Sadly, it has been a few years since I did a deep dive and thorough update to this list. Yes, I have added a brand here and there, but I have not scoured the web in a few years to see what is really out there. And man have times changed!
When I last took a hard look, there were about 70 mezcal brands to be found in the U.S. Now I count 120+! Wow. Further, a few years ago there were around 50 brands that were traveling in the upper end of the market, and that has now risen to almost 90 brands in what I consider to be in the premium sector.
I used to have them all, and I can no longer say that. In my recent research, I found many brands I had never even heard of at premium prices and occasionally at premium packaging. A lot of these are definitely under the radar, which means they are not active on social media or apparently in the active promotion of their brand. I know because I follow this stuff. Also, when new brands are coming to the market they often issue press releases, and many contact me and are generous enough to send me a bottle – I am grateful every time! But many of the new brands below have done nothing to announce their presence in the U.S. market, so that is why I say under the radar. And if that is what they want to do, no problem! But I am curious about a good number of them and will be making some new purchases for sure.
You will find a lot of these brands if you read MY BOOK (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). I talk about all these brands in greater depth, plus I take a detailed look at how the many varieties of agave impact the flavor of a mezcal – much like grapes are to wine, agave is to mezcal. The book is Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! and it is on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
So here is my currently assembled list of the brands that can be found in the U.S. The list is organized from top to bottom by the brands I am most familiar with, which means among other things, I can find them and drink them regularly, I read about them, and/or they are actively promoting their brands through social media, etc. As the list progresses, many of these I have never tried and never seen other than on a website. So they are mainly pretty obscure but some of them look quite interesting with a price point to match.
Toward the bottom of the list, there is a bunch of crap (that usually stirs up some controversy) – a bunch of industrial mezcals and some random stuff, many of which I have tried, hence that is what I call this part of the list crap. If you are looking for something good, stay higher on the list and do some research. When you see a mezcal for under $30, it is rarely good (though there are exceptions). Comments like that usually draw out some criticism that I am being elitist or worse, but it is simply a reality. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to produce a good, artisanal mezcal. Just a fact.
But if you think something toward the back of the pack is good, first you should drink it, and then let me know. I am always happy to learn and reassess. With that, here is what I have….
Oaxaca is a special place, and there is no better way to enjoy it than to journey out to a palenque (distillery) to see how mezcal is made first hand. Many years ago, when I first began touring palenques I was under the illusion that I was going out there just to see how mezcal was made. I thought I was going to see the agave fields, the earthen roasting pits, the horse drawn stone grinding mill, the fermentation tanks, the copper or clay pot stills, and the many other things that are involved in the ultimate arrival of this magical elixir. Basically, I thought it was all about the mechanics of making mezcal.
It took me awhile to figure it out, but now I know that the mechanics of making mezcal are only one slice of a palenque tour. What am I talking about? What else could there be? Well, as I said it did not hit me right away. But the more time I spent with mezcaleros and mezcaleras (female mezcaleros as I recently learned), I began to understand that they were not just sharing the process of mezcal production, but they were sharing their family history, their culture, their generational passion, their life.
Mezcal is so much more to these traditional producers. From the time most of them were small children, they have been around the palenque, sat with their fathers, mothers, aunts, cousins, uncles and grandparents, and absorbed all there is to know about making mezcal. For these producers, mezcal is the center of their world – it is their past, present and future. Mezcal is revered and core to who they are. It is present at every major milestone of their lives: births, communions, weddings, funerals, and everything in between.
So when you are lucky enough to be invited into their world, you eventually understand that mezcal is so much more than cutting, baking, fermenting and distilling. It is with an immense source of pride, passion and knowledge that they bring you into their inner circle.
And so it was on my recent trip to Oaxaca that my friends and I were invited into the sanctuary of the palenque at Real Minero. William Scanlan of Heavy Metl Premium Imports, who imports Real Minero in the U.S., knew I was dying to see this highly regarded producer for myself so he generously arranged our visit.
