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Meet mezcal, tequila’s smoky artisan cousin

Is tequila’s renegade cousin the healthiest alcohol you can drink? Zac de Silva investigates.

Tequila has a monopoly on the agave distillate market: by the end of 2025, it’s expected the drink’s market will be worth US$6.36 billion. But there’s a new sheriff heading into this agave town, and it’s called mezcal. It’s fairly new to the Western world, but mezcal has already become the drink of choice for wellness gurus the world over, and for good reason. Many spirits are packed with added artificial sugars, but mezcal is possibly the purest alcohol out there – regulations in Mexico demand that it’s distilled from 100 per cent pure agave.

Fly an hour south of Mexico City and you’ll arrive in the state of Oaxaca, a stronghold of tradition grating against the capital’s inexorable march forward. Cobblestone-clad streets criss-cross markets and cantinas bustle with as many locals as they do tourists. One of the most compelling reasons to visit this more remote part of Mexico though is for its lively spirits scene: this is the home of mezcal.

This lesser-known tipple is the oldest distilled spirit to come out of the Americas, dating back 400 years to the Spanish conquests. Historians aren’t sure if distilled spirits were made in Mexico prior to the conquests, but they do know that alcoholic drinks were made from agave, or maguey, as it’s known in Mexico. An oft-repeated legend has it that lightning struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it to release its juice. From this came pulque, an alcoholic drink made from the plant’s fermented juice. And from pulque, thanks to the Spanish, came the world’s favourite agave distillate – tequila.

Tequila farm

But there are some key differences between tequila and its quirky cousin. First, strict regulations dictate that tequila must be made in the state of Jalisco, while most mezcals are made in Oaxaca. Second, the agave used. Tequila can only be made with blue agave, while Mezcal can be made from some 30 different types of agave (which means that, technically, tequila is just a type of mezcal). And finally, the way it’s made. Tequila agaves are steam cooked, while with mezcal, they’re roasted in underground pits.

All of these subtle changes add up to a very different kind of drink. “When tasting mezcal the first note that should hit your palate is cooked agave,” says Taryn Olsen, VP of Marketing at El Silencio Mezcal. “This has a beautiful flavour almost reminiscent of sweet potato. After that you should get all of the secondary natural flavours: fig, grass, peppers and roasted vegetables. Lastly, a hint of smoke.”

Mezcal seems to have maintained its small-producer spirit, too. Rande Gerber, co-founder (along with George Clooney and Mike Meldman) of Casamigos Tequila and Mezcal says that “the artisanal process made the most sense for our brand because the family has used this over four generations and we didn’t want to change a thing. Why screw with perfection or tradition?”

Because of this small-producer spirit, there’s a wealth of options available. Much like fine wine, where the agave is grown has a powerful impact on the final flavour. Brands like El Silencio, Del Maguey, Alipús and Montelobos are renowned for heroing local producers, and each has its own quirks: because most are handmade in small quantities, you’ll often find flavour variations even between batches from the same distillery.

And the best way to drink your newly acquired bottle? The traditional way is to have it neat. “We often say that mezcal is meant to be kissed, never as a shooter”, says Olsen. But nearly any classic cocktail will go well with mezcal as the base spirit. Between the mezcal margarita, the mezcal mule and the mezcal mary, there are plenty of ways to explore this spirit’s smoky flavours.

Tasting notes

Mezcal

Mezcal Clase Azul
RRP $550

This mezcal’s handcrafted-in-Mexico ceramic bottle should be reason enough for it to sit at the front of your liquor cabinet. Expect a subtle smokiness and notes of vanilla and caramel.

Herradura Selección Suprema

Herradura Selección Suprema
RRP $655

For an excellent example of extra-añejo tequila (aged more than three years in barrels), look no further than Herradura’s Selección Suprema. This golden elixir offers up a complex flavour, closer to cognac than tequila.

Del Maguey Tobala Single Village Mezcal

Del Maguey Tobala Single Village Mezcal
RRP$89.96 at Dan Murphy’s

Del Maguey was a pioneer of the single-village mezcal trend, and this unique tipple represents the best the brand has to offer. Look out for the fruity punch that comes from the tobala, a smaller and much rarer form of agave.

Casamigos Añejo Tequila

Casamigos Añejo Tequila
RRP $89.99

Fine-tuned over 700 sample bottles, George Clooney’s tequila brand is something to be admired. It has a smooth, smoky flavour, with hints of spice and caramel.

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Lead image courtesy of Casamigos Tequila