Mezcal is distilled from a variety of agave plants native to Mexico. The allure of mezcal lies in its smoky flavor. Sometimes brands might seem overpowering, and others may have only subtle hints of smoke. This legendary Mexican spirit is typically served neat and is accompanied by slices of sour citrus fruits, ground chili pepper, and a type of fried worm that is ground up and sometimes mixed with salt called sal de gusano. In the United States, mezcal has begun to see use in fancy craft cocktail experiments, like a mezcal mule with ginger beer. Our list of the seven best mezcal labels could be a great resource for those curious about this smoke kissed liquor.
Sure, mezcal is appearing on more cocktail menus and is often proudly displayed in bar libraries, but why? Here is a list of reasons why mezcal liquor is becoming popular in the United States:
- Unique flavor profile: Mezcal is known for its smoky, earthy flavor, which is due to the traditional production process of roasting agave hearts in underground pits. This smoky flavor is often described as being more complex and nuanced than tequila, which is typically made from a single type of agave plant and is cooked above ground in ovens.
- Cultural heritage: Mezcal has a long and rich history in Mexico, dating back to pre-Columbian times. This heritage is appealing to consumers who are interested in authentic and artisanal spirits.
- Craft movement: The rise of the craft spirits movement has led to increased interest in mezcal, as well as other small-batch, artisanal spirits. Consumers are increasingly interested in spirits that are made with traditional methods and that have a unique story to tell.
- Cocktail popularity: Mezcal is being used in a variety of cocktails, which is helping to introduce it to a wider audience. Bartenders are experimenting with mezcal in both classic and modern cocktails, and consumers are enjoying the smoky flavor it adds to their drinks.
- Health and wellness: Mezcal is often perceived as being a healthier spirit than tequila, as it is typically made with lower levels of additives and artificial sweeteners. Consumers are increasingly interested in spirits that are perceived as being healthier and more natural.
Whether curious about this mythic liquor, or an expert seeking the best expressions, our list of the seven best mezcal labels could help readers discover a new favorite. Served neat, on the rocks, or as part of a cocktail, our trusted sources considered the flavor and craft that goes into each bottle. Let us know your favorite mezcal brands in the comments below!
The List: Best Mezcal, According to Connoisseurs
Montelobos is one of the most celebrated mezcal labels with several top-rated expressions including Tobalá [dry mountain agave] and Ensamble [two or more agave types]. However, their Espadín joven [young agave with sword-like leaves] is singled out as a favorite amongst our sources. Tasting Table raves, “The brand grows 100% organic Espadín… The resulting product is the Espadín, a fantastic entry-level mezcal with balanced notes of freshly-cut grass, honey, and citrus on the nose as well as cooked and green agave on the palate.”
Uproxx praises, “Montelobos’ Espadin Joven utilizes organic agave that is roasted underground, milled with a single stone tahona, and small batch distilled in copper heated by firewood at Palenque Montelobos. The bottle design is stealthy and moody in a blackened glass bottle with a sleek wolf-adorned label.”
Liquor.com exclaims, “The tastes of both green and cooked agave mingle with the smoke from the roasting pit, and all those flavors create a profile that tells the story of mezcal in every sip. In other words, it educates a newbie’s palate without blowing them away with smokiness.”
2. Rey Campero
Rey Campero is the proudly produced spirit from Candelaria Yegolé. It is a well-recognized brand that is preferred by many mezcal aficionados. Tasting Table says, “Rey Campero produces single-agave expressions, like an intense Tepextate and an earthy mineral Cuishe as well as other unique labels. Its Elixir Frutal is ideal for the holidays, as it is distilled with fruits like plums and guava that are part of a traditional Mexican Christmas punch.”
Men’s Journal describes, “In Spanish, Rey Campero means ‘king of the countryside.’ Aptly named, this Joven mezcal made with wild Tepextate agave is a singular brew of flavors including roasted peppers, oaky wood, cinnamon sugar, and ripe fruit. The finish is dry, warming, and lightly smoky.”
Alcohol Professor elaborates, “We couldn’t decide which expression we liked best from this highly regarded brand. Produced by the Sanchez family, who have been making mezcal in Candelaria Yegolé in the foothills of Oaxacan Sierra for four generations. They grow more than 10 agave species.”
Del Maguey produces mezcal from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Mexico. They began retail in 1995 and have gone on to become one of the world’s most recognized labels. Business Insider comments, “The Chichicapa from Del Maguey is one of the most well-known and popular mezcals outside of Mexico. This espadín mezcal is nuanced and sweet with citrus notes and just a hint of smoke.”
Forbes adds, “That first sip will clear your palate; the second will introduce your palate to the complexities of the spirit; the third will be your first ‘actual’ taste of the spirit, now that your palate has been initiated… Once you’ve fallen in love with the mezcals from your cocktails, expand to crowd-pleasers like… Del Maguey’s Chichicapa.”
Food & Wine details, “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.”
This respected label experiments with barrels and aging methods for their highly lauded expressions. They utilize a common agave variety to produce an uncommonly detailed blend. Business Insider offers praise as well as a critique for the Gracias a Dios Espadin, “This Oaxacan mezcal made purely from espadín agave has a strong, ethanol-forward scent, but tastes like sweet, cooked agave with a dash of spice.”
Robb Report explains, “Fermented in pinewood tanks for up to 15 days then aged for two months in a combination of new and once-used American oak barrels, the vegetal flavor has underlying hints of chocolate and curry, resulting in an extremely smooth sipping mezcal.”
