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.
Ever since then, I have been thinking that I need to share this gift with others. Sure we go out cocktailing or people come over and we try a few, but I have not organized a formal tasting, and in the meantime, bottles (great bottles) keep piling up in our apartment. Believe me, it is not easy to stash 50-100 bottles of booze in an NYC apartment! Over the years I have collected quite a few interesting bottles of mezcal, as you might guess – pechuga, tobala, espadin, joven, madrecuixe, anejo, tripon, cupreata, reposado, worms (ugh), and the list goes on and on. Luckily, I have also collected quite a group of mezcal afficionados with which to share. But more importantly, just fun people to eat, drink, and hang out with. As my wife is also an excellent cook, I had the trifecta going for me: great mezcal, fun people, and exceptional food – all in all, the makings of a sweet mezcal tasting!
I am not sure if you have been to a spirits tasting, but frequently these are sit down affairs with someone holding court on the different spirits, what you should or should not be tasting, and a particular path to follow through the tasting. While I have enjoyed many in this format, I wanted to do something different, so we kind of made it into a rolling and roving cocktail party. A bit of do-it-yourself with some guidance from me.
It took some time to come up with the format, and I was not sure it would even work. But here is what I did. I carefully selected 33 mezcals for the tasting. Crazy, right? Even I thought it was a bit excessive by a factor of 2 or 3. But I have so many great mezcals, and even after I chopped down the list, I was still left with 33 bottles that I wanted to include in the tasting.
Which bottles did I choose and why? Well, I really wanted to get as diverse a selection of mezcals as I could, so I would be able to expose the group to the wide ranging differences in brands, production techniques, agave varieties, aging processes, etc. Also, as a regular reader of this blog, you may be aware that I have a slight fascination with the number of varieties of agave from which mezcal is produced. So I deemphasized the espadin jovens (though they were still included) and focused more on the silvestres (the wild agaves). So you will see that some of the more popular brands were not included in the final selection. No offense to those brands – they just may not have had something unique that I was looking for at this tasting.
After the the bottles were chosen, I made some mainly logical groupings, created tasting notes for each bottle (generally the notes supplied by the brands), and gave everybody a set of “score” sheets so they could make some judgments and collectively reach a few conclusions. Here is one of the score sheets.
Let’s go through the groupings, selections, and results:
The Wild Agave Group 1 (unblended: only 1 agave variety in the bottle)
- Siete Misterios Arroqueno: “socks are officially knocked off”, “awesome – smooth”, “balances smoke and spicy well”
- Mezcales de Leyenda Guerrero Cupreata: “least metallic”, “leather”, “citrus”
- Yuu Baal Madrecuixe: “smoky”, “spicy”, “smells earthy”, “vegetal”
- Fidencio Madrecuixe: “smoky, “spicy”, “thick”, “earth”
- Del Maguey Tobala: “floral”, “sweet”, “refined”, “fruity”
- Wahaka Tobala: “thin”, “light”, “floral”
This was the first group and the enthusiasm was strong! Several were bringing their whiskey and bourbon expertise to the table (Greg and Eric) and had the palates and lingo to talk mezcal with ease. Others, like Chris, were simply enjoying the unique tastes and subtle to overwhelming difference in tastes.
This first group of mezcals was special and got a lot of people comparing the unique varieties. For example, you compare the 2 madrecuixes, and they taste completely different. Both are excellent, but the production techniques clearly vary widely (as may the soil, environment, harvest time, etc) as the taste is distinctly different.