We arrived at the well-kept little town of Santa Catarina Minas, the heart of a historic mezcal making region. I’ve been told that all mezcal is made in clay pots in Santa Catarina Minas, as this is their tradition. I cannot verify if this is 100% true (maybe there is a copper pot rebel up in their hills), but if so, it’s awesome that this tradition has been kept so vibrant.
Real Minero is a storied mezcal brand from a 4th generation mezcal family. These days, the brand is being run by Graciela Angeles Carreño, the great granddaughter of the brand’s founder, or it could be the great great granddaughter, or the great great great granddaughter…the thing is they really don’t know how far back it goes. Many of these longtime mezcal-making families lose the trail as they backtrack the family tree into the 1800’s, and so it is with Real Minero. All they know is that there is 100+ years of mezcal making in their family. Love it!
While Graciella is a “Master Mezcalera” herself, her father Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza is also at the heart of their mezcal making these days. I put the term “Master Mezcalera” (same thing with “Master Mezcalero”) in quotes because Graciella explained that this term is all marketing. She said it did not really even exist until about 10yrs ago when mezcal started gaining popularity. Before that, you just made mezcal. Now you are labeled a “master” for simply doing what you have always done – making great mezcal in her case!
Graciella gave us a full tour of the Real Minero palenque. We started at their very modern warehouse which had surrounding agave fields with various varietals at different stages of development. The warehouse was quite large and spotless with an office and a conference room up the stairs at one end. I have never seen such modern facilities at a palenque – Real Minero is clearly planning for the future.
An agave field and various varietals in staggered states of maturity could be found throughout the property. There were a handful of A. karwinskii var. tripon – Real Minero makes the only mezcal I have seen with the tripon varietal. The one expression they have had in the states for years is an ensemble of four agaves, though now Metl is bringing in their whole amazing line of varietals. I asked Graciella if they made a single expression tripon, and she said they did and that the might have a few for purchase (but good luck finding it in the U.S.!). Now, I would just have to beat my buddies to it….
The agave fields held some beauties (if you like this kind of thing, which clearly I do) with huge towering arroquenos and quite a few varieties of Agave karwinskii nearing maturity. There was also an Agave rhodacantha, best known for the varietal mexicano (also known as dobadaan). Graciella explained that this rhodacantha was a cuixe varietal. I have only known a cuixe as an A. karwinskii, so this was a new agave varietal for me. Yes, I was truly psyched! As we walked the property, Graciella provided other little tidbits.
For example, she said that sometimes you will find rocks in the middle of a mature agave. Why? Because as the quiote starts to sprout, and if the agave is large enough (like an arroqueno), one cannot get to the middle of the agave to cut off the quiote. The quiote is cut off to keep the sugars and energy of the agave concentrated in the pina. So if an agave farmer cannot reach the quiote to cut it off, they throw rocks at it to break it! I thought she was pulling our leg, but no, it is true. More cool stuff for a mezcal nerd!
We left the fields and the warehouse and made our way to where the Real Minero distills their mezcal. Again, it was the cleanest, most well-organized palenque I have seen. Nothing was out of place. No stray equipment or tools. You could practically eat off the brick and cement floor. But it was not an industrial setting. Just a great looking, well kept gorgeous palenque. They not were roasting or crushing agave at this time, but they were distilling. They had eight clay pot stills, of which four were in the midst of distillation. My mouth started watering as Graciella pulled out a large gourd bowl and began filling it from one of the stills. Still warm from the still, she passed around a scrumptious 50% ABV tobala.
I am not sure there is anything better on the planet than tasting a great artisanal mezcal, right off the still, from one of the world’s renowned agave spirits producers. And we tasted. And tasted. And tasted some more. Not that is wasn’t already, but soon enough, everything was REALLY right with the world.
In a room adjacent to the stills, Graciella showed us a room with perhaps 50 huge glass containers in which they have been aging mezcal for over ten years! With the coming changes to the mezcal NOM, “aged in glass” will be a category unto itself. You may ask if aging in glass actually does anything to the mezcal? I have not tasted many so I am by no means an expert, but people in the mezcal world absolutely revere mezcals that have been aged in glass for many years. It smooths and mellows the mezcal. You will find it to be richer with greater depth and character. That certainly has been my experience, and though Graciella could not tell us when her glass-aged mezcal would hit the market, I would like to be first in line when it does.