Liquor.com states, “‘The people who make Gracias a Dios are proud and passionate. Everything they do is for their people and land,’ says Nelson Lemus, bartender at Brooklyn’s Aura Cocina. Created by fourth-generation distiller Oscar Hernández Santiago, this mezcal, says Lemus, ‘is a fantastic way to discover the spirit’s typical earthy and smoky nuances.'”
Ilegal Mezcal is produced by fourth-generation maestros, but only began retail bottling in 2005. Their añejo or “vintage” expression is more powerfully flavored than some of the other entries on our list. Rolling Stone claims, “Looking to sample an aged mezcal? Go for this Ilegal Añejo. And if you’re curious about the brand’s name, there’s a good story. The founder of Ilegal, John Rexer, used to smuggle mezcal from Mexico to his Bar, Café No Sé, in Antigua. After realizing how good the stuff was, Rexer went legit with the foundation of Ilegal in 2006.”
Tasting Table relates, “Ilegal works with fourth-generation maestros mezcaleros in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, who harvest 100% Espadín agave… and the distilled spirit can go straight to the bottle to become Ilegal Joven (with eucalyptus and mineral aromas, excellent for cocktails), or it can be aged in barrels to create Ilegal Reposado or Añejo.”
Alcohol Professor reviews, “Each lot of Ilegal Mezcal Añejo is aged to taste for 13 months, using a combination of new and used American oak, medium char barrels. Softer than the reposado, the añejo is rounded, full, and rich, with maple, clove, and dark chocolate notes, with a hint of orange.”
Bozal is unafraid to present more unusual expressions of mezcal, including pechuga: which is an expression typically made with breast of poultry like turkey or quail along with aromatics in the still to add soup-like richness of flavor and aroma. They also produce a vegan-friendly expression. According to Tasting Table, “Bozal’s expressions include single-agave mezcals like a smoky Cenizo, a sweet Cuishe, and a peppery, mineral Tepeztate, as well as an ensamble (blend of Espadín, Barril, and Mexicano). Bozal also produces a unique line called Sacrificio, featuring mezcals infused with ingredients like Ibérico ham and lamb during the final distillation process.”
Robb Report provides some additional detail about a meatless Guías de Calabaza Sacrificio blend, “During the second distillation of this double copper pot distilled mezcal, pumpkin stems, in addition to local seasonal fruits and grains, are suspended inside the still in a basket. This locally harvested produce often includes pineapples, plantains and oranges, along with pumpkin seeds and chepiche, an aromatic Mexican herb commonly used for seasoning.”
Rolling Stone evaluates the ensamble label, “If you’re new to mezcal, this Bozal Ensamble is a great introduction. It’s made using three types of agaves, creating a unique complexity and approachability. The first agave is Espadín (the typical mezcal agave), but it’s supported by Barril agave for citrus and floral notes, as well as Mexicano agave for earthiness.”
For a truly legendary experience, just look for the label displaying the flying warthog with antlers! This young label is less than 10 years old, but their product is well-reviewed. Rolling Stone compliments, “Inspired by adventure travel, sustainability and a focus on mezcal’s Oaxacan roots, every bottle of The Lost Explorer is produced in very small batches and sold in hand-labeled bottles made from recycled crystal. Flavor-wise, the mezcal is at once sweet and smokey, and incredibly aromatic to sip.”
Tasting Table assures, “While the brand might be relatively new to the landscape, it sure has made waves, winning plenty of awards in 2021, including Double Gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Silver (with 91 points) in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. In fact, it was the most awarded mezcal of 2021.””
Alcohol Professor articulates, “The Lost Explorer’s maestro mescalero is Don Fortino Ramos, who has dedicated himself to mastering the art of distilling mezcal for the past 40 years. The palenque, located in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales, lets their organically grown agaves reach eight to 12 years of maturity, with each one personally selected by Ramos. To promote biodiversity, they plant three new wild agaves for every one they hand-harvest.”
The Mezcal Journey: How It’s Made
- Harvesting the agave: Agave plants mature over 7-25 years, depending on the varietal. Harvesting involves carefully removing the spiky leaves, leaving the heart (piña) intact.
- Cooking the piña: The heart is traditionally cooked underground in a pit lined with volcanic rock and burning wood. This process takes several days and imparts smoky flavors to the mezcal.
- Crushing the piña: The cooked piñas are crushed to extract the sweet juices. This can be done with a traditional stone mill (tahona) or a mechanical crusher.
- Fermentation: The crushed piñas are mixed with water and wild yeasts and allowed to ferment for several days. During this process, the sugars are converted into alcohol.
- First distillation: The fermented liquid is distilled once in a clay pot still. This produces a cloudy liquid called “ordinario” with an alcohol content of around 30 to 40 percent.
- Second distillation: The “ordinario” is distilled again in a copper pot still. This second distillation produces the final mezcal, which has an alcohol content of 40-55%.
- Resting and aging: Some mezcals are rested in stainless steel tanks or wooden barrels for a period of time,while others are bottled immediately. Aging imparts additional complexity to the flavor.
- Bottling and labeling: The finished mezcal is bottled and labeled according to its type and age. It’s then ready to be enjoyed!
You might also be interested in:
- Tasting Table
- Men’s Journal
- Alcohol Professor
- Business Insider
- Food & Wine
- Robb Report
- Rolling Stone
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.