The clear winners in this group were the Siete Misterios and the Del Maguey Tobala. People kept coming back to these two all night, particularly the Siete (yes Carlos, I am talking about you). On to Group 2…
The Wild Agave Group 2 (blended: multiple agave varieties in the bottle)
- Banhez (espadin, barril): “banana”, “rich” “medium smoke”
- Mezcalero Release #4 (sierra negra, tepeztate): “strong spiciness”
- Mezcalero Release #6: (madrecuixe, mexicano, bicuise): “earthy”, “peppery”
- Mezcal Union (espadin, cirial, barril): “pepper”, “balancing citrus and smoke”
- Mezcal Real Minero (espadin, largo, tripon, barril): “smooth”, “balanced”
- Koch el Mezcal (tobala, cirial, tobasiche, de lumbre): “metallic yet sweet”, “floral”
This is also a great collection of silvestres. Now I love the Mezcalero mezcals but surprisingly these were not that highly regarded. But if you can find Mezcalero Release #2, that is amazing. While most of the others in this group were highly regarded, the most acclaimed by the group were the Banhez and Koch. Both are very new to the U.S. market – brought in from the Mezcal From Oaxaca group. Also, Mezcal Real Minero found a fan in Joyce (good taste as it is the most expensive bottle in the group) and the Union was very well received. So really, there was not a weak mezcal in this group – all were loved!
The Reposado Group
- Ilegal Repo: “cinnamon”, “orange”, “hints of vanilla”, “caramel”
- Metl Repo: “bubblegum”, “sweet”, “very smooth”,
- Los Amantes Repo: “woody”, “lighter than the others”,
- Agave de Cortes Repo with Worm: “sweet”, “peaty”
- Embajador Repo: “light”, “watery”, “smells better than it tastes”
- Los Nahaules Repo: “Tastes spiced: the Captain Morgan’s of mezcal”, “cinnamon”, “like Scotch”
People loved the repos, and many loved the progression here as we moved away from the jovens to the aged mezcals. Some in the group were not that accustomed to mezcal, so I think it is natural for them to gravitate to the aged, and therefore less aggressive, mezcals as opposed to the jovens. Ilegal, Los Amantes, and Metl are all made by the same producer, but that’s where it ends – they taste completely different – all good, but very different.
The clear winners in this group were the Ilegal and the Los Amantes. As these two were consistently singled out, a series of blind taste tests began to see which was favored. Ilegal emerged, but all agreed they are both excellent.
The Anejo Group
- Los Nahuales Anejo: “hot, smoky – Scotch like”, “strong alcohol”, “spiced”
- Sacacuento Anejo: “smooth”, “caramel”
- Ilega Anejo: “yum – buttery and smooth”, “great finish of light smoke and wood”
- Agave de Cortes Extra Anejo: “love”, “complex”, “chocolate & vanilla”
- Magave Tequila Anejo: “caramel, sweetness”,
- Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Anejo: “very tequila like”
Most people got to the anejos after the other groups. Some went there early as they were drawn to the sexy bottles and golden colors (early on, I recall Diane camping out next to the Ilegal). I included a Sotol and a tequila in the group for comparison sake, but they were largely ignored (and who can blame them with the mezcals right there!).
For the 4 mezcals here, the Los Nahuales, while enjoyed, was the least well-reviewed, and the “Captain Morgan’s” theme followed from the repos. The Agave de Cortes Extra Anejo and the Ilegal were the clear winners though. The only other extra anejo mezcal I am aware of is Scorpion, which has a 5yr and a 7yr aged (maybe a 3yr as well). I have tried them and they are a bit too woody for me, and they do not use the earthen pits to cook the agave so they are not smoky – so I did not include them in the tasting. So Agave de Cortes is the only mezcal I know that is an extra anejo and is produced in the traditional way.
So the group could not pick a winner here between Ilegal and Agave de Cortes. For me, they are both off the charts! The de Cortes trends a bit toward an extra anejo tequila with much of the smoke toned down and a refined Cognac-like quality emerges. Ilegal is much easier to find, but if you see the Agave de Cortes, buy it and thank me later. Alternatively, you could try to steal mine (Alexandra!).
The Gamey Group
- Del Maguey Pechuga
- Pierde Almas Pechuga
- Del Maguey Crema
This was clearly a small group, and I wanted people to try the pechugas. I threw in the Del Maguey Crema for something different. While pechugas generally inspire awe in the mezcal world, there was little awe this night. It was closer to, “A chicken breast?! Who thought of that shit?” I tried to help the grasshoppers but had little success.
Also, by this point, the score sheets had pretty much been cast aside, everyone was feeling great, and the pechugas really did not get a fair hearing.
