The Best Premium Mezcals, According to Professionals
Mezcal is no longer the new spirit on the block, but rather one of the trendiest libations among both drinks enthusiasts and bartenders alike. In 2019, the United States officially surpassed Mexico as the world's biggest mezcal market, with imports increasing by 50%, accounting for 71% of total mezcal exports globally (yeah, we drink a lot of the stuff). With the market for high-end spirits—including top-quality mezcal—having grown 5 to 6% per year by volume between 2019 and 2021, it's evident that the artisanal Mexican spirit will only continue to prosper year over year, with new bottlings set to consistently enter the market for consumers to try.
This acute growth, though, does not come without challenges. Given the financial incentives that the category offers, a vast number of brands have entered the market strictly with money in mind, making mezcal selection not only a matter of sifting through the noise to find those that really are high quality, but also being able to source liquids that are ethically produced as well.
"Mezcal is all about the tradition and the art of the people who make it," says Juan Pablo Loza, Director of Culinary Operations at Rosewood Mayakoba, a property that houses Zapote Bar, a cocktail lounge focused on highlighting Mexican spirits and makers. "The best producers are focused on the ancestral process and technique, without thinking of productivity or the business model."
Noteworthy mezcals are most commonly produced via either the ancestral or artisanal method. In a nutshell, the former is a more analogue way of producing the spirit that maintains centuries-old traditions, such as cooking the agave in an earthen pit oven, hand-milling the piña (agave heart), and so on; the latter allows for some modern technology to be used, such as having the option to cook the piña in a stone oven, as opposed to the pit oven.
In addition to the production methods, there are other factors that determine the quality of a mezcal. One consideration is the type of agave from which the mezcal is made, as ones that take longer to mature—such as the Tepeztate (Agave marmorata) varietal, which takes upwards of 35 years to reach full maturity—will be worth more than others, such as the common espadín, which only requires six to eight years.
The alcohol content is also important to pay attention to. Most premium mezcals are quite potent, with the most interesting expressions having an alcohol content of at least 47%, although the best mezcals generally sit at 50% ABV and upwards. These are just a few of the factors to keep in mind when evaluating different brands and bottles, and the more you taste and read, the more you'll learn and appreciate the novelty of this complex spirit.
For spirits enthusiasts hoping to get a taste of the crème de la crème of mezcals, here are a few bottlings recommended by the bar industry's most knowledgeable professionals.
Mal Bien Alto
Mal Bien is a label that highlights various mezcaleros from villages throughout Mexico. The clean, oily Mal Bien Alto is produced by mezcalero Don Isidro Rodriguez Montoya from Rio de Parras, Michoacán. "This mezcal, made from the Alto varietal, is bright, mineral-driven with notes of slate, and a touch of watermelon-rind sweetness," says Erik Lund, Bar Director at Pretty Dirty. "It's fermented in underground stone pits with a dash of pulque (fermented agave sap) for only 8-10 days before being distilled in wooden stills."
This expression is released in small batches, and is bottled at 46.58% ABV. Because only 244 bottles were produced, it can be a tricky one to source—as is the case with many premium mezcals—but ones on the market typically range from $90 to $150.
—Erik Lund, Bar Director, Pretty Dirty
Real Minero (Barril, Tobalá, or Pechuga)
Real Minero is widely considered to be one of the world's finest Mezcal producers. The brand's expressions of mezcal are so extraordinary that Juan Pablo Loza, Director of Culinary Operations at Rosewood Mayakoba, couldn't help but recommend three of his favorite bottlings from the Real Minero portfolio: Barril, Tobalá, and Pechuga.
The barril takes 14 years to fully mature before being made into a full-bodied mezcal with notes of tropical fruit and vanilla; the pechuga, a style of mezcal produced by having the distilled vapors pass through a raw chicken breast, is made from espadin and has an earthy, mushroomy character to it; while the Tobalá, which took 12 years to fully mature, boasts notes of pepper, vanilla, and sweet citrus flesh. These expressions start at $140 and hit $180 and beyond.
In addition to producing some of the most well-respected mezcals, the brand also has one of the largest and most diverse sustainable agave reforestation programs, which ensures the longevity of the mezcal category for future generations.
—Juan Pablo Loza, Director of Culinary Operations at Rosewood Mayakoba
La Maceta by El Destilado x KOL
If you're partial to tequila, then this mezcal, bottled by London's hottest mezcal bar, KOL Mezcaleria, and produced by El Destilado, is a niche must-have. "Agave Azul, from which La Maceta is made, is the only agave permitted to make tequila," says Matt Varona, Beverage Manager at KOL. "While it's primarily known for being found in Jalisco, the state where tequila is produced, it is also found in other parts of the country. It's found its way to Puebla, where Delfino [Tobón], the maestro mezcalero at El Destilado, has created a bright, fruity mezcal that lends itself to both sipping and mixing." In addition to the fruity character, La Maceta also has a savory grassiness and briny character that works well in a mezcal-based Martini.
Only 225 liters were produced in the batch, making it a great collector's item for mezcal enthusiasts. Even at around $116 per bottle, it's a great deal.
—Matt Varona, Beverage Manager at KOL
Derrumbes San Luis Potosí
The Derrumbes brand is known for producing some of the most compelling and affordable mezcals on the market. Each bottling aims to educate enthusiasts about mezcals from different producers, states, terroirs, and production methods. This expression from the state of San Luis Potosí does that extraordinarily well.
