Since it comes in a gigantic number of varieties, you might feel unsure about how to order a mezcal. Let’s first simplify the various ways mezcal can be classified.
Ordering mezcal by agave variety
We’ve previously addressed how, unlike tequila, mezcal is made from 30 to 50 different varieties of agave. Yet about 85% of mezcal is produced from only one specific type: the Espadín. Why? The Espadín agave only takes from 6 to 8 years to mature, unlike others, which require 10, 15, 20 years – or even longer.`The Espadín contains plenty of sugar too, requiring less agave to make one liter than many other varieties.
So without burying you under an enormous pile of agave flavor profiles, why don’t we just identify some that will provide a good range of differing characteristics?
Sometimes called the King of Agaves, the Tobalá renders a mezcal that is found especially elegant by many, with a light, mildly sweet, floral flavor.
During a mezcal tasting, a Tepextate is known to widen eyes and turn heads. To me, it features a green, herbal flavor, with some describing it as a melange of freshly cut sweet and spicy peppers.
For me, a good Madrecuixe is mineral with a nice sweetness, but most of all, earthy! There can be so much complexity that, not unlike other mezcal varieties, just keeps unfolding as both the drink – or the night goes on.
There are so many more that it’s a crime not to describe other varieties, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right?
Ordering mezcal by profile
Another indulgence of mine is cigars. In that world, profile refers to strength of flavor and aroma; so I’ll borrow the term. After years of observation, I’ll assert that most mezcal drinkers are either those who like a softer profile or a full-flavored one.
I could expound as to why we Mezcal Maniacs sometimes think people aren’t, as the Oaxacans recommend, taking mezcal with besitos, or “little kisses.” But I’ll sum it up like this: a spirit stronger in flavor and alcohol is normally best appreciated with smaller sips than usual. Otherwise, it may overwhelm the palate so you’re not able to appreciate it fully.
Some of us figure this out immediately, others take longer and still others aren’t necessarily open to changing their sipping flow rate. It’s all good.
If, like me, you’re enchanted by adventurously full flavors, you might consider one that is at least 47% – or even more than 50% ABV. Those besitos may just expand your mind! Admittedly, some of these biggies can feature a stronger bite, but you’d be surprised: at times a 52% is just as smooth as you please.
If the above didn’t sound appealing, consider one further south of 47%. But if it’s under 42% and you don’t like it, it may not be the agave’s fault. There’s just not enough oomph in the distillation to register a significant flavor experience.
Joven vs. reposado or añejo
A joven (young) mezcal is one that is mostly quite clear, a reposado has rested in a wood barrel for from 2 to 12 months and an añejo for more than a year. I think you’ll find most serious mezcal drinkers are focused on joven. But if, like many, you’ve become accustomed to the mellowed experience provided by many whiskeys and bourbons, give the reposados and añejos a try too.
My opinion is that, with some exceptions, what the wood adds in flavor detracts from all the other things that many of us love about mezcal.
Ordering mezcal: the bottom line
I didn’t mention cocktails here, as it seems to me a mezcal education is better focused on the spirit itself. If you don’t know what it tastes like outside of a cocktail, you’re unlikely to appreciate its contribution when inside one. It’s common to hear you shouldn’t waste a mezcal made from an expensive, wild-harvested agave in a cocktail. But, although I don’t drink them often myself, a mezcal that stands out to you when neat will normally improve a cocktail dramatically.
This article may not end the way you figured. You see, I’m going to suggest that the best way to order a mezcal is to find a mezcal establishment with both a great variety of distillations and an experienced staff that will ultimately know how to guide you.
Sure, you’ve got a primer here. I’ve given you a fairly wide array of agave varieties to consider, you know there can be both soft and full-flavored profiles and you can take a shot at wood-rested options too. But a dynamite bartender can help you plot a course to eventual mezcal ordering confidence.
And how about actually buying a bottle of mezcal? I’ll address that next!
Jonathan Lockwood is an American Voice Talent living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is also a Mezcal Lover, Explorer, and Collector and writes the Mezcal Maniac Substack. Read and subscribe here: https://mezcalmaniac.substack.com.