Everything You Need to Know About Tequila’s Cooler Cousin, Mezcal

Away with you, limes

Bartenders have been sneaking mezcal into margaritas for years, but it wasn’t until recently that artisanal bottlings began to find their way across the border. There’s no better time to appreciate tequila’s rustic sibling for the complex sipper it is—no mixers required.

“The coolest thing about mezcal is that it’s similar to wine,” explains Justin Dano of downtown bar Las Perlas. “You can taste one from San Luis del Rio and San Baltazar Chichicapam and they’ll be totally unique, even if they’re from the same agave.”

Historically all spirits made from agave cactus were referred to as mezcal (even tequila, before it was regulated as its own category), but Mexican law now dictates “mezcal” can be produced only in nine states. Agave hearts, or piñas, are pit-roasted before fermentation, which imparts the spirit’s signature smoky kiss. Other flavors—determined by agave type, terroir, and producer—range from roasted yam and banana to bell pepper and green olive.

Photograph by Dylan + Jeni

Tasting Tips

1. Sip don’t shoot. In Mexico they say that mezcal is meant to be kissed.

2. Pour a drop of mezcal between your hands and rub. As the alcohol evaporates, you’ll be able to smell the aroma of the roasted agave.

3. Limes are for tequila. Mezcal is often paired with orange wedges and sal de gusano, a blend of salt, chiles, and (don’t panic) dried agave worms. Dip the orange in the spicy salt, and eat between sips to cleanse the palate.

How to Read a Label

To understand what’s in the bottle, you have to understand what’s printed on it. Pablo Moix, who oversees the beverage program at intimate Venice bar Old Lightning, offers tips on what to look for:

1. Proof. While most tequilas are around 80 proof, mezcals vary wildly, with some jumping as high as 110 proof. Keep it under 95 your first go-round to get acquainted.

2. Agave. Espadín, tobalá, tepeztate, cupreata —about 30 species of agave are used to make mezcal, and just like grape varietals, each has a unique flavor profile.

3. Village. Terroir is as important in Oaxaca as it is Napa Valley. Del Maguey, known for its iconic green bottles, was among the first brands to call out villages like San Luis del Rio and Santa Catarina Minas on its labels. Now it’s a growing practice.

4. Still Type. Whether mezcal is distilled in copper or traditional clay pots has a big impact on flavor. Copper-distilled expressions are smoother; clay ones taste earthier.

Where to Stock Up

1. Ramirez Beverage Center

Boyle Heights

2. K&L


Where to Drink

1. Old Lightning


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2. Las Perlas


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3. Guelaguetza


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4. Broken Spanish


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