We all know these are weird times we are living in. I live in NYC, and there is an unsettling calm to our lives; no traffic, relatively few people out and about, everything closed, no Naked Cowboy in Times Square, and a million other oddities. Yes, this is largely true everywhere, but perhaps the contrast to our normal cacophony is more striking here. This is the epicenter and IT is swirling all around us, yet when you walk out the door, you simply feel out of sorts and know something’s just not right.
In this environment, there are many great causes to support and my wife and I and our friends have been doing just that. We are all doing what we can for the healthcare workers, the restaurants and bars, the local businesses, the essential workers, plenty of charities and many more. So when an effort popped up on FaceBook the other night with a plan to help mezcaleros in Santa Catarina Minas (SCM), I thought, “Now that’s a great idea too!”.
SCM is a storied mezcal making town less than an hour south of Oaxaca, and I go there with great enthusiasm every year! As soon as my plane lands, I’m like Trump running for a Big Mac. I can’t wait to get there! SCM is known for their handcrafted, very small batch, clay pot distilled mezcals. A few well-known brands like Real Minero and Lalocura are there, but so are dozens of others who have no brand. I’ve bought many AMAZING mezcals in that town! Most of the producers in SCM make a living by selling mezcal to the tourists, and with no tourists, guess what? They are suffering economically. Again, they are not alone – a lot of people all over the world are. But if you love mezcal, and love Oaxaca, this is a fantastic way to support this community.
Lou Bank, founder of S.A.C.R.E.D. put this together. What is SACRED? From their website:
SACRED is a USA-based, 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation that helps improve lives in the rural Mexican communities where heirloom agave spirits are made. We host educational tastings and develop other forms of fundraising to underwrite programs that help replant agave, build libraries, ensure water security, and repair damage done by earthquakes.
However, if you want to buy some mezcal, do not go to the SACRED site. You need to go to THIS SITE.
UPDATE: Lou has added another set of mezcaleros and you can buy mezcal from them on THIS SITE.
The second site has my main man Felix Angeles on it. Anyone who follows me knows I worship him (though not in a weird way).
Lou is a great guy and a mezcal evangelist. So he found a creative way to support this community, and he calls it Mezcal Futures. In a nutshell (or perhaps, small copita), you buy mezcal today and pick it up later in Oaxaca. Certainly, for those of us who are lucky enough to go to Oaxaca regularly, this is an easy trade – great mezcal at prices that are 50%-75% less than what you would pay in the U.S. for something similar. And maybe if you have never been to Oaxaca and are aspiring to go, this will be an impetus to book that flight. But yes, the trick here is they cannot ship it, so you have to go get it.
Right now, Lou has four producers selling mezcal on hisSITE. He put it up quickly, and it is not the prettiest website you’ve ever seen, but it gets the job done. And you can pay with PayPal. I’ve been to two of the featured palenques: Lalocura and that of Don Pablo Arellanes Ramirez, and their mezcals are incredible. I do not know the other producers, but I trust Lou not to lead me, or you, astray.
Of course, I bought too many bottles – I am very enthusiastic about mezcal (did you know?). I actually bought more bottles than I can realistically bring back in one trip. And I look forward to my SCM scavenger hunt, showing up with my PayPal receipt in hand, and asking these mezcaleros to unearth my bottles (apparently 3 of the 4 producers are going to bury the purchased bottles, which is supposed to help the mellowing process of the mezcal). Will they look at me like I am fucking nuts, or embrace me and appreciate that I chipped in? I am betting on the latter. As they say in Philly, “Trust the Process.”
I know of another storied mezcal family that is trying to put together something similar to what Lou has done with this effort, and there are probably others too. They are all likely to be “pick up in Oaxaca” type offers, but don’t let that discourage you! If you know of other efforts, let me know and I can add them to this post. In the meantime, be safe out there, and Drink Mezcal!
Many of you may know the storied tequila brand, Porfidio. While Patron may have been the first widely-marketed premium tequila sold in the US, there was nothing like Porfidio in the late ’90s to early 2000s. You might not remember the name, but you certainly remember the “Cactus Bottle”. It captured the imagination then and still brings a smile to my face today. It is a beautiful hand-blown glass bottle with a small, green, 2-inch tall, glass cactus sitting inside the bottle on the bottom. The cactus is like a little green guy waving “Hi. Come drink me.”
