Sadly, it has been a few years since I did a deep dive and thorough update to this list. Yes, I have added a brand here and there, but I have not scoured the web in a few years to see what is really out there. And man have times changed!
When I last took a hard look, there were about 70 mezcal brands to be found in the U.S. Now I count 120+! Wow. Further, a few years ago there were around 50 brands that were traveling in the upper end of the market, and that has now risen to almost 90 brands in what I consider to be in the premium sector.
I used to have them all, and I can no longer say that. In my recent research, I found many brands I had never even heard of at premium prices and occasionally at premium packaging. A lot of these are definitely under the radar, which means they are not active on social media or apparently in the active promotion of their brand. I know because I follow this stuff. Also, when new brands are coming to the market they often issue press releases, and many contact me and are generous enough to send me a bottle – I am grateful every time! But many of the new brands below have done nothing to announce their presence in the U.S. market, so that is why I say under the radar. And if that is what they want to do, no problem! But I am curious about a good number of them and will be making some new purchases for sure.
You will find a lot of these brands if you read MY BOOK (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). I talk about all these brands in greater depth, plus I take a detailed look at how the many varieties of agave impact the flavor of a mezcal – much like grapes are to wine, agave is to mezcal. The book is Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! and it is on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
So here is my currently assembled list of the brands that can be found in the U.S. The list is organized from top to bottom by the brands I am most familiar with, which means among other things, I can find them and drink them regularly, I read about them, and/or they are actively promoting their brands through social media, etc. As the list progresses, many of these I have never tried and never seen other than on a website. So they are mainly pretty obscure but some of them look quite interesting with a price point to match.
Toward the bottom of the list, there is a bunch of crap (that usually stirs up some controversy) – a bunch of industrial mezcals and some random stuff, many of which I have tried, hence that is what I call this part of the list crap. If you are looking for something good, stay higher on the list and do some research. When you see a mezcal for under $30, it is rarely good (though there are exceptions). Comments like that usually draw out some criticism that I am being elitist or worse, but it is simply a reality. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to produce a good, artisanal mezcal. Just a fact.
But if you think something toward the back of the pack is good, first you should drink it, and then let me know. I am always happy to learn and reassess. With that, here is what I have….
Oaxaca is a special place, and there is no better way to enjoy it than to journey out to a palenque (distillery) to see how mezcal is made first hand. Many years ago, when I first began touring palenques I was under the illusion that I was going out there just to see how mezcal was made. I thought I was going to see the agave fields, the earthen roasting pits, the horse drawn stone grinding mill, the fermentation tanks, the copper or clay pot stills, and the many other things that are involved in the ultimate arrival of this magical elixir. Basically, I thought it was all about the mechanics of making mezcal.
It took me awhile to figure it out, but now I know that the mechanics of making mezcal are only one slice of a palenque tour. What am I talking about? What else could there be? Well, as I said it did not hit me right away. But the more time I spent with mezcaleros and mezcaleras (female mezcaleros as I recently learned), I began to understand that they were not just sharing the process of mezcal production, but they were sharing their family history, their culture, their generational passion, their life.
Mezcal is so much more to these traditional producers. From the time most of them were small children, they have been around the palenque, sat with their fathers, mothers, aunts, cousins, uncles and grandparents, and absorbed all there is to know about making mezcal. For these producers, mezcal is the center of their world – it is their past, present and future. Mezcal is revered and core to who they are. It is present at every major milestone of their lives: births, communions, weddings, funerals, and everything in between.
So when you are lucky enough to be invited into their world, you eventually understand that mezcal is so much more than cutting, baking, fermenting and distilling. It is with an immense source of pride, passion and knowledge that they bring you into their inner circle.
And so it was on my recent trip to Oaxaca that my friends and I were invited into the sanctuary of the palenque at Real Minero. William Scanlan of Heavy Metl Premium Imports, who imports Real Minero in the U.S., knew I was dying to see this highly regarded producer for myself so he generously arranged our visit.
We arrived at the well-kept little town of Santa Catarina Minas, the heart of a historic mezcal making region. I’ve been told that all mezcal is made in clay pots in Santa Catarina Minas, as this is their tradition. I cannot verify if this is 100% true (maybe there is a copper pot rebel up in their hills), but if so, it’s awesome that this tradition has been kept so vibrant.
Real Minero is a storied mezcal brand from a 4th generation mezcal family. These days, the brand is being run by Graciela Angeles Carreño, the great granddaughter of the brand’s founder, or it could be the great great granddaughter, or the great great great granddaughter…the thing is they really don’t know how far back it goes. Many of these longtime mezcal-making families lose the trail as they backtrack the family tree into the 1800’s, and so it is with Real Minero. All they know is that there is 100+ years of mezcal making in their family. Love it!