After my friends stopped me from asking even more questions (were a few hundred too many?), we made our way back to the warehouse and Graciella treated us to a grand tasting of all Real Minero offerings. OMG! Find them. Buy them. Drink them. Happily, as I mentioned, most of these can now be found in the U.S., and they are amazing. The mezcal-y wizardry of the many generations of the Angeles family is poured into every bottle. These are truly great mezcals by any measure, all clay pot distilled, and each one lives up to the family’s reputation. Naturally, my friend’s and I bought as much as we could carry (and then some).
By now it was after 3pm, we were feeling good, and we were starving – which by the way, is almost what always happens when you are touring palenques in Oaxaca. Important safety tip: eat a big breakfast and bring protein bars! Graciella invited us to lunch at her local. As we drank beer and ate great food, I reflected on a special day at one of the more amazing palenques I am likely to ever see.
Graciella, thanks for a fantastic experience! Until next time, drink mezcal!
Oh man, just back from Oaxaca over MLK weekend and I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for what I learned, experienced and drank! I tried rare mezcals, traveled to palenques that I had never been to, ate more chapolines (grasshoppers), tried cicada salt (like sal de gusano but made with cicadas instead), and learned more nuances about the world of mezcal. One of the great pleasures of my favorite beverage is that there is always more to be discovered, and this trip, like the many before it, delivered yet again.
We had a great time, but were basically drinking mezcal (hey, this is important research I am doing!) from about 11am onward each day until the wee hours of of the morning. Sound like fun? You bet it was! (Shout out to my crew of Mike, Chris, Mario and Chris who were there in lock step with me).
I’ve been thinking about this and there is so much to share with my mezcal people (that’s you) that I barely know where to begin. So I decided to do a few posts instead of one looonnnnngggggg one. So this one is about our trip to the palenque of Eric Hernandez where Ilegal Mezcal is made, which was beautiful, educational, and first class in every way.
We arrived in Oaxaca on Thursday night, dropped our bags and headed out to In Situ to meet John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, for our briefing on the next day’s activities. It went something like this: “You guys ready? You have shoes? Have you read Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!? OK you are good to go.” He may have left out the Holy Smoke part. In fact, maybe I made the whole thing up. Who can remember? We were drinking mezcal!
John is a passionate brand owner who fell in love with mezcal – the product and the tradition – while living in Mexico in the early 2000s. Later after he started a mezcal bar in Guatemala, he realized he could not find any mezcal locally. So he and his conspirators started smuggling it across the border to stock his bar. At first it was a few bottles, but it soon turned into a full fledged Pirates of the Caribbean operation. John has many funny stories about these early years of Ilegal, and they get better the more he drinks (John, have another!).
As for In Situ, if you have not been or have not heard, it is the best mezcaleria in the world with over 150 different bottles, each carefully curated by the owners, Ulises and Sandra. Unfortunately, they were out of town for the weekend and the barman discharged us way too early into the Oaxaca night. He was closing up, and we had only bought a bottle each and were preparing to do more tasting and more damage. But he unceremoniously kicked us out – Ulises would have had the good sense to keep us drinking and keep us buying (plus I think he may actually like us). So till next time In Situ…
The Ilegal Palenque
Ilegal is one of my favorite brands. I love their products – a beautiful espadin joven with light smoke and hints of lemon peel, a butterscotchy reposado, and a transcendent anejo. Some mezcal purists mistakenly look past Ilegal due to their aged mezcals – man is that a mistake. I have long argued that aged mezcals expand the market and bring in people that otherwise may not be initially enamored with a powerful joven. And Ilegal’s reposado and anejo are amazing spirits by any measure. By the way, Ilegal also has the best edgy guerrilla marketing and are not afraid to take a stand! They amuse me.