Initially, only the anejo existed so you had the gorgeous amber anejo working wonderfully in the clear bottle with the green cactus. I cannot believe I never saved even one empty bottle – what an idiot!
And this was a premium tequila because it cost about $100 even then. I first discovered it on a trip to Cozumel in the late ’90s. I was with the crew that still travels with me to Oaxaca every year, and we had just arrived at the Hotel Intercontinental in Cozumel. We saw the bottle behind the bar and knew we had to try it – and it was transcendent! We were already tequila drinkers but this was a new ballgame. Definitely a WTF moment.
Over the years, as more premium tequilas poured into the U.S. – and poured down our throats – Porfidio remained the standard bearer for us. Even though tequila drifted away for me and mezcal began to dominate my agave spirits consumption over 10 years ago, I’ve always known Porfido was my first love. Also, as I’ve met more people in the agave spirits world over the past ten years, I have come to learn there is a bit of controversy around my beloved Porfidio.
In the late ’90s and into the 2000s, there was a thread in the spirits industry questioning the provenance of Porfidio. Was it really tequila? Was it made in Jalisco? Speaking to Tequila.net, the founder of Porfidio, an Austrian named Martin Grassl, fueled the mystery as he spoke of European production techniques (“new world school”) and said he did not necessarily use highlands or lowlands agaves, but based his agave selection on “objective analytical quality” of the agaves – sounds fishy, right? So people were suspicious.
Happily, my friends and I knew nothing about this – we just loved the juice! Now, I really have not thought much about Porfidio over the past 10+ years, and I rarely drink tequila anymore. And you can still buy Porfidio – it’s expensive, though they’ve cheapened the look of that beautiful bottle, and I have no idea how it tastes anymore. But trust me when I tell you, 20 years ago, there was pure magic in that bottle.
Here is where my story comes back to mezcal (I am not sure I have ever written a story that does not start, finish, or come back to mezcal so I am not going to break my streak now). I go to Oaxaca with the boys every January, and we were there a few weeks ago. We had the good fortune of joining Asis Cortes at his family palenque in Santiago Matatlan on a Sunday afternoon. Asis is the face of El Jolgorio, Agave de Cortes, Nuestra Soledad and the 2018 release of Origen Raiz – an A. cenizo made in Durango. I’ve written a lot about Jolgorio as it is one of my favorite brands. Asis tells me that people suspect he is paying me! Not a chance. Early on, they gave me small 2oz samples of their mezcals, but other than that there has been no remuneration for Mezcal PhD. I simply love what they do. Back to the story….
We were at the family palenque and Asis’ father, Valentin, was working the palenque. The tahona (big stone wheel) was mashing cooked madrecuishe and Valentin was loading the mashed fibers
into a wheelbarrow and then lifting it into a fermentation vat. It is always amazing to see the time, effort and amount of physical exertion that goes into each step of mezcal making – this is hard work.
When Valentin had finished this part of the process, he sat down with Asis and all of us, and we started tasting mezcal. Going to a palenque is frequently filled with highlights, but it rarely gets better than an unhurried sit-down and tasting with the master mezcalero and his son. Here, the stories come out. The rich history of the family’s mezcal making past. The cultural significance of what mezcal means to them – in this case, they are Zapotec and, among many other things, mezcal is the way for them to connect with their ancestors. And the challenging times, which were not so long ago, when nobody wanted to buy mezcal. As the story turned to this difficult time for mezcal commerce, Valentin told us of an Austrian entrepreneur who came knocking in the late ’90s.
This gentleman had heard of the outstanding mezcals made by Valentin and his extended family in Matatlan, so he tracked down Valentin and his brother-in-law, Oscar Hernandez. He tasted the family products and wanted to strike a deal. Keep in mind, during this time, they did not have a well-known brand (no one really did then), and there was no certification process for mezcal yet either – that started in 2005. What little they did sell was largely for the immediate community. So an outsider who wanted to buy a lot of mezcal was a rare find.