A few people genuinely enjoyed them, but they were the exception. The Pierde was favored over the Del Maguey, which did not surprise me as the Del Maguey is much more robust in flavor, and therefore polarizing. The Del Maguey Crema was universally panned.
The Joven Group (Espadin)
- Dona Sarita
- Espiritu Lauro
- Alipus San Adreas
- Wild Shot: “not as bad as I thought it would be”, “perfumy”
As this was the last group and scoring sheet, most people never got to these. That was what I assumed would happen and, therefore, somewhat by design. I could have put many more bottles in this group, but obviously I had to limit it. A few of these bottles were never touched, but a few were curious about Wild Shot, and at least one was perhaps almost pleasantly surprised (Chuck). No winners in this group. No losers. Few tasters.
This is the way to finish a tasting! Deserts by Flycakes! (P.S. the Ilegal home aging barrel is amazing and will be covered in a future piece)
So that about wraps it up. After 3-4 hours of drinking straight mezcal, we throttled it down by drinking mezcal cocktails (good call Tony). We had a ton of fun, ate well, drank well, and laughed plenty. I can definitely see this being an annual or semi-annual event. And with new bottles arriving in the U.S. all the time, I am confident I will have more fine mezcals to introduce to my converted friends.
I hope you enjoyed this piece, and until the next time, drink mezcal!
I know by the end you didn’t really get any opinions, but I wanted to know as a mezcal drinker what you think about Doña Sarita?
Let me know!
Been a long time since I tried it but my recollection is that it is pretty average. I could be wrong….
Quite an epic tasting. I’m just getting into all the articles you’ve posted and not sure if you’ve posted about more tastings but I’m curious if you would keep the same order if you did another one. For instance, the pechugas are kind of “fancy” mezcals so might not be best to serve near the end. However, I’ve noticed that it can take a few sips to warm up your tastebuds when doing tastings so starting off with a pachuga, tobala, or tepeztate might not be the best idea either. Additionally if you are serving mezcal newbies you might want to serve an espadin or Ilegal anejo to transition them from the “smokey” stereotype over to more complex flavors. Have you honed the tasting experience since this one?
Separately, do you have a favorite pechuga? Recently I tried the Del Maguey Iberico (sweet ham) which was very interesting. Unfortunately I can only find the Pierde Almas Pechuga in the liquor store, but not a bar – very keen on trying it.
Thanks for sharing this tasting
Have I refined my tastings? Definitely not! Have I tried other experiments or orders? For sure. I put some ideas about how to do a tasting in my book, but I think the things you are saying are correct as well. If you host one, do what YOU think makes sense so you can talk your guests through it. It will be logical to you and they will probably be inexperienced with mezcal and just go with what you are doing. Even if they are experienced in mezcal, I am sure they will love your path too!
As for pechugas, they can be polarizing. I find the Del Maguey Iberico a bit of a reality distortion field (if you have read the Steve Jobs book). The regular DM pechuga is excellent, as our many others, including the Pierde Almas. But you do have to have a taste for them…..
I keep ending up on your website in my search for Tequila and Mezcal knowledge and your posts are always on point. I work as a bartender at a Cantina with an extensive bar that serves Oaxacan food, and they (and me being guero and all) don’t seem to know how to sell mezcal. Your posts have helped me educate my customers about what we have to offer. My current favorite is El Silencio Espadin. If you’ve got any suggestions for getting my customers away from margaritas and into mezcal, I’d love to hear them.
Cody, you are coming to the right place! Thanks for reading and trying to spread the gospel of mezcal. I am guessing you are already doing many of the right things without my help. But, I would do these 4 things if you are not already doing them: 1). Make sure you have a mezcal margarita on your cocktail/margarita menu. Some people will just try it. And make it with a good, not overpowering mezcal like Silencio. 2) Suggest to people that they try a mezcal margarita. Offer to buy it for them if they don’t like it. 9 out of 10 people will like it. It is an easy introduction to mezcal and oh so good. 3) Put a mezcal cocktail, other than a margarita, on your list. I have a bunch in my book that are easy to make and everybody loves. I have never had one person not swoon over the Mexican Firing Squad that is in my book. People freak out on that drink. It is amazing and a great introduction to mezcal. 4) Pour people a taste of a great mezcal. In particular, I frequently use Ilegal reposado or anejo as an intro to people. Most people are familiar with repos and anejos from tequila and Ilegal’s aged bottles are incredible. They are just beautiful spirits with a nice amount of smokiness, yet gentle and so yummy. For many, the first taste of a mezcal joven will simply be too smoky, but the repos and the anejos take the edge off.
