Mezcal comes in many styles, but most people have only tried those made from espadín agave. Oli Dodd asks five experts to suggest some sippers that might open up your agave options.
In 10 years, mezcal has transitioned from a holiday souvenir with a worm floating in it to a serious back bar necessity.
The growth of the category reflects that, according to the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal, with 14 million litres distilled in palenques in 2022 – almost double the production of 2021 and light years away from a decade ago when the category was stuck on one million litres.
Consumption is up, but we’re really only getting part of the picture. Legally, nine states in Mexico can distil agave and call it mezcal, but about 90% of all mezcal is produced in just one, Oaxaca.
Likewise, more than 40 species of agave are permissible but 81% of mezcals produced last year were made using a single variety, espadín, and that figure rises to 88% when espadín blends are included. It makes sense. Oaxaca is one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions, home to hundreds of species of native agave, so naturally mezcal has been produced there for hundreds of years.
And agaves can take decades to reach maturity, so the use of a fast-growing and reliable variety such as espadín, which takes six to eight years to mature, is commercially understandable.
But those two truths don’t work together, and the result is that once richly biodiverse areas of forest and high desert are rapidly moving towards monocultural pastures of espadín, harvested before reaching reproductive maturity, increasingly susceptible to disease while decreasing the quality of the soil and nectar for ecologically important pollinators such as bats. But it’s not just a shame environmentally, it’s boring.
It’s reasonable to assume that, unless actively seeking it out, most drinkers in the UK might have only ever tasted mezcal produced using espadín agave from Oaxaca.
That betrays a richly diverse category, full of liquids with complexity and variety. It is not just smoky tequila. So, we got some recommendations for mezcals outside of the Oaxacan espadín standard from the people who know the category best.
1 GINA BARBACHANO, HANKY PANKY, MEXICO CITY
There are a few brands that I really love from Michoacán, my hometown. It’s very expensive to get all the permits to export and most small companies can’t produce enough mezcal to deliver the expectation from the distributors. Brands like Derrumbes are really good. They curate a collection of their favourite products from different states and allow little brands to export who wouldn’t otherwise be able to. I like the Derrumbes Michoacán, which is made from cupreata. It has these lactic and herbal notes and it’s a little more mineral with a natural sweetness. Some mezcals from Michoacán are buried in big glass carboys and left a few months, it increases the lactic notes and gives them a cheese flavour.
2 CLAUDIA CABRERA, KAITO, MEXICO CITY
I’m deeply passionate about Erick Rodríguez’s mezcal brand, Pal’alma. He works with one single producer per state and it has been like this since day one. I met Erick 15 years ago and he was the one who taught me everything about mezcal – he shared his passion and love not only for the category but for the land and the people working behind every bottle. He not only has amazing products but also he takes care of those who are making the real magic. The Pal’alma Guerrero, made from cupreata agave (also called maguey papalote), is a small batch from a single mezcalero called Artemio Garcia. It has a lactic profile with minty notes, a hint of bell peppers and fresh leather, but the flavours found in all of his bottles are just mindblowing.
» Pal'alma mezcals are available through Hedonism Wines
3 ROBYN EVANS, FORMERLY OF HACHA, LONDON
Derrumbes Zacatecas is made in the state of Zacatecas from blue weber agave, which are typically used in tequila production. It’s super smooth and nice for neat sipping or mixing. It has bright citrus flavours without being overly smoky, with some solid white pepper and mint – it’s not crazy expensive either. The greener notes in this mezcal are reminiscent of a tequila, so it could definitely be a good entry level – the flavours aren’t overly powerful, and the smokiness isn’t too intense.
4 TITO PIN-PEREZ, RAYO, MEXICO CITY
Mezcal de Leyendas Durango
Cenizos differ in profiles, from herbal and earthy to very fruity and citrus forward – I prefer herbal and earthy. Durango is just covered in cenizo agave. The region is perfect for this variety because of its extreme heat and dryness. Because of these conditions the agaves are put under stress and this produces the best mezcal. You get mineral and earthy flavours from cenizo grown in hotter, flatter areas and a fruity, herbal profile from cenizo grown at higher elevation where other types of vegetation are growing as well.
5 MATTHIAS INGELMANN, KOL MEZCALERIA, LONDON
El Destilado Pichomel
Maguey pichomel, also called marmorata agave, are from the same family as the more common tepextate, but a bit smaller. They take less time to reach maturity but the flavour is unbelievable. Ones from Puebla have a mix of tropical fruits with a lactic funkiness. A bit cheesy, slightly smoky, super-tasty. El Destilado has one that’s great and Leyenda has one too.