What's In Your Bottle? How To Choose a Good Mezcal From the Shelf
More than any other spirit, mezcal is the booze of storytelling.
Everyone wants to buy a product with a good story behind it. Hell, that’s the foundation of hipster marketing, and boy does it sell! The trouble is, a good story is easy to buy, and facts are surprisingly flexible.
Mezcal is magic. It’s faith. It’s wisdom passed down over the generations. A mezcalero needs decades of experience to become a true maestro. It’s an ancestral art—not a science learned from a manual produced by chemists and CEOs.
Mezcal is a product of community relations, family traditions, and a thousand unmeasurable variables that science wouldn’t begin to believe in, much less know how to measure.
But I suspect all you want is a drink—a damn good one. And perhaps the assurance that what you’re drinking is doing more good than harm in the world. Unless you’re a total agave geek, you’re not likely to do in–depth research on each bottle staring at you from the liquor store shelf (if you are an agave geek you should definitely subscribe to mezcalists.com). So let us save you a bit of time and give you a quick way to discern.
HOW TO JUDGE A MEZCAL BY ITS LABEL
COLOR & CONTENTS
It’s not a hard and fast rule, but in general: if it’s yellow let it mellow. Most artisanal producers don’t age their mezcals, and most of the industrial mezcals have a reposado or añejo available. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however. If yellow is your thing, do a bit of research (again, the folks at Mezcalistas are a wealth of information). Also, few artisanal brands put anything else in their mezcal (eg, insects). Again, there’s probably an exception or two to this. And, of course, there are certainly people who infuse their mezcal, with things medicinal herbs or fruits. We’ve had one with a giant wasp in it, used in brujeria to cure wicked love spells. But what you do with your bottle after you take it home is your business.
According to Pedro Jimenez, founder of Mezonte and Pare de Sufrir, a fantastic mezcal bar in Guadalajara, a traditional mezcal is 45% abv or higher. That’s 90 proof. There are a lot of brands making a lower abv distillate, presumably to appeal to a broader market. This doesn’t necessarily signify that it wasn’t made by artisanal methods, only that there’s less of a punch. A fair number of companies have chosen to veer from tradition by lowering the abv to appeal to a broader market.
The more information a bottle has about production, the more likely it is respecting the tradition. Does it say the name of the mezcalero? The village? Species? How it was crushed? Where the water was sourced? What type of alembic did they use? How large was the lot? Once again, this isn’t to say that a label without detail is not artisanal, but a label with a lot of detail, in all likelihood, is. Unless, of course, you’re buying it directly from the producer who doesn’t have labels and is selling it to you in a plastic coke bottle. That’s the money right there. Though sometimes it’s schwag. Try before you buy, please.
If you happen to be in Todos Santos this Sunday, March 24th, join us for a screening of Agave: Spirit of a Nation. Film shows at 5pm, followed by a mezcal tasting (including one from the mezcalero featured in the film!) and optional dinner of Noel’s mole. Tickets are on sale at El Refugio Mezcaleria, Tecolote bookstore, or online HERE. Watch the trailer:
DRINK. TRAVEL. DRINK SOME MORE.
None of the above guarantees an ethical brand. Which is why the best way to know how closely a mezcal brand follows tradition is to drink a lot of mezcal, visit a lot of palenques, and drink a lot more mezcal. I highly recommend it. In fact, Noel and I are considering offering mezcal and food tours. Interested? Let us know in the comments, along with what you’d be particularly interested in doing/seeing.