What is Mezcal?


by Raul Faria

Mezcal is treated by those uneducated in spirits and a large portion of general consumers as the stuff with the worm in it. I’ll be the first to tell you that the stuff with the worm has nothing to do with Mezcal and everything about selling garbage to ignorant tourists looking for the donkey show in Tijajuana. Unauthentic, stereotypical, garbage. So what then is real Mezcal? Well thanks to the hard work of folks like Ron Cooper of Del Maguey, Steve Olson of BAR to name a few and of course the growers and distillers of this carefully crafted artisanal product with roots in ancient native culture, we now know.

I like to think of Mezcal as the dark, brooding, brainy, complex, exotic, older, Goth sister to the bubbly, bouncy, popular and pretty cheerleader, younger sister known as Tequila. See Tequila gets invited to all the parties, is probably the most common shot called for and is the main ingredient in the most popular cocktail in the world, the Margarita. Tequila is approachable and easily understood. Mezcal however, can be dark and smoky, light, herbal, vegetal, or any combination of those factors and more. Its complex and doesnt fit easily in any box. The rebel that refuses to go along with the status quo. I like Tequila (check out my impressions of the Don Julio line for proof) but I love Mezcal, for all the reasons I just listed. Its got as much flavor and depth as any fine Scotch and all the agricultural factors that go into the bottle are simply incredible.

I do want to repeat that I truly dig Tequila. 100% blue agave Tequila in all its variations. There is depth and craftsmanship in that category for sure but when it is stacked against the varying flavor profiles found in Mezcal it is simply no contest In my opinion in terms of variety. There are so many factors that will effect the final product like type of agave used, where the agave was grown (terroir), how the agave was processed, even where it was fermented can have a huge effect on the final product as Mezcal is fermented in open air vessels.

In Mezcal, one of the most important and easily detectable flavor variant would have to be type of agave used. To be called Tequila it must be made with one specific agave variety, Agave Weber Azul (Agave Tequilana), commonly known as Blue Agave. Generally the flavor variations in tequila will usually come from how the agaves were cooked and how long it spent in barrel. These factors do effect flavor and create enough variety in the Tequila class to keep folks interested. Tequila’s main benefit in cocktail construction is a consistent flavor throughout, making it great for cocktails. In Mezcal making there is no set rule about which agave must be used so you get such a drastic and fun variation in flavor with just that one factor alone. There are currently 42 Agave species approved by the Mexican government for Mezcal production! Now combine that with terrior, process and ferentation variations…well the possibilties are almost endless. Barrel aging, which is not typically done,  is just now becoming a thing for some Mezcal producers, so if that catches on you could have exponentially more variation. Tobala Anejo in used Congac casks? Wild Espadin Reposado in Sherry Oak casks? Wild Tepextate Extra Anejo in used Bourbon barrels? Sign me up 🙂

My point here is that Mezcal is fun. Why? Because there is so much flavor variation to explore and so much history and craftmanship. Its worth seeking out the good stuff, Del Maguey, Delirio, La Nina, Ilegal to name a few. I got the opportunity to try some Mezcal during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic at the amazing Mayahuel and also during Arizona Cocktail week at the Valley Ho hotel and Im going to share with you my impressions of what I tasted. This will give you an idea of the variety of flavor found in these bottles and you may also spot some common threads that will give you of good idea of what to expect and the surprises that await. Find out for yourselves, check it out online or at your favorite Tequila bar. Try mixing your favorite Tequila cocktail with a smoother, lighter bodied Mezcal like the Delirio Blanco or instead of an after dinner Scotch grab a glass of Del Maguey Single Village series instead. I’ll leave you with the traditional cheers when drinking Mezcal, Stigibeu! (pronounced stee-jee-bay-oo)


Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, Minero, Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca (espadin/angustifolia) 49%- ceramic/bamboo still

Aroma– musty cave, waterfall, pond, herbal, reminded me of the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean.

Taste– mild spice and vanilla, white pepper, very smooth with herbal and floral notes.

Finish– Warming finish with lingering herbal white pepper notes.


Del maguey single village Mezcal, santo Domingo albarradas, Oaxaca (espadin/angustifolia) 48%- These agave are grown at especially high altitude and broken with bats in lieu of the Tohona or grinding wheel.

Aroma– buttery,  with rich fruit aromas.

Taste– Tamarind, Starfruit, with a spicy cinnamon heat.

Finish– warming, clean, mint, lingering faint cellar note.