But this fellow had a strange request: he only wanted to buy what was produced after the first distillation – he did not want the finished product. In this case, he wanted to buy a roughly 30% ABV espadin joven (an unaged mezcal made with agave espadin). While Valentin and Oscar, found this odd, they asked no questions and had the first batch ready in about a month. Over the first year or so, he regularly came to Oaxaca from his unknown origination point, and left with his mezcal in stainless steel containers, on his way to an unknown destination.
The second year, he had a different request: could they cook the pinas in aboveground ovens and remove the smokiness from the mezcal. Valentin and Oscar said they could accommodate this, but they had to build the oven. So they build an aboveground brick oven, which as you may know, is how artisanal tequila makers cook their pinas. This went on for a while longer and it was a good commercial relationship for Valentin and Oscar. But in the early 2000s, this gentlemen stopped coming, and they never heard from him again. While they were selling to him, the Cortes and Hernandez families never knew what he was doing with his once-distilled mezcal.
Some years later the mystery unraveled as they figured out what was going on through friends of friends. It was really pretty simple. This gentleman was taking the Cortes and Hernandez family mezcals to Jalisco, distilling it for a second and third time, and bottling it as a tequila. Apparently, he could not get the quality of spirit he wanted for his brand by using the blue agave from Jalisco, so he found his way down to Oaxaca to the palenques of Valentin and Oscar and bought their mezcal. But to halfway comply (though not really) with the tequila regulations, he had to distill it a second time in Jalisco and have the appearance of making his tequila there. Tequila was not regulated as tightly 20 years ago, so he could get away with it. Oh yeah, and did I mention the name of his tequila? You know it: Porfidio!
So Porfidio was actually a mezcal from Oaxaca, made from agave espadin, bottled as a tequila. The second distillation, which was done in Jalisco, did not change the provenance of the spirit – this was a mezcal made in Oaxaca. As Valentin told us this story over an amazing mezcal tasting at the family palenque, we could not believe what we were hearing. The tequila we were drinking in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Porfidio, which we worshipped, was actually made by the mezcalero sitting across from us in 2019, and it was not a tequila at all – it was mezcal!
I was stunned. Porfidio was my first love, and we had a difficult break-up as my love for mezcal grew. But in reality, I had never left her. She was a mezcal all along! Baby, I have come home!!
Maybe this was a “you had to be there moment” for you, but I hope not. When we first tasted Porfidio in the late ’90s, it was if we had discovered a Mayan treasure – it was pure gold! And to learn that it was actually being made at the time by one of the best mezcal producers in the world was a mind-blowing revelation!
Back to Porfidio
The founder of Porfidio referenced in this story is Martin Grassl. I have traded emails in the past with Martin, and he is a deeply passionate and educated producer of tequila. I am guessing he would dispute some or all of my story, and say that Porfidio was always made in Jalisco and never sourced in Oaxaca. Maybe not.
Porfidio can still be found today, though the packaging is not as elegant as it once was. As for the quality of the tequila, I really have no idea anymore. It’s still quite expensive, and I suspect it is still very good given the detailed exchanges I have had with Martin about his process, but I just don’t know. Next time I see it, I will certainly try it. Maybe I will even buy a bottle for old times sake (it might be the first bottle of tequila I’ve bought for myself in 10+ years).
That’s all I’ve got this time, and I hope you made it to the end. If you have a chance to drink El Jolgorio, Agave de Cortes, Nuestra Soledad or Origen Raiz, they are all made or orchestrated by the Cortes family and you cannot go wrong! As always, DRINK MEZCAL my friends.
I first published this post in 2012. At the time, mezcal was little known. And while the battle for recognition is still uphill, mezcal is far more popular today than it was back then. Since 2012, mezcal sales are up almost four times, and the vast majority of bars, restaurants and liquor stores, carry at least one brand.
I still spend a lot of time spreading the gospel of mezcal, and more times than not, the conversation begins with the comparison of mezcal to tequila. I use it as an opener at cocktail parties. I just walk up to a random person and ask them “Do you know what the difference is between tequila and mezcal?” They usually turn and walk away. OK, maybe that is not the way it goes down, but it could happen that way!
But this question usually is the starting point when people are curious about mezcal. In many ways, mezcal can best be understood by simply tasting it next to tequila. What will you find? Most notably, you will find mezcal to be smoky by comparison. Intense and smoky like a campfire to some, or subtle and gentle to others. The person who finds the smoke to be light is usually a scotch, bourbon or whiskey drinker, and is used to bold spirits. If you find mezcal to be intensely smoky, there is a good chance you are not accustomed to drinking spirits neat.
