Written off as tequila’s smoky brother, mezcal is a lot more than just something for Scotch drinkers to enjoy when in a Mexican restaurant. “Every mezcal will influence your mood in a different way. They have these different energies,” says Lucas Ranzuglia, the bar manager at San Francisco’s forthcoming La Urbana. “It sounds like B.S., but it’s true.”
When the restaurant and mezcaleria opens August 28, it will feature 46 mezcals—Ranzuglia hopes to eventually carry 80 different bottles—and a tasting room for mezcal classes. “When it comes to mezcal, you have huge differences because it is being produced all over Mexico,” Ranzuglia says. “The character of the mezcal comes from three factors: terroir (the soil and weather conditions of the land where the agave is grown), the type of agave plant, and the local knowledge and traditions that were passed from generation to generation.”
Here, Ranzuglia’s top five mezcals to try:
El Jolgorio ($100)
“The Cortes family has been making mezcal for six generations. Uncles, parents, all of them are involved. Each mezcal comes from a different family member. You pick one up and you can read who made it.” Many of the mezcals are made from wild-harvested agave grown in Oaxaca and are double distilled in copper pots for an incredibly clean flavor with lots of ripe fruit.
“They have three different styles: one from Guerrero, one from Oaxaca and one from Durango. All three are fabulous and they are all organic.” Ranzuglia particularly likes the nauyaca (a white, young mezcal) from Guerrero (look for the orange label). “It’s a very complex, rich mezcal with some fruit—but it’s still peppery and has a lot of depth.”
Marca Negra ($116)
“It’s fabulous,” Ranzuglia says of this producer’s mezcal made from tobala, a type of agave plant that grows at very high altitudes underneath oak trees. “The tobala tends to give you slightly more fruit,” he says. “It’s made by the Nolasco family. Their palenque (mezcal production facility), which they inherited from their grandfather, is just 30 feet away from the river, where you have a microclimate. The people that used to live there planted tropical fruit trees there like chayote. All those tropical fruit aromas make it into the fermentation because it’s being done in open tanks.”
“This mezcal is what people have in mind for mezcal: spicy, peppery, a little burn, dry smoke—that is the Alipús characteristic throughout the entire line. Alipús is based in Mexico City but use mezcaleros from San Baltazar Guelavila and San Andrés and San Juan del Rio.” Ranzuglia’s favorite is the purple-labeled San Baltazar Guelavila.
Tosba Pechuga ($70)
Seeing a worm in a bottle of mezcal is accepted, but that’s not the only protein used in mezcal production. Pechugas are mezcals that are distilled with a chicken breast or, in the case of Tosba, a turkey breast. After the agave is mascerated and fermented, the liquid taken from that mix is distilled with a raw chicken or turkey breast along with fruits hanging in a basket in the still. As the vapors rise to the top, they take with them the flavor of the poultry. “There’s good balance between the complexity of the mezcal and the light notes from the fruits,” Ranzuglia says. “And then you have this third layer of flavor from the turkey breast—a dry meatiness.”