- All tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila — and if you're looking for something smokier, earthier, or more tropical, mezcal might be your bet.
- Mezcals are made from a variety of agave plants, so you can get a wide range of flavors, from nutty to floral.
- Even if you don't enjoy sipping tequila straight, our experts recommended trying mezcal neat to experience the full flavor.
- From berries to nuts to chocolate, pair these 12 supreme mezcals from all over Mexico with your meal or dessert to celebrate.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Tequila and mezcal. What's the difference? Quite a bit. Both tequila and mezcal do come from the agave plant, and both are indigenous liquors to Mexico. But the comparison stops there.
To be fair, all tequilas technically are part of the mezcal family. Mezcal is a liquor that is produced from the agave plant, and there are 30 different types of agave from which the beverage can be made. Tequila, however, is only the product of a specific type of agave: Blue Agave. To be considered tequila, the liquor has to be produced in one of five designated states in Mexico, whereas mezcal is produced in nine different states, with the largest production in Oaxaca.
The one thing mezcal newcomers can agree on is that mezcal tastes smokey, which is either what turns them on or off to the beverage. But as you get deeper into the wide, complex word of mezcal, it becomes apparent that there is so much to the flavor than just "smoke."
"The number one thing that I explain to patrons asking about mezcal is to stop looking for a smoke bomb," Amanda Swanson, bar manager at Fine & Rare restaurant told Business Insider. "The best mezcals in the world truly aren't that smokey."
Compared to tequila, she added, mezcal will always be smokier because of the way the agave is cooked. Mezcal is traditionally cooked inside pits in the ground that are lined with lava rocks, wood, and charcoal. It is then distilled in clay.
"I liken it to the comparison of cooking food in a pressure cooker — tequila — versus a barbecue — mezcal. A beautiful mezcal will have a burst of flavors ranging anywhere from earthy or vegetal to tropical fruit and agricole-like cheese funk."And you should definitely sip this neat.
When it comes time to taste mezcal, most experts agree that the best way to really get to know the beverage is to sip it neat.
"My personal recommendation is to drink each mezcal on its own, no nice, no mixers," mezcal expert Ignacio "Nacho" Jimenez said. "Now most mezcal tend to have a higher ABV than your typical spirit, so you will need to start tasting by sipping a little bit of mezcal. We say you kiss the mezcal first. That way you get your palate used to the higher ABV, and then you can begin sipping it."
Jimenez has nearly 20 years of hospitality experience and is one of the country's most established bartenders. He is originally from Mexico and today leads the bar program at Ghost Donkey, an agave spirits bar. The bar was named Imbibe magazine's cocktail bar of the year for 2020.
Alvin Starkman is another mezcal expert. In fact, the majority of his life is dedicated to mezcal. He teaches visitors to Oaxaca about traditional mezcal production, and works with prospective brand owners, photographers, and documentary film makers. He has authored more than 45 articles about mezcal, and an additional 250 articles about Oaxacan life and culture. He is the first Canadian to be certified as a Master Mezcalier by the Asociación Pro-Culture de Mezcal, AC.
We also spoke with Tess Lampert, who is an educator and author on agave spirits. Not only does she teach and write on the subject, she also leads tours to different spirit producing regions in Mexico.
So what are these experts pouring into the glasses? Here are the 12 best mezcal brands they said you need to try, in no particular order.1. NETA Espadin
What's cool about NETA is that they work with small producers from Mihuatlan, Oaxaca, and the southern valley. For this particular Espadin (arguably the most "common" mezcal), they worked with master mezcalero Candido Garcia Cruz, who works with "quiotudo," meaning he cuts each plant before it flowers.
"This leads to better yields and develops a richness of flavor that is not found in less mature agave," said Jimenez. "It has a brassy, bright nose with a hint of fruit and flowers with a gentle touch of smoke."2. Derrumbes Ensamble
The focus of the Derrumbes distillery is to take mezcal drinkers across the many different ranges in Mexico of agaves, terroirs, and production methods. The state of Tamaulipas is just two hours from the Gulf of Mexico and is home to three types of agaves: Funkina, Americana, and Univittata.