This post gives you the basics, but if you really want to understand and appreciate what separates mezcal from tequila, you need to read my book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). The book is available 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…
I believe that for most people tequila leads to mezcal (even though all tequilas are mezcals, but we will come back to that). Tequila leads to mezcal because for most of us, it started with tequila. We traveled down a path that likely started with bad tequila, bad experiences, and bad results the next morning. Then we slowly found our way back to the good 100% agave tequilas that started showing up in the 90’s. And maybe we enjoyed the extra anejos that move tequila toward cognac. And then, what? What else is out there? Ahhh mezcal….I’ve heard about that. The rise of the extra anejos coincided with the arrival of fine mezcals and then they started to appear on the shelves at your local liquor store and on the cocktails menus of your favorite gin joints. So tequila brought us to this point and now mezcal joins the discussion…. (more…)
I am excited to have just released the new and improved version of my book: Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition. I think it is bigger, better, and more in-depth than the 1st edition. In fact, I would venture to say that it goes far deeper than any other mezcal book. It’s 272 pages versus the 1st Edition of Holy Smoke! at 204 pages! This baby is fat. There are other good books on mezcal these days, but I bet you will find Holy Smoke! to be substantially different, wholly entertaining, and uniquely insightful (plus I think a few of the others have borrowed my content without proper citation, but that is for another day).
Just because my book goes deeper, does not mean it is better. Some people may want a fast read that covers the basics. Me? You know I want to know as much as possible about mezcal, which is why I go to Oaxaca regularly, observe, listen, research, and ask a ton of questions. I always marvel at how much I don’t know! And with each new edition of Holy Smoke! I want to bring you with me – to Oaxaca, the palenques, the agave fields. I want to take you inside the minds of the mezcaleros and their nuanced production techniques, and then bring it all back to what’s in your glass. If that’s what you want, then my new book is for you.
Here is what a few people in the industry have said:
I am honored and humbled that these deeply passionate brand owners value my efforts. Bringing you the 2nd edition of Holy Smoke! has been a labor of love for me – it took me all of 2017 to bring it together. So with great pride I now release it.
The full color version is expensive and I want you to understand why. It kills me because I want it to be accessible and price competitive to other mezcal books. As I have come to learn, it is very expensive to self-publish a full color book. Why? Because self-publishing platforms (I use CreateSpace) do not do large print runs of 5,000 or 10,000 books – they print-on-demand (POD). That means the physical manifestation of the book does not exist until you order it on Amazon. And the price differential between POD and large print runs is substantial.
If I had wanted to use a publisher for Holy Smoke!, I would have had to submit many proposals across many publishing companies in the hope that they would accept me. And that is just the start of the lengthy process. So I chose to go my own route, at my own pace, and that means self-publishing. I chose CreateSpace, owned by Amazon, because after much research, they are the cheapest and also seamlessly integrated into Amazon. But the tradeoff is that the retail price, dictated by CreateSpace, is not a bargain for a full color book.
What I am doing to bring down the price? Well, there is nothing I can do for the full color version other than take a tiny royalty – $1 a book. But I have also published a black and white version of Holy Smoke!at about half the price! I thought the black and white pictures would diminish the experience for the reader, but happily I am wrong. I was thrilled (and surprised) when I received the black and white proof copy of the book. It looks great! Of course, we all may prefer color pictures, but this is as close to a zero compromise as you can get. I am psyched because I love the black and white version and I can sell it for $17! At that price, I am practically paying you to take it.
Whichever version you buy, I am confident you will love Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition! The entire book has been updated with new content, new stories, new pictures, and new information. I’ve touched it all – some areas more than others. For example, I’ve really expanded information on mezcal production and distillation and examined how varying techniques are evidenced in the mezcal you are drinking. Also, I have new chapters on the the updated regulatory environment, pechugas and aged in glass mezcals, expanded insights on the types of agave from which mezcal can be made, new analysis on the sustainability and future of mezcal, a guide to traveling in Oaxaca, and much more. On the other hand, a few sections were only tweaked, like the History of Mezcal chapter – the history is the history, and I like how I wrote it the first time. Overall, there is a ton of new stuff.
