Mezcal’s Moment

The mezcal-based Smokin' Word.

The mezcal-based Smokin’ Word.

Until recently in the agave-based spirit world, mezcal’s had a reputation as the rustic, rough-and-tumble cousin of the more sophisticated tequila (that worm in the bottom of some bottles didn’t help). But maybe we were drinking the wrong mezcals. More and more of the bottles making their way north of the Mexican border are polished up and refined, products of generations’ worth of proud distilling. They’re smoky, because the agave for mezcal is roasted in a stone-lined pit. But that can be a clever mixologist’s secret weapon.

Trader Joe’s Authentic Oaxacan Mezcal, $20 (not available in all stores):

Minimal smoke and toast—this one tastes more like an anejo tequila. Think of it as a starter mezcal. Very smooth, it belies the rough-and-tumble reputation of the spirit.

Monte Alban Mezcal, $26:

A little smokier than Trader Joe’s, with a lovely aromatic nose mixing fruit and smoke with an herbal edge. This is a pretty mezcal, with intriguing nuances.

Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, $36:

Your classic, deeply smoky mezcal, this is for hard-core fans. If you like peaty scotch, you’ll love this one. It’s more challenging to combine in a good cocktail—this level of smoke is a tough thing to pair, especially with sweet elements. But when you nail it, the cocktail is wonderful.


A great cocktail to showcase a smokier mezcal is a spin on the gin-based Spoken Word: Mix equal parts lime juice, Chartreuse, Luxardo (a Maraschino liqueur), and mezcal and shake with ice, then strain into a glass.

Find 19 more Latin-inspired cocktails here.

COMMENTS

  1. Vikki

    Have any of you tried Wahaka mescal? Had some at a mescal tasting a few weeks ago and fell in love with it. They’re calling it an artisan mescal. I love it but I’m trying to find a restaurant that’s pouring it before I buy a bottle at $100 a pop.

    May 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm
    • mark huebner

      1) Check their web site: retailers and restaurants (and wholesale distributors) are listed for the few states Wahaka is available. 2) All mezcal of interest should be “artisan.” 3) There is good, authentic mezcal in the $40-$50 range (normally Espadin) and when the agave selections become wild or semi-wild plants (Wahaka uses Tobala and Madre Cuishe as well as the predictable workhorse Espadin) the price will edge closer to $80 or more…a small price for liquid art. Sadly, Wahaka dumps a worm (gusano) into their reposado (rested in wood barrels) which is purely a turista embellishment, not meant for serious juice. Also, Wahaka claims to be 80 proof, which is a safe portal to the darker netherworlds awaiting…the better examples are in the mid to high 90s.

      May 27, 2013 at 11:33 am
  2. John McEvoy

    Mark Hueber’s are spot on. C’mon do a bit of research before you put up a post! You picked 2 of the worst 3 brands anyone can come up with. Vida is fine for cocktails but Del Maguey has many other fine versions. There are 30+ premium mezcal brands on the market. These are the brands that you will find in cool cocktail bars and high end restaurants around the country. Brands such as Ilegal, Fidencio, Los Nahaules, Siete Misterios, Mezcalero, and many more. This spirit is on a permanent rise because it is elegant, edgy, sophisticated, and historically significant. But try one of these good ones to understand why mezcal is growing steadily in popularity.

    May 20, 2013 at 7:34 am
  3. Nicole

    Exactly where in Trader Joe’s can you buy liquor? I can’t find it on their website or the stores…

    May 15, 2013 at 9:00 am
    • Aislyn Greene

      Hi Nicole,

      We’re based in California, which means liquor can be sold at the grocery store, but realize many states forbid that. We’ve updated our post, sorry for the confusion!

      Thanks,
      Aislyn, assistant editor

      May 16, 2013 at 3:59 pm
      • Nicole

        Thanks for clarifying, Aislyn. I guess that’s another reason to head westward!

        May 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm
  4. mark huebner

    Normally I enjoy the informative, well written articles in Sunset. This is the first time I have run across a topic that demands a touch more investigation. Frankly, as a long time collector of whatever mezcals I’ve been able to round up (including visits to Oaxaca) since the mid-80s, I have to suggest this is simply a lame attempt to catch ahold of the shirt tails of a new trend in the spirit world to milk out a teaser. Monte Alban Mezcal is considered an embarrassment in Oaxaca and it probably hasn’t been cooked in a fire pit in the traditional manner for decades. It is not 100% agave. It has been colored. You wouldn’t suggest Pepe Lopez as one of your three tequilas to investigate to a newcomer, would you? True mezcal does not have a worm in it; that is tourist plonk. And the Del Maguey selection, Vida, is hardly a choice for “hard core” mezcal aficionados (but it is good suggestion of where to start, however, and not a Trader Joe’s item that is probably not available at most TJs across the country.) Your article sadly reduces this mystical, artisanal, historic and fiercely terroir referenced elixir to just another zany ingredient for tragically hip cocktails. I understand the piece was meant to be a quickie, but it is a disservice to such a compelling topic.
    Also, Luxardo is a brand name and makes many lovely liquers and liquors, not limited to maraschino.

    May 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm

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