So after a night at In Situ, the next day we met the van promptly an hour after the appointed time for our trip out to Eric Hernandez’s palenque. Eric, who produces Ilegal, is a fourth generation mezcalero who is also an engineer – an important fact which comes into play here. Eric also holds the distinction of being the first certified producer: he has NOM number 1 (“O01X” on the back of your Ilegal bottle).
Having been to many palenques in the past, I know Ilegal to be one of the most respected and innovative distilleries in Oaxaca. Now this is “mezcal innovative”, not “tequila innovative”. There are no hydraulic lifts, large machines, column stills, hardhats, guys named Joey, conveyor belts, or people with hair nets and rubber booties. There is an earthen roasting pit, a tahona, an angry horse, wooden fermentation tanks, three copper stills, fruit trees, humming birds, a shrine, and an atmosphere ripe with smoke and roasted agave. This is mezcal baby.
His palenque is mid-size (think basketball court compared to some that are more like a squash court), very well kept and clean, and has a few extravagances like a small bottling room that can fill four bottles at a time.
Eric is deeply committed to the traditional production process of mezcal, but he has made a few engineering tweaks to the artisanal process. He also has pictures around the palenque of his grandfather in the 1930s serving mezcal from wooden barrels, which is interesting because some claim there is no tradition of aging mezcal, only tequila. Were those barrels simply for storage? Were they for purposeful aging? I don’t know but they are there.
He gave us a tour of the property starting with the earthen pit. It was fully loaded and had been baking for 3 days already. You reach down and feel the dirt mound and it is warm (so cool for a mezcal nerd!). Eric’s pit is the first example of where some of his engineering has been applied. He has built a pit that has a sub chamber below the main pit – he lights the fire there. This has the effect of creating less direct heat on the pinas and leads to a less smoky mezcal, which in my view is a signature of Eric’s mezcals. The indirect fire also allows for a permanent rock structure on which to pile the pinas. In most mezcal pits, the rocks have to be replaced every few firings because they simply start cracking, breaking and disintegrating as they are sitting right on the flames. In this pit, the rocks last a really long time which saves labor and river rocks. The design of the oven, which produces a more radiant heat, allows him to use less wood, a good thing in my view given the substantial deforestation in Oaxaca.
Another example of Eric applying his engineering skills to the production process is how he has made small adjustments to his copper stills. Pictured below is one of the stills he uses for the second distillation. Over time as a still ages, tiny flecks of metal will make their way into the distillation – it frequently evidences itself as sediment in a bottle of mezcal. As you may be able to see in this picture, there are 2 clamps attached to the vapor tube of the still which brings a small electrical charge to the vapors and extracts any potential metal flakes. Who thinks of this stuff? I don’t know if he developed this concept himself or read it in a book, but either way, it’s pretty cool.
After our palenque tour, it was time to do some eating and drinking! While lunch was scheduled for 1:00pm it was now about 4:00pm and we were starving (as a general rule of Oaxaca palenques, you can add 3 hours to any time estimates). But it was all worth the wait. Eric laid out a spread of beef, pork, chorizo, avocados, onions, salsa, and much more, which was all to be wrapped up in delicious homemade tortillas. But wait, that’s not all…
Eric also put out the Ilegal line plus a line of silvestre mezcals that he sells locally under a separate label. Plus he had a bartender whipping up some yummy cocktails! We felt special. We felt pampered.
So we ate and drank and listened to some music too. John had brought a few musicians along, who kept it lively and added to the positive vibe all around.
I found that all of Eric’s mezcals have a beautiful consistency. As his signature is one of light smoke, the flavor of the individual agaves shines through brilliantly. His espadin is light and fresh with citrus and roasted agave. The wild tepeztate under his local line is perfectly herbal and not overpowering. He had an ensemble made with seven agaves that had great balance that I couldn’t stop drinking. And the list goes on. All fantastic and oh so drinkable.
All in all, what a memorable day. John and Eric were generous hosts with great hospitality, great food, and amazing mezcals. I look forward to my next visit!
Next Post Coming Soon: My visit to the Real Minero palenque. Super cool!
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!
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!
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!
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!