The Beginner's Guide To Mezcal

July 28, 2017

Produced in Mexico for centuries but little known elsewhere until recently, mezcal has captured the imagination of spirits enthusiasts with its astonishing complexities. But with so many varieties and flavors, mezcal can be an intimidating spirit to pick up. In her first book, Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World's Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, author Emma Janzen writes a primer on all things mezcal. Below is her guide to getting started in mezcal written specifically for Food52.

In the seven years I’ve spent getting to know mezcal, one of the most compelling things I’ve discovered about the spirit is its unpredictability. When made in a traditional and artisanal manner, mezcal boasts a crazy sense of terroir. Every batch tastes different depending on the kind of agave, where the plants were grown, how it was processed, and how the maestro mezcalero chose to ferment and distill it. For this reason, finding the best mezcal isn't about knowing what to expect when you order a pour. It's about discovering something beautiful and unexpected every time. A liquid adventure, if you will.

On the flip side, because mezcal includes so many different flavors and personalities, it can be intimidating to pour a glass without some direction. Here are a few concrete tips to help you get started to finding a mezcal you’ll love.

Trust your bartender. 

I've written an entire book on mezcal, and when I go to my neighborhood agave bar I still often ask for recommendations. Not because I don’t know what I like to drink, but because barkeeps working in places like Pastry War in Houston, Espita Mezcaleria in Washington DC, and Quiote in Chicago taste ten times the amount of mezcal than I do in an average week. They know what’s new and interesting and often have exclusive access to bottles. Start by asking for a flight so you can try several varieties side-by-side. This is a quick way to realize the diversity the spirit has to offer.

Think beyond the smoke.

I get bummed out when people say they don't like mezcal because it’s too smoky. It reveals an underlying assumption that all mezcal tastes identical. That notion couldn't be further from the truth. Smoke is inherently present in mezcal due to the production process, but levels vary among brands and batches. Mezcal also has a wide range of other characteristics. Depending on the bottle, you might find one that's deeply savory with chocolate and roasted sweet potato notes, one that's bone dry and mineral-driven, or another that's verdant and lively with tropical fruit and honeysuckle. Try looking for flavors of citrus, fresh-cut grass, green peppercorn, banana, mango, squash, toffee or walnut.

Set the stage.

As romantic as the jícara (a hollowed-out gourd) and copita (a shallow clay glass) look and feel as drinking vessels, more often than not I reach for a snifter or wine glass when tasting. The glass doesn't interfere with the aromas or flavor. Also, while orange slice and worm salt are traditional accouterments (and let’s be real—they’re also great snacks and make tastings more fun), they are by no means mandatory. Mezcal bars around America are experimenting with all sorts of seasonal fruits and salts to accompany your mezcal, so don’t be afraid to play with your setup.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Like a fine wine or vintage Cognac, you want to take time to get to know mezcal instead of throwing it down your gullet and moving on to the next shot. Also, mezcal is quite a high proof, so shots will put you under the table quicker than you can say Dixeebe! More importantly, I find my palate tends to warm up to the nuances of a new mezcal after a few sips. So take it slow and don't just write off a pour on first introduction.

Still overwhelmed?

Companies like Rey Campero, Real Minero, Mezcal Vago, El Jolgorio, Wahaka, and Del Maguey are all great places to start. These brands make mezcal in a ways widely respected within the industry, with collections that span a large number of agave varieties. I’d recommend any of the styles from these brands because they’re all memorable in their own unique ways.

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Digital Editor at Imbibe Magazine and author of "Mezcal."