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…..
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 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!
As a regular reader, you may recall I held a mezcal tasting at our apartment in NYC this past spring (and did I mention it rocked, of course?!). As we are now spending several weeks in Vail this summer, I thought it was wise to continue planting mezcal seeds wherever I travel. Once planted, mezcal seeds tend to flourish because mezcal is a discovery process, and usually, once discovered, the converted keep coming back!
So with this in mind, we held a tasting for friends and family this past weekend showcasing some of the finest mezcals that can be found in the U.S. As with my previous tasting, I had scorecards, groupings, and tasting notes from the brands (unless they could not be found).