"The proximity to the coastal towns provides a high mineralogy in this ensemble, leaving us with a high energy spirit, dry and rich mineral palate with a wood spice finish, hickory, and cinnamon," Jimenez said.3. Real Minero Largo
Real Minero has been producing mezcal for five generations. In fact, they are one of the trailblazers of the industry.
"[Their mescals are] cooked in conical earthen ovens, hand-milled with a mortar and pestle and distilled in clay, you will find roasted," according to Jimenez. "You will find roasted peanuts and coconut on the nose, and roasted green vegetables in the palate."4. Montelobos Tobala
Casa Lumbres, the company behind the Montelobos brand, has been at the forefront of Mexican craft spirits, working with endemic ingredients, like corn and peppers, that show off the cultural heritage of Mexico.
"Montelobos Tobala was born of wild agave seeds, nurtured for more than a decade, and distilled in copper pots," Jimenez said. "The final product leaves us with a nose full of green herbs and agave and a palate of roasted nuts, figs, and banana on the palate, with a mild smoke."5. Lágrimas de Dolores Cenizo
For Lampert, this is her personal house mezcal — and it's easy to see why. She said, "The signature flavors of the maestra mezcalera come through yielding a mezcal that is complex with herbal and earthy notes, and at the same time is creamy and rich. It is perfect to sip on any occasion."6. La Luna Bruto
Made with the Bruto agave, this mezcal is produced in the state of Michoacan. The Bruto agaves grow to a formidable size, but have low sugar content.
"Simply put, this is one of the best mezcals I have ever tasted," said Lampert. It's big and robust and somehow still goes down so easy, with an endless finish. I absolutely crave it."7. La Medida Tepeztate
Lampert told us that this mezcal is a "characteristically fruity and floral variety," similar to a pinot noir in the wine world: "This is an expertly crafted version from a brand that has deep roots in Oaxaca. This paired with dark chocolate is good enough to be a last meal."8. Dona Vega
Starkman prefers agave from the Dona Vega brand, specifically for the taste in their mezcals, as well as the way their products taste: "For me, the juice is one factor, but just as important are the personalities of the brand owners in terms of treating their palenqueros fairly, not squeezing them to get the cheapest price, but rather paying a fair price per liter. 'Fair trade' in the mezcal business is in its infancy, so we must do our own due diligence to investigate."9. Bozal Saccotoro
According to Swanson, Bozal Saccotoro is her newest obsession. "It just has a lot of character," she said. "Saccatoro is a very close relative to Espadin, so its flavors are familiar yet also new and exciting."10. Del Maguey Jabali
"Del Maguey Jabali is my favorite of the very few Jabalis in the American Market," Swanson told us. "I will never not order this if I set it out. Hard to find and reasonably priced, fantastic funky flavor. One of my all-time favorites. Jabali is, in my opinion, the most compelling plant, but that is a follow up conversation."11. Mezcal Vago Madrecuixe
For a completely different flavor profile, Swanson recommends Mezcal Vago Madrecuixe. "[This mezcal] by Emigdio Jardin is one of the fruitiest, funkiest madrecuixes I've had," she said. "Madrecuixe is my favorite profile of agave so the Madrecuixe of any lineup is typically my favorite one, but Mezcal Vago produces the most interesting one for my palate."12. Ilegal Mezcal Joven
Distilled by fourth-generation mezcaleros in the state of Oaxaca, Ilegal Mezcal is all about sustainability and producing 100% natural mezcal. Ilegal Mezcal produces in small batches, hand-corking and hand-labeling each bottle.
Their Joven product is un-aged and full bodied with light smoke and is flexible enough for cocktails, but has enough personality to be sipped on its own. You'll find hints of green apple, fresh citrus, eucalyptus, and red chiltepe peppers.
"A beautiful introduction mezcal, Ilegal Mezcal Joven is wonderful in cocktails," said Freddie Sarkis, chief cocktail officer at Liquor Lab in New York City. "It's lighter on smoke than others, but not absent from it. The company practices a lot of advocacy with a long list of nonprofits and NGOs in the realm of LGBTQ, environmental conservation, immigration, and others.