Now I turn it over to you. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – good and bad – just keep it clean! So pour yourself a nice mezcal, settle in, and enjoy it!
Everybody likes lists. I like lists. I frequently write in lists. You see a headline with “the 10 Longest” or “the 5 Firmest” or “the 50 Best” or whatever it is, and you click on it. And you tend to skip through the preamble (you are likely skipping this now!) and go directly to the list – I mean that’s why you clicked the link – not so you could read some blah blah blah. Get me to the list!
But I figure I will ramble on for a paragraph or three and tell you why I put this one together. I compiled this because, while it has been done in Tequila many times, I cannot find a similar list that exists for mezcal. And the reason I think this is relevant is because, on a relative basis, high end mezcal is far less expensive than ultra premium tequila – so it’s interesting. You don’t have to look far to find tequila starting at $300+ and there are many offerings at $500+ and a handful north of $1,000! In fact, the 10 mezcals below combined cost about the same as a bottle of Clase Azul Extra Anejo Ultra at $1,700 a bottle. Mezcal, on the other hand, rarely tips $200 a bottle.
So what’s with the discrepancy? I mean tequila is a mezcal (you all know that). Why are these crazy pricey tequilas so prevalent? We all know that most of it is marketing. But some of it is rooted in the fact that most expensive tequilas are extra anejos, and there is an economic reality to barrel aged spirits: about 10% of what is in the barrel evaporates every year. Plus, the barrels cost money and many of these special tequilas are aged in unique (and even more expensive) barrels or casks. And of course, you are frequently paying for fancy crystal bottles or that kind of thing. Add in the marketing to all this, and BOOM, you have a $500 bottle.
Mezcal, by contrast, does not even have an extra anejo category and many in the mezcal world don’t even believe in barrel aging. Frequent readers of my blog and my book, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! know that I disagree and think barrel aging can add complexity and depth to a mezcal while expanding the audience for the category. But nevertheless, there are not many mezcals aged for more than one year, so the economic loss factor of evaporation doesn’t really come into play. But also, given that mezcal is perceived as a “new” category, I doubt the market would support $500+ bottles of mezcal today. How a 500 year old spirit can be considered “new” is a rant for another day!
So let’s move to the list. As usual, when I talk about these things, I stick to things that you can readily buy. These are bottles that can be found at some high end liquor stores, like Astor Wines in NYC, or definitely online. Let’s start low and work our way up…
10. El Jolgorio Tobasiche, $150 at K&L. Jolgorio is one of the premier premium brands with many varietals in the $100-$150 range. They are all amazing and worth the loot.
9. Mezcalosfera de Mezcaloteca, $160 at K&L Wines. This ensamble of 5 varietals comes from the well-regarded tasting room Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca. I have not tried it because I struggle with the price given that this is from an unknown mezcalero. It may be great and worth the price but somehow I doubt it. Chime in if you know better! If I ever see it in a bar, I’m in.
8. Koch El Mezcal Coyote, $170 at Zee Tequila. Koch has a line of about 10 varietals offered in the US. I have tried many of them and I have several, though not this Coyote. Overall, I have been underwhelmed by the Koch line so shelling out $170 when the rest of the line is just OK does not seem like a wise use of my funds.
7. Real Minero Pechuga, $170 at K&L. I’ve never met a Real Minero that I don’t like and this is no exception. Many bottles in their line just missed this list clicking in at about $150. But they are all excellent and worth the price.
6. Del Maguey Pechuga, $180 at K&L. Much like Real Minero, El Jolgorio, and a few other really expensive brands, Del Maguey rarely misses. This pechuga set the standard as the first in the market a good 10+ years ago and it is still elite.
5. Pierde Almas Conejo and Pierde Almas Pechuga, both $200 at Zee. The conejo is made with the breast of a wild rabbit (so this is also a pechuga) and the “regular” pechuga is made with a wild turkey breast. The conejo has a strong licorice note, almost like a sambuca, and is really unique and excellent. The regular pechuga is a standout as well.
4. Del Maguey Ibercio, $200 at K&L. There are many in the mezcal world who rave about this mezcal. I suspect some feel they have to say they love it since it is from the excellent Del Maguey brand, who teamed-up with a celebrity chef, to create an Iberico ham pechuga. But I don’t get it – too salty for me which overpowers all else. One of the rare Del Maguey’s that I don’t love.
