How to Drink Mezcal Straight and Use It in Cocktails

Here's how to harness the power of this smoky agave spirit.

How to drink Mezcal

Cesar Fernandez Dominguez

While tequila and mezcal are often lumped together when discussing the rise of agave spirits in the United States (the combination topping $6 billion in sales for 2022), mezcal is no longer in tequila’s shadow. Expected to grow 13% this year alone, mezcal is quickly gaining steam – but for consumers looking to switch up their usual tequila-based drinks and venture into mezcal territory, it can be a little overwhelming. 

Different types of mezcal

While tequila only uses Blue Weber agave, there are approximately 50 different types of agave species used for mezcal production. Those different species of agave also spawn unique varieties of mezcal, so it’s easy to get lost in the myriad of names and what they represent. For those just starting out with mezcal, Paul Sauter, the bar director for The Aviary and The Office in Chicago, suggests trying the Espadín variety, which  accounts for the majority of mezcals. “Usually, Espadín mezcals are less smoky and a good transition for fans of tequila,” he explains. 

Other popular varieties of mezcal include Cenizo, Arroqueño, Tobalá, and Tepezate.“Tobalá, which is one of my favorites, grows on the side of mountains in dry, rocky soil,” says Sauter. “But the struggle to grow instills fruity flavors in the variety. Something like Tepezate, another favorite that’s good for seasoned mezcaleros, takes approximately 30 years to mature and you can tell by the flavor.”

Beyond understanding different species and varieties, there are also three different types of production that can impact the spirit’s quality and taste. These three categories are the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal’s (CRM) officially defined methods – Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral. Mezcal uses modern technology for distillation and production, while Mezcal Artesanal is a blend of modern (like using stainless steel for distilling) with traditional methods. Meanwhile, Mezcal Ancestral must adhere to strict rules of traditional processes, like clay pots for distilling and roasting in pit ovens. “Taste is always subjective, but I am a traditionalist,” says Sauter. “I like being able to see the pits and smell the burning, so I love the Mezcal Ancestral.”

How to use mezcal in cocktails

Similar to other spirits in the agave family, mezcal is great when enjoyed on its own. However, it can also be a refreshing addition to your bar cart, to explore alongside spirits and liqueurs already in your rotation. “Sweet and smoky is the most magical combination,” advises Dave Tyda, a co-owner of BARCOA Agaveria in Phoenix. “Swap rum for mezcal in tropical cocktails and the fruity brightness combined with the heavy, bold flavors of some mezcals is a match made in heaven. And, believe it or not, Aperol loves mezcal.”  Sauter leans into the simplicity for his mezcal cocktails, favoring a Oaxacan Old Fashioned. “Mezcals that have more smoke and dirt can be used in complex drinks to highlight the smoke flavor – think of a mezcal Negroni or even a martini.”

Nick Fiorini, also a co-owner for BARCOA Agaveria, believes in the power of trial and error, based on a drinker’s personal taste. “Mezcal is very versatile in its cocktail application. It can stretch out other flavors such as chocolate or earthiness, compliment citrus, or shine through if using a higher-proof. But the good rule of thumb is just because you can use it in a cocktail doesn’t mean you should.”

How to find the best mezcal

The complexity in crafting mezcal can make it feel daunting to choose a bottle at the store or the bar. But according to experts, there are a few things that consumers can do to help narrow down the selection. 

“I always suggest looking for bottles with details on the label,” says Tyda. “The name of the mezcalero, production details, village of origin — that kind of information transparency is key, and the smaller producers are proud of everything about their spirit.” 

Education is key when learning how to find a good mezcal, and Fiorini advises that the best way to discover a good mezcal is to understand the category.  Utilize the “kiss” technique considered by aficionados as the proper way to sip and enjoy your mezcal. Smell it directly under your nose, then at a 45 degree angle, and finally with your mouth open. Kiss the glass to take a small sip, swish and swallow before immediately breathing out. It will train your palate to deal with a higher proof spirit like mezcal and allow you to better enjoy and pick up on the different flavors.

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