A Semiserious Guide To Mezcal Cocktails

A Semiserious Guide To Mezcal Cocktails

In 2020, mezcal sales increased by 600 percent on the drink delivery app, Drizly. Considering we spent even some of that year watching Tiger King, it’s no shock that the alcohol-delivery market boomed, but now, over three years later, mezcal’s growth continues. Step into any bar and you’ll find specialty mezcal cocktails, multiple top-shelf options, and even entire menus focused around agave. As an industry, mezcal is expected to maintain growth, with forecasts that it will be worth over $2 billion by 2030. That is to say, if you’ve yet to dabble in mezcal—a smokey, agave-based spirit native to Mexico—odds are, you will soon.

This is a good thing, of course. Mezcal is delicious. Good on its own (preferably on the rocks with an orange slice) or mixed into a cocktail, it’s a versatile spirit worth embracing. If you’re new to mezcal, don’t worry. Below, you’ll find a somewhat serious glossary that will—at the bare minimum—allow you to be a contributing (and hopefully enjoyable) member of most mezcal conversations.

Before we get there, it’s worth stating that I am, by no means, a mezcal expert. There are people who have devoted their entire lives to making and studying this beautiful spirit. If you’re at all interested in learning about mezcal beyond a conversational depth, I encourage you to read the work of Misty Kaklofen, David Suro-Piñera (founder of Siembra Spirits), and Gary Nabhan. A collection of professionals and historians, those three are a good foundation to a more complete, deeply rooted mezcal education.

Agave: The plant from which mezcal is made. A perennial succulent native to the Americas, agave is a big boy herb (sometimes growing 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and weighing over 100 pounds at harvest) with over 250 different, known varieties. Mezcal comes from the part of the agave known as the piña—a pineapple-looking core that sits underneath the plant’s long reaching, often prickly leaves. In very oversimplified terms, the process of transforming piña to spirit goes as follows: roast the piña for a few days, crush and mash it to release its juice, ferment the juice, distill it, done.

Appellation Of Origin: For an agave spirit to technically qualify as mezcal, it must be produced in one of ten approved Mexican states and then be certified by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. While this process—which only began in 1995—ensures that mezcal will remain a uniquely Mexican product, the cost of certification introduces potential barriers for smaller producers.

Crema De Mezcal: The mezcal liqueur. A combination of agave syrup and traditional mezcal, this sweetened spirit comes in flavors like coconut, orange, coffee, and pineapple. Sometimes crema is clear, sometimes it looks like Pepto Bismol.

Del Maguey: The brand most responsible for mezcal’s rise within the United States over the last 15 years. Founded in 1995 by Ron Cooper—an artist that didn’t have a drop of experience in the liquor business—Del Maguey has become the most purchased mezcal in the United States. In 2017, Del Maguey was acquired by Pernod Ricard, the French megacompany behind brands like Jameson, Absolut, and Glenlivet.

Elixir Of The Gods: According to legend, lightning struck an agave plant, cooked the piña, and released what we mortals know as mezcal. Regardless of the veracity of the spirit’s origin story, one thing is absolutely true: Both mezcal and agave occupy a deeply meaningful place in Mexico’s history and culture.

LeBron James: Part-owner of Lobos 1707, an agave spirits brand that makes mezcal. He’s not the only celebrity invested in the elixir of the gods, either. George Clooney’s Casamigos makes mezcal and Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul—the leading duo of Breaking Bad—started their own brand, Dos Hombres, in 2019.

Mezcal Amaro Cocktail: The best mezcal drink on our site. It combines five really good things—mezcal, amaro, grapefruit, lime, and ginger beer—to make the ideal cocktail for an afternoon in the sun.

Oaxaca: This Mexican state is considered to be the birthplace of mezcal. Oaxaca produces roughly 90 percent of the world’s mezcal. Most of the spirit’s notable brands—including Del Maguey—are headquartered in Oaxaca, and for good reason: The state is home to over 40 agave species, and more than 500 production facilities. If you’re either moderately interested in mezcal or a fan of enjoyable things, plan a trip to Oaxaca. You can tour production facilities, visit mezcal-focused bars, and—if you’re really about it—attend the very fun International Mezcal Festival held every summer at the Oaxaca Convention Center.

Palenquero: Also called a mezcalero, these are the people producing the mezcals we’re sipping on. They are masters of their craft, deeply knowledgeable of every aspect of the production process—from harvesting piñas to distilling the final product—and without them, mezcal would never exist.

Phil Ward: Bar owner, developer of the Mr. Potato Head Theory, and—very likely—the brains behind your favorite mezcal cocktail. In 2009, Phil opened Mayahuel in New York City. It was the first bar in the city (and likely the country) that emphasized agave-based cocktails not named margarita. He probably made the original mezcal negroni and definitely mixed the first Oaxaca Old Fashioned.

Vida Buena: Essentially a mezcal negroni, but instead of Campari, you’ll use Aperol. While La Vida Buena is one of the original mezcal cocktails (it popped up around the same time Phil Ward opened Mayahuel), it’s yet to match the commercial success of its Campari-having cousin. However, that’s not to say the drink isn’t balanced, refreshing, and complex (it is).

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How do you enjoy mezcal? Let us know in the comments below!

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