Mezcal is everywhere these days, with everyone from Robert Parker to Michelin-starred restaurants singing its praises. And frankly, with its smoky complexity, it’s not hard to see why. There are as many mezcals as there are mezcaleros, with a wide palette of aromas ranging from leather to earth, cedar to pine.
But for the uninitiated, mezcal can also leave a bad taste in your mouth — something David Ortiz, corporate beverage manager of Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar, remembers well. Before encountering top-notch tequila thanks to Willie Shine from Contemporary Cocktails and Ron Copper from Del Maguey Chichicapa in the early aughts, he recalls, “I was only privy to industrial mezcal — the stuff with the worm in it.” These low-quality distillates, he says, are “geared towards the tourist,” and they became a major part of mezcal’s one-time branding problem.
The term mezcal can refer to distillates made with the piña of around 30 varieties of agave or maguey, ranging from the industrial to the artisanal, the ho-hum to the aromatically complex. Even tequila is a type of mezcal, albeit one that can only be made with the blue weber agave. And while more artisanal mezcals earn the right to modify their name with the words artesanal or ancestral, to the uninitiated, it can be hard for the mezcal-curious to figure out where to begin.
That variety, however, is part of the excitement, for Ortiz, who notes that whereas most run-of-the-mill tequila offers a similar flavor profile — “smooth with mostly cooked agave” — mezcal, on the contrary, boasts pronounced, smoky aromas. When he discovered the latter, he says, “I automatically had an awakening.”
“This beautiful maguey plant I was introduced to turned into a spirit that has salinity, aroma, and incredible flavor,” he says. “It was a turning point for me, and I became enthralled with the tradition and heritage of Mexico and its distillates.”
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The complexity of the category isn’t the only way in which many drinkers misunderstand mezcal. “This is a very ancestral spirit, and it’s meant to be enjoyed neat and with family and friends,” Ortiz says. And it goes just as well on its own as shaken into a smoky Paloma or alongside your favorite mole.
“Any well produced ancestral mezcal works well paired with food because of the ancient process of production, including the use of clay pot stills, tahona wheel crushing of the piñas (agave), and the pit cooking of the piña,” he explains. “This tradition gives the mezcal full body and so it pairs wonderfully with many types of cuisine (especially Mexican cuisine and seafood).”
To reap all those benefits, here are the mezcals he’s most excited about right now.
The One on His Home Bar Cart
“Los Amantes Anejo is my favorite. It’s very well-balanced and lends itself to being mixed into a Mexican Old Fashioned. I call it El Viejo!”
The Best for Sipping
“My favorite sipping mezcal is Del Maguey Iberico. It’s like Pechuga [Ed note: Mezcal made with chicken suspended above the still during the third distillation], but with Iberico ham from Spain. It’s one of those you seek out. It has incredible flavor, and you can taste the salinity of the ham.”
The Best Bargain Buy
“Ojo De Tigre Joven Mezcal is offered at a great price and it allows for easy drinking. It’s also great in a smoky Paloma.”
The Luxe Bottle
“My favorite for a special occasion is Olvidado 30 Year Mezcal Añejo. It’s a special, 30-year aged mezcal, and it drinks like a cognac.”
The Small Producer Who Delivers Big-Time
“Xicaru Mezcal and its co-founder and partner Dennis Barnett. There is a great story behind the brand, as it gives back to the community and pueblos that are the very source for its products.”
The Game Changer for Mezcal Haters
“Fidencio Unico Joven Mezcal. It uses a modern process of cooking the agave, and it’s a lot lighter in the smoky flavor profile. It’s easier to approach, for an average consumer.”
The One for Cocktails
“My favorite mezcals to enjoy in cocktails are from the Los Amantes Mezcal brand, because they are smooth and approachable.”
The Under-the-Radar Gem He’s Drinking Right Now
“I’m loving Pelotón de la Muerte Vegan Pechuga Mezcal. Find it and thank me later!”
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