Bacanora Cielo Rojo Blanco, Sonora (Wild Espadin known also as Sylevestre utilized in the Cielo Rojo Blanco) 42%

Bacanora is a Mezcal with its own designation of origin and was actually illegal until 1992. This Mezcal can be made in multiple locations and is made utilizing Wild Espadin agave varieties. It is now considered the state drink of Sonora where it originated.

Aroma– buttery,  citrus, with faint ripe tropical fruit.

Taste– clean, lush water and faint herbal mint with mild spicy cinnamon heat.

Finish– clean, mild minty finish.


Ocho Cientos Sotol Blanco, Chihuahua (Dasylirion-Sotol) 43% abv

Sotol is another agave spirit, or Mezcal, that isn’t even made from agave. See Sotol or the Dasylirion is not technically an agave and is actually a member of the garlic and onion family. The Sotol takes about 10-15 years to reach maturity and it takes an entire plant to make one bottle. Sotol is a protected designation of origin, must be made from 100% Sotol and is considered the state drink of Chihuahua.

Aroma– big vegetal, lettuce, floral mint, faint buttery note.

Taste– definitive minty, herbal.

Finish– astringent and clean, minty lingering veggies.


Del maguey single village, Tobala, Oaxaca (tobala/potatorum) 45% abv

Aroma– green bell pepper, herbal mint with faint earthy undertones.

Taste– minty, herbal, earthy mushroom or beet vegetal notes with a little butter.

Finish– clean and minty, with roast vegetal smoke lingering.


El Jolgorio Pechuga, Santiago Matalan, Oaxaca (Wild Espadin/Angustifolia)- 43% abv

Pechuga is a distilling tradition in which a already distilled batch of mescal is redistilled with various fruits and other grains….and a wild turkey breast. It is hung over distilling tank and during this second distillation, the steam passes through the turkey and is condensed and collected as Pechuga. The fats and proteins are said to add texture, mouthfeel and acts to soften and balance the overall flavor between the smokiness and the added fruits and grains.

Aroma– heat, mild vegetal notes and roast vegetable smoke.

Taste– smooth velvety mouthfeel, mild vegetal flavor with lush water, luxurious texture.

Finish– smokey roast vegetable finish.


llegal Mezcal repasado, Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca (espadin/angustifolia) 40% abv

Aroma– vanilla, sweet aroma. Honey, faint smoke.

Taste– clean, light smoke, very mellow,mild honey vanilla.

Finish– lingering vanilla.


Delirio Anejo, Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca (espadin/angustifolia) 40% abv

Aroma– big vanilla, oaky, with a bit of smoke and a faint cellar note.

Taste– smokey with a touch of honey, smooth texture and mouthfeel, a very round spirit.

Finish– lingering soft honey.


Del Maguey San Jose Rio Minas, Oaxaca (Espadin) 48% abv

Aroma– a bit sour, a little sweet, with notes of smoke.

Taste– big charcoal, herbal, charcoal smoke.

Finish– clean, almost minty, mint like.


Del Maguey Wild Papalometl, San Pedro Teozacoalco (Wild Papalome) 45% abv

Aroma– vegetal, agave sugar, mild, soft aroma.

Taste-sweet start, smoke, very much like a blended scotch.

Finish– smoke, strong cinnamon spice, long finish, loooong finish.


Del Maguey Wild Tepextate (Wild Marmorata) 45% abv

Just to show you how unique our individual palettes can be, check out my impressions versus those listed on the site. Totally different! I was so concerned I actually had to write the wonderful and amazing Misty Kalkofen and Mr Steve Olson himself to make sure I had tasted the right stuff. Remember with these types of impression guides it is merely to share an experience and provide a rough expectation of flavor.

Aroma– sweet jalapeño pepper, green pepper, bright veggies, shishito.

Taste-shishito and bell peppers, lush vegetable, faint floral notes.

Finish-astringent, clean, long.

Id like to thank Misty Kalkofen and Steve Olson for the help with my flavor concern in regards to the Tepextate and also for helping all of us understand this amazing spirit better. Thanks also to Ron Cooper of Del Maguey for putting on the tasting and for the folks at Mayahuel for hosting us. Thank you also to everyone involved in producing this year’s Arizona Cocktail Week and especially for the Mezcal Seminar that was held at the Valley Ho. Be sure to visit Del Maguey’s website for all the details on their extensive line. I would definitely recommend a visit to Steve Olson’s akawinegeek.com for all things Steve. If you are planning a vacation next year, why not check out Arizona Cocktail Week? I had a blast there and Scottsdale is a vacation destination on its own. If you live in New York City or the surrounding area and looking for the definitive agave spirits bar then look no further than Mayahuel. Located at 304 E 6th St, New York, NY 10003, this place has amazing food and a dizzying array of Agave spirits.

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