While Graciella is a “Master Mezcalera” herself, her father Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza is also at the heart of their mezcal making these days. I put the term “Master Mezcalera” (same thing with “Master Mezcalero”) in quotes because Graciella explained that this term is all marketing. She said it did not really even exist until about 10yrs ago when mezcal started gaining popularity. Before that, you just made mezcal. Now you are labeled a “master” for simply doing what you have always done – making great mezcal in her case!
Graciella gave us a full tour of the Real Minero palenque. We started at their very modern warehouse which had surrounding agave fields with various varietals at different stages of development. The warehouse was quite large and spotless with an office and a conference room up the stairs at one end. I have never seen such modern facilities at a palenque – Real Minero is clearly planning for the future.
An agave field and various varietals in staggered states of maturity could be found throughout the property. There were a handful of A. karwinskii var. tripon – Real Minero makes the only mezcal I have seen with the tripon varietal. The one expression they have had in the states for years is an ensemble of four agaves, though now Metl is bringing in their whole amazing line of varietals. I asked Graciella if they made a single expression tripon, and she said they did and that the might have a few for purchase (but good luck finding it in the U.S.!). Now, I would just have to beat my buddies to it….
The agave fields held some beauties (if you like this kind of thing, which clearly I do) with huge towering arroquenos and quite a few varieties of Agave karwinskii nearing maturity. There was also an Agave rhodacantha, best known for the varietal mexicano (also known as dobadaan). Graciella explained that this rhodacantha was a cuixe varietal. I have only known a cuixe as an A. karwinskii, so this was a new agave varietal for me. Yes, I was truly psyched! As we walked the property, Graciella provided other little tidbits.
For example, she said that sometimes you will find rocks in the middle of a mature agave. Why? Because as the quiote starts to sprout, and if the agave is large enough (like an arroqueno), one cannot get to the middle of the agave to cut off the quiote. The quiote is cut off to keep the sugars and energy of the agave concentrated in the pina. So if an agave farmer cannot reach the quiote to cut it off, they throw rocks at it to break it! I thought she was pulling our leg, but no, it is true. More cool stuff for a mezcal nerd!
We left the fields and the warehouse and made our way to where the Real Minero distills their mezcal. Again, it was the cleanest, most well-organized palenque I have seen. Nothing was out of place. No stray equipment or tools. You could practically eat off the brick and cement floor. But it was not an industrial setting. Just a great looking, well kept gorgeous palenque. They not were roasting or crushing agave at this time, but they were distilling. They had eight clay pot stills, of which four were in the midst of distillation. My mouth started watering as Graciella pulled out a large gourd bowl and began filling it from one of the stills. Still warm from the still, she passed around a scrumptious 50% ABV tobala.
I am not sure there is anything better on the planet than tasting a great artisanal mezcal, right off the still, from one of the world’s renowned agave spirits producers. And we tasted. And tasted. And tasted some more. Not that is wasn’t already, but soon enough, everything was REALLY right with the world.
In a room adjacent to the stills, Graciella showed us a room with perhaps 50 huge glass containers in which they have been aging mezcal for over ten years! With the coming changes to the mezcal NOM, “aged in glass” will be a category unto itself. You may ask if aging in glass actually does anything to the mezcal? I have not tasted many so I am by no means an expert, but people in the mezcal world absolutely revere mezcals that have been aged in glass for many years. It smooths and mellows the mezcal. You will find it to be richer with greater depth and character. That certainly has been my experience, and though Graciella could not tell us when her glass-aged mezcal would hit the market, I would like to be first in line when it does.
After my friends stopped me from asking even more questions (were a few hundred too many?), we made our way back to the warehouse and Graciella treated us to a grand tasting of all Real Minero offerings. OMG! Find them. Buy them. Drink them. Happily, as I mentioned, most of these can now be found in the U.S., and they are amazing. The mezcal-y wizardry of the many generations of the Angeles family is poured into every bottle. These are truly great mezcals by any measure, all clay pot distilled, and each one lives up to the family’s reputation. Naturally, my friend’s and I bought as much as we could carry (and then some).
By now it was after 3pm, we were feeling good, and we were starving – which by the way, is almost what always happens when you are touring palenques in Oaxaca. Important safety tip: eat a big breakfast and bring protein bars! Graciella invited us to lunch at her local. As we drank beer and ate great food, I reflected on a special day at one of the more amazing palenques I am likely to ever see.
Graciella, thanks for a fantastic experience! Until next time, drink mezcal!
Oh man, just back from Oaxaca over MLK weekend and I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for what I learned, experienced and drank! I tried rare mezcals, traveled to palenques that I had never been to, ate more chapolines (grasshoppers), tried cicada salt (like sal de gusano but made with cicadas instead), and learned more nuances about the world of mezcal. One of the great pleasures of my favorite beverage is that there is always more to be discovered, and this trip, like the many before it, delivered yet again.