Those are my thoughts. Keep doing god’s work and thanks for writing!
Are you aware that smoky is not a virtue but a fault in mezcals???
I am happy you took the first level with Douglas in New York y look forward to meeting you when you deside to become a master mezcalier and come to Oaxaca for level 4
That is an interesting opinion, but one I do not share. A mezcal that is TOO smoky is definitely a fault, but not in the normal course at all. I am curious why you would say that??
Congratulations for your passion and blog over Mezcal’s world! Just wanted to suggest you to look out for the Bru-xo Mezcal, it has 6 different options. I have only tasted No. 4 “barrel” and it was a well balanced flavor (meaning not so smokey, not so strong). I’m not an expert but thought you should know about it. Kind regards!, Victor.
I have not seen it in the US but will be on the lookout. Thanks!
Good evening, you have an extensive collection of Mezcal. Very Impresive.
Have you heard of the Lable “Alipús ” Mezcal. From Oaxaca.?
You should be able to get it in N.Y. City.
They have several types of Mezcal as well. Different colors in the lables, represent different flavors. I am not selling you anything. I am just asking.
While this sounds like a bit of advertising, I do have some Alipus bottles. Some are definitely better than others. And beware the one with the green label….
Good post. That was an exhaustive list of Mezacals
Needed to know – Someone has got this bottle of Mezcal called Moyahua de Tonaya. It doesn’t really say it’s mezcal, so i’m not sure if it’s authentic. Perhaps you know more about it? Couldn’t find much on the web!
Never heard of it. Most likely some local brew that is not imported to the US. The key thing to look for on the label is whether it says “100% Agave” or not. Bad sign if it does not say this. If it is 100% agave, then it may be made in a region of Mexico where they cannot label it Mezcal, though it technically is a Mezcal.
No matter what it says, try it and see if you like it. Your taste buds are always the best judge! Send me a picture of the bottle if you like.
This is a great rundown of an incredible event – but really words can not do it justice. Very much looking forward to the review on the Ilegal home aging barrel!
Glad you enjoyed it. Mezcal is such a unique spirit. It inspires people and we all need to keep spreading the word!
I pitched a tent right next to the Ilegal anejo and that’s where I lived all night long. Who knew cupcakes and Mezcal were such a great combination?!
Is always fun to read your blogs but this one is particularly interesting. I learned a lot about my favorite drink!! Mezcal and Flycakes chocolate cupcakes and brownies!!! What a fantastic combination!!
Loved the review of the tastings. Am finally on my quest to understand mezcals, settle on a few favorites to replace my tequilas. After 40 years of tequila, Herradora Anejo is my tequila of choice, Cazadores reposado as an altenative style. both preferred because of taste and value in the same bottle.
Where in NYC might I find many of these lovely bottles? Thanks
I think the best mezcal selection in the city is at Astor – the only place I know with a mezcal section! But still limited compared to what you can find online. See my post on Mezcal Brands in the U.S. where I list some of the best online stores.
I would recommend not “settling” completely. It is great to have a few go to bottles, but one of the joys of mezcal is the tremendous variety that can be found due to varied production techniques, agave varieties, terroir, etc. I love tequila as well, though is increasingly diminished in my regular consumption due to the incredible complexity of mezcal. This may happen to you too!
Keep reading and send me an email at email@example.com if I can be of any help in your mezcal pursuits.
I’m amazed at the incredible variety of species, production methods and sheer quantity of brands that were offered for tasting. Well done John. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been there.
It wasn’t the same without you! We will have to do a mini-version next time we get together!!
When’s the next tasting? That was way too much fun
Polly, your score sheet was the best! I could not post it as some sensitive types may have been offended, but you had us dying! You are first on the list next time. Do your mezcal homework in the meantime. I want to see you apply yourself.