3. Clase Azul Durango (Cenizo), $200 at Zee. Mezcal brought to you from well known tequlia brand Clase Azul. It is a classic tequila move: big brand, cool bottle, good marketing = $200 bottle! Don’t fall for it in this case as it is just OK – certainly not worthy of the price for what’s in the bottle.
2. Wahaka Vino de Mezcal Series, $230+ at Zee. Wahaka is an excellent brand with a strong number of great bottles well under $100. But they also scour the far reaches of Mexico to bring unique, tiny batch, special bottlings that they market under their Vino de Mezcal Series. They are very limited release and Zee Tequila is the only place I know to buy them.
1A. Scorpion Mezcal Anejo (7 Year Aged) $230 and Scorpion Tobala Anejo $220 at Zee. Scorpion is a fine mezcal, though the taste profile is closer to a tequila. I have never gotten over the scorpion in the bottle gimmick so I have rarely tried it. But I have tried these deep anejo offerings and I feel the barrel has overwhelmed the mezcal, so they are not a favorite.
1B. Del Maguey Chichicapa Cask Finish 12 Year, $320 at Park Avenue Liquor. This is a late addition to the post (Chad F. – thanks for the tip). I bought this at least 5yrs ago at Park Ave and they still have it (as do I)! It is aged 12yrs in glass and then finished for 100 days in a Stags Leap Cabernet Barrel. Expensive but truly remarkable.
This is an interesting list, but the good news is you don’t have to pay near this much for a great mezcal. So many excellent mezcals can be found in the $50-$100 range. Check out a few of my previous posts if you want to see more.
As for pricey mezcals, you can expect to see more of them. As the category becomes more mainstream, brands will go after the ultra premium sector just as they have done in tequila. You will start to see fancy crystal bottles and that sort of thing. Some people don’t even care about what’s inside – they just want the cool bottle. For me, I want both. If the juice is good, I can definitely be persuaded to buy an expensive bottle even though I am likely overpaying.
One area where you can expect to see the emergence of expensive bottles is in the new mezcal category of “Aged in Glass”. This is part of the new mezcal NOM, and you will see producers rolling out mezcals that they have been aging in large glass bottles for 10+ years. It actually makes a notable difference and you will find the mezcal has more depth and has mellowed. So look for those as they will not be cheap but they are likely worth a premium price.
Sadly, it has been a few years since I did a deep dive and thorough update to this list. Yes, I have added a brand here and there, but I have not scoured the web in a few years to see what is really out there. And man have times changed!
When I last took a hard look, there were about 70 mezcal brands to be found in the U.S. Now I count 120+! Wow. Further, a few years ago there were around 50 brands that were traveling in the upper end of the market, and that has now risen to almost 90 brands in what I consider to be in the premium sector.
I used to have them all, and I can no longer say that. In my recent research, I found many brands I had never even heard of at premium prices and occasionally at premium packaging. A lot of these are definitely under the radar, which means they are not active on social media or apparently in the active promotion of their brand. I know because I follow this stuff. Also, when new brands are coming to the market they often issue press releases, and many contact me and are generous enough to send me a bottle – I am grateful every time! But many of the new brands below have done nothing to announce their presence in the U.S. market, so that is why I say under the radar. And if that is what they want to do, no problem! But I am curious about a good number of them and will be making some new purchases for sure.
You will find a lot of these brands if you read MY BOOK (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). I talk about all these brands in greater depth, plus I take a detailed look at how the many varieties of agave impact the flavor of a mezcal – much like grapes are to wine, agave is to mezcal. The book is Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! and it is on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
So here is my currently assembled list of the brands that can be found in the U.S. The list is organized from top to bottom by the brands I am most familiar with, which means among other things, I can find them and drink them regularly, I read about them, and/or they are actively promoting their brands through social media, etc. As the list progresses, many of these I have never tried and never seen other than on a website. So they are mainly pretty obscure but some of them look quite interesting with a price point to match.
