned with rumors that Oaxacan agave espadins are routinely transported out of Oaxaca to Jalisco for tequila production. If true, he feels stopping this is mission number one for today. The question is how do you stop it? There is no immediate answer. On the overall topic of sustainability, he views mezcal a bit like the wine business: each vintage has limited production and when you have no more agave, you stop. This focuses on estate grown agave and not the wide sourcing of agave from wherever you can get it. El Buho grows their own and does buy from other growers, but endeavors to build long-term relationships with any supplier they use and plan for appropriate crop management.
Don Amado. They are one of the oldest brands around having in started in 1994, and their producer has been practicing and teaching agave management for years – including crop replacement, soil care and harvesting. Also, they have built a state-of-the-art water purification system to treat and recycle waste water from mezcal production. Finally, they only utilize “fallen” trees for their wood – no chopping down of live trees.
El Jolgorio. They only work with small producers who use wild agaves. The producers will not harvest more than what is available and ready. As a result, El Jolgorio production will be relatively small per expression – they have eight unique varietals (see my prior post for more), and they are OK with that. So am I! Produce what you reasonably can and no more – good plan.
So that is my starter kit of what a handful of brands and producers are currently doing. I am certain than many others have projects or procedures in place to help the sustainability cause.
If you are a brand owner or producer and want to contribute to this list, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, drink mezcal!!
There is a debate going around in the mezcal community (yes, there is a community for pretty much everything – are you a member of the A-Rod’s Homeopathic Treatments Club?) about what the definition is of Traditional Mezcal. I think I know where this started, and I am certain it will not end here, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring on this debate.
For the most part, I think this whole debate is a problem of nomenclature. The nomenclature part is simple: as soon as you say one thing is “traditional”, that means everything else is not. The problem is that many news outlets, websites, and blogs picked up a recent piece of literature on traditional mezcal, and they are publishing it as gospel. I think there is more to the story. Let’s see if we can sort it out. (more…)
There was a night a few years ago when I decided to have my own very private mezcal tasting. I had collected a few very nice bottles at that point and wanted to try them side by side to compare, contrast, and enjoy. But by myself? Sure. Why not? Just me and my booze. But my wife was worried about me, my parents called, neighbors knocked, the dog barked (imagine my shock since I don’t have one). They thought I was going over the edge (the edge of glory perhaps!). But it was alright. I had a great time and learned a few things along the way.
Recently, a VERY knowledgeable mezcal market participant hypothesized the following theory: all of the variations and multiple products being pushed out by individual brands is confusing to the average mezcal consumer and potential mezcal consumers. This person felt there were too many tobalas, pechugas, madrecuixes, etc, and that the overwhelming number of choices led to no choice being made. It’s like all those great Taylor Swift songs: how can you choose which one to listen too?
Could all the mezcal choices lead to drinker inaction? Let’s start by looking at tequila. With tequila, there are more than 1,000 brands, but virtually every one of them has the same three products: silver, reposado, and anejo. And it is all blue agave by definition. Simple. These 3 expressions are readily understood by most tequila consumers, and even if they do not know this, people are rarely confused. You walk into a bar, you see tequila behind the bar, and at most, you see 3 bottles of the same brand, but even that is not at every bar. (more…)