We had a great time, but were basically drinking mezcal (hey, this is important research I am doing!) from about 11am onward each day until the wee hours of of the morning. Sound like fun? You bet it was! (Shout out to my crew of Mike, Chris, Mario and Chris who were there in lock step with me).
I’ve been thinking about this and there is so much to share with my mezcal people (that’s you) that I barely know where to begin. So I decided to do a few posts instead of one looonnnnngggggg one. So this one is about our trip to the palenque of Eric Hernandez where Ilegal Mezcal is made, which was beautiful, educational, and first class in every way.
We arrived in Oaxaca on Thursday night, dropped our bags and headed out to In Situ to meet John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, for our briefing on the next day’s activities. It went something like this: “You guys ready? You have shoes? Have you read Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!? OK you are good to go.” He may have left out the Holy Smoke part. In fact, maybe I made the whole thing up. Who can remember? We were drinking mezcal!
John is a passionate brand owner who fell in love with mezcal – the product and the tradition – while living in Mexico in the early 2000s. Later after he started a mezcal bar in Guatemala, he realized he could not find any mezcal locally. So he and his conspirators started smuggling it across the border to stock his bar. At first it was a few bottles, but it soon turned into a full fledged Pirates of the Caribbean operation. John has many funny stories about these early years of Ilegal, and they get better the more he drinks (John, have another!).
As for In Situ, if you have not been or have not heard, it is the best mezcaleria in the world with over 150 different bottles, each carefully curated by the owners, Ulises and Sandra. Unfortunately, they were out of town for the weekend and the barman discharged us way too early into the Oaxaca night. He was closing up, and we had only bought a bottle each and were preparing to do more tasting and more damage. But he unceremoniously kicked us out – Ulises would have had the good sense to keep us drinking and keep us buying (plus I think he may actually like us). So till next time In Situ…
The Ilegal Palenque
Ilegal is one of my favorite brands. I love their products – a beautiful espadin joven with light smoke and hints of lemon peel, a butterscotchy reposado, and a transcendent anejo. Some mezcal purists mistakenly look past Ilegal due to their aged mezcals – man is that a mistake. I have long argued that aged mezcals expand the market and bring in people that otherwise may not be initially enamored with a powerful joven. And Ilegal’s reposado and anejo are amazing spirits by any measure. By the way, Ilegal also has the best edgy guerrilla marketing and are not afraid to take a stand! They amuse me.
So after a night at In Situ, the next day we met the van promptly an hour after the appointed time for our trip out to Eric Hernandez’s palenque. Eric, who produces Ilegal, is a fourth generation mezcalero who is also an engineer – an important fact which comes into play here. Eric also holds the distinction of being the first certified producer: he has NOM number 1 (“O01X” on the back of your Ilegal bottle).
Having been to many palenques in the past, I know Ilegal to be one of the most respected and innovative distilleries in Oaxaca. Now this is “mezcal innovative”, not “tequila innovative”. There are no hydraulic lifts, large machines, column stills, hardhats, guys named Joey, conveyor belts, or people with hair nets and rubber booties. There is an earthen roasting pit, a tahona, an angry horse, wooden fermentation tanks, three copper stills, fruit trees, humming birds, a shrine, and an atmosphere ripe with smoke and roasted agave. This is mezcal baby.
His palenque is mid-size (think basketball court compared to some that are more like a squash court), very well kept and clean, and has a few extravagances like a small bottling room that can fill four bottles at a time.
Eric is deeply committed to the traditional production process of mezcal, but he has made a few engineering tweaks to the artisanal process. He also has pictures around the palenque of his grandfather in the 1930s serving mezcal from wooden barrels, which is interesting because some claim there is no tradition of aging mezcal, only tequila. Were those barrels simply for storage? Were they for purposeful aging? I don’t know but they are there.
He gave us a tour of the property starting with the earthen pit. It was fully loaded and had been baking for 3 days already. You reach down and feel the dirt mound and it is warm (so cool for a mezcal nerd!). Eric’s pit is the first example of where some of his engineering has been applied. He has built a pit that has a sub chamber below the main pit – he lights the fire there. This has the effect of creating less direct heat on the pinas and leads to a less smoky mezcal, which in my view is a signature of Eric’s mezcals. The indirect fire also allows for a permanent rock structure on which to pile the pinas. In most mezcal pits, the rocks have to be replaced every few firings because they simply start cracking, breaking and disintegrating as they are sitting right on the flames. In this pit, the rocks last a really long time which saves labor and river rocks. The design of the oven, which