Toward the bottom of the list, there is a bunch of crap (that usually stirs up some controversy) – a bunch of industrial mezcals and some random stuff, many of which I have tried, hence that is what I call this part of the list crap. If you are looking for something good, stay higher on the list and do some research. When you see a mezcal for under $30, it is rarely good (though there are exceptions). Comments like that usually draw out some criticism that I am being elitist or worse, but it is simply a reality. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to produce a good, artisanal mezcal. Just a fact.
But if you think something toward the back of the pack is good, first you should drink it, and then let me know. I am always happy to learn and reassess. With that, here is what I have….
Over a year ago I published the Mezcal Starter Kit, which was intended to be a resource for people who are just beginning their heroic journey into the world of mezcal. So I focused on bottles that started at about $30 and did not list anything beyond $70 a bottle. As that post has been digested (perhaps ingested) over the past year, I frequently get emails from people asking “What’s next?” (more mezcal for sure!). These readers have tried a few of these starter bottles and now are looking for something more exotic and potentially more expensive.
Readers want to know about silvestres (wild agave varietals), aged mezcals, pechugas, and other premium selections. “Are they good?” “Should I buy them?” “Do I have to go to Oaxaca to get them?” “Did someone really invent a goldfish walker?”
So this post is a look at some amazing mezcals, that are available in the U.S., without regard to price. Yes, many of these are in excess of $100 or more a bottle. I have often said that with mezcal, you generally get what you pay for. So if they are on this list, and they are pricey, I doubt you will be disappointed. Also, many people will readily buy a $100 bottle of wine and it will be gone in a few hours. But if you purchase one of these brilliant mezcals, you might be enjoying it for the next few months or longer. If you drink it like wine, you probably need professional help!
However, you don’t always have to shell out $100 to get a great mezcal. There are many many in the $50-$100 range that are fantastic – I included many of those as well (and by the way, not that $50-$100 for a bottle of booze is a bargain – but remember this is the Premium Edition!).
Why are some of these mezcals so expensive? First, in general, mezcal is not an inexpensive spirit because it is hand-crafted, small batch, and labor intensive. There are no large column stills, industrial-sized ovens, or factory workers. An exceptional artisanal mezcal is produced at a small distillery, or palenque, and is essentially produced in a fashion that has been unchanged over several centuries.
Second, many of these mezcals are made from rare, wild agaves that are extremely limited in supply, difficult to find and harvest, and can take twenty plus years to mature. I snapped a shot of this wild tepeztate shown here in the cliffs outside Santiago Matatlan – a tepeztate can take thirty plus years to mature!
Third, when you move to aged mezcals, there are additional costs for the barrels, storage, and loss due to evaporation – the angel’s share, as you may know.
So yes, mezcals can be expensive. But again, if you can afford it, you will not be disappointed!
So where do I begin? So many great mezcals – what order should I put these in? Can I possibly rank them by my favorites? Not a chance – all amazing. By bottle height? (“How do you measure yourself against other golfers?”)? Price? That is not the goal of this exercise. So what order have I listed these in? Good ole boring alphabetical order. Not very creative but effective nevertheless. At any rate, you cannot go wrong with any of these…..here we go…..
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!!
As you certainly all know by now, any distilled agave-based spirit is a mezcal. So under the broad category of mezcal, we have a variety of spirits that are unique in their own right. Also, in the general family of agave-based alcohol, there is pulque, which is derived from the agave but is not distilled.
Beyond tequila and mezcal, these spirits are not widely known, though as the growth of tequila and mezcal continue, I think these spirits may slowly seep into the consciousness of agave connoisseurs. Also, as I get a fair number of questions about these agave alternatives on my blog, Twitter, or FaceBook, I thought a post on this topic would be useful to many. It actually helps me to sort it all out in my head as well. Hopefully yours too!
There is a debate going around in the mezcal community (yes, there is a community for pretty much everything – are you a member of the A-Rod’s Homeopathic Treatments Club?) about what the definition is of Traditional Mezcal. I think I know where this started, and I am certain it will not end here, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring on this debate.
For the most part, I think this whole debate is a problem of nomenclature. The nomenclature part is simple: as soon as you say one thing is “traditional”, that means everything else is not. The problem is that many news outlets, websites, and blogs picked up a recent piece of literature on traditional mezcal, and they are publishing it as gospel. I think there is more to the story. Let’s see if we can sort it out. (more…)
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).