The artisanal mezcal is made from the wild agave Salmiana Crassispina — a varietal with a very low yield, requiring maestro mezcalero J. Manuel Perez to source about four times the amount of agave than would typically be necessary to produce the mezcal. The resulting spirit is one that is exceptional. "It's not smoky at all," says Gabriela Moncada, a UK-based agave-spirits educator. "Depending on the time of the year when the agave is fermented, the flavor from the batch can vary. When the weather is cooler, and the fermentation is longer, the agave leans more into notes of cheese and minerals; while shorter fermentations give the mezcal a more floral character, with notes of elderflower and pepper."
"It takes mezcal out of the box," Moncada adds, "and demonstrates that not all mezcals are smoky, and that there are so many different styles out there." The only hangup is that it's bottled at 43.5% ABV, which is relatively low on the scale of what would be considered a premium mezcal, but its uniqueness puts it into a class above. (Bottles can be purchased starting at $42.)
—Gabriela Moncada, agave spirits educator
Siete Misterios Arroqueño
The maguey Arroqueño (agave Americana), from which this mezcal is made, is one of the oldest and largest agave that can be used for mezcal production in Oaxaca. It is commonly grown wild and cultivated, taking up to 20 years to reach maturity.
The Siete Misterios brand is exciting for enthusiasts because the mezcaleros who make its mezcals change from batch to batch, so one release may taste entirely different from the next batch due to the preferences of the mezcalero who's making the product. Liana Oster, Bar Director at NoMad London, recommends the arroqueño, which happens to be the brand's most popular expression, because of both this novelty and general flavor characteristics associated with it. "This arroqueño is generally bright in flavor with a great body and mouthfeel," Oster says. "Expect some more delicate floral notes and a softer finish. That said, each bottle can taste different as it is made by a different mezcalero, which creates a nuanced range of flavor profiles within their products." This bottling can typically be purchased for approximately $108, but prices will vary.
—Liana Oster, Bar Director, NoMad London
While interviewing an array of bar-industry professionals to gather their top recommendations for premium mezcals, this specific bottling was mentioned by nearly every single one–so if you're going to consider trying any, I'd start here.
The blend of the common espadín with tobasiche yields a balanced mezcal that has both sweetness from the former and an earthy dryness from the latter. The renowned Lalocura brand, led by Eduardo "Lalo" Ángeles, is known for its championing of ancestral mezcal production, with a biodynamic approach to raising and harvesting the agave.
"Lalo shares the ethos of great chefs and bartenders everywhere, that the best way to end up with a quality product is to start with quality ingredients," says Erik Lund, Bar Director of Pretty Dirty. "The complexity and mouthfeel of this mezcal are immediate and unlike most other mezcals I've had. It is made in a super-small batch distillation in 80-liter clay pots, only further adding to its allure." If you can source a bottle, it typically goes for somewhere between $140 and $150, but given its rarity, that price could easily be inflated.
—Erik Lund, Bar Director, Pretty Dirty / Juan Pablo Loza, Director of Culinary Operations at Rosewood Mayakoba / Matt Varona, Beverage Manager at KOL
Mezcal Vago Elote (Espadín)
Mezcal Vago is one of the more popular and well-established mezcal brands on the market, having been around since 2013. They have a team of mezcaleros who produce mezcals for the brand, but this bottling, which is crafted from espadín infused with roasted corn, is made by one of the founders, Aquilino Garcia Lopez.
Liana Oster, of the NoMad London, recommends the Vago Elote for agave enthusiasts who have started on their mezcal journey, and are looking to make the leap from entry-level mezcals to expressions that are approachable yet premium in nature. From a flavor and mouthfeel perspective, Oster says that this mezcal has a little more body than you'd expect, and has a richer, nutty aroma. "Tasting it, you get some nice bright green tropical fruit tones as well as the characteristic smoke typically found in mezcal," she says.
The liquid clocks in at 50.6% ABV, and you can purchase a bottle for around $50.
—Liana Oster, Bar Director, NoMad London
Del Maguey Chichicapa
If you're a seasoned imbiber of mezcal, then you've most definitely stumbled across one or two of Del Maguey's iconic green bottles while drinking your way through the category. The award-winning Chichicapa bottling, recommended by the renowned Agostino Perrone of the world's best bar, Connaught Bar, is one of the brand's more recent additions to its vast range of state- and producer-focused mezcals.
Although it's made from the common espadín varietal, the Del Maguey Chichicapa is complex in character. It's light and creamy on the nose, with delicate notes of citrus. On the palate, expect touches of tropical fruits such as guava and mango, with a long, savory finish of smoke and mint chocolate chip.
—Agostino Perrone, Director of Mixology, Connaught Bar
The Lost Explorer Salmiana
This small-batch, artisanal mezcal, produced from sustainably harvested Salmiana agave, is one of the hottest mezcals on the market after winning Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, amongst other noteworthy awards in 2021.
"The Lost Explorer was the most awarded mezcal of 2021, and with good reason," says Deano Moncrieffe, global agave spirits expert and owner of Hacha Agaveria. "The Salmiana is simply outstanding, with notes of green chili, grapefruit, and citrus fruits. If that wasn't enough, the brand's mission to become the most sustainable mezcal in Mexico is just another reason to add this bottle to your collection." At around $190, it doesn't come cheap, but it is a truly elegant expression of Salmiana.
—Deano Moncrieffe, global agave spirits expert, and owner of Hacha Agaveria