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….
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!!
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).
There was a night a few years ago when I decided to have my own very private mezcal tasting. I had collected a few very nice bottles at that point and wanted to try them side by side to compare, contrast, and enjoy. But by myself? Sure. Why not? Just me and my booze. But my wife was worried about me, my parents called, neighbors knocked, the dog barked (imagine my shock since I don’t have one). They thought I was going over the edge (the edge of glory perhaps!). But it was alright. I had a great time and learned a few things along the way.
So there I was, there I was, in the Congo. Oops, wrong story. There I was at the bar at Empellon in the West Village in NYC. Matt Resler, bartender extraordinaire, passionate agave expert, and all around good guy, was kindly pouring me what he believed to be was the release of a VERY SMALL BATCH production of Siete Misterios Mezcal. This brand is not yet available in the U.S., but is coming soon. Matt gets this stuff because, well, he is Matt. I wish I was Matt.
Why did Matt think this bottle of Siete Misterios was a very small batch? Because the bottle was hand numbered as bottle number 20 out of 21! Yes, bottle 20 of 21. Ahhh, I’m not sure what the definition would be of “small batch”, but I am guessing that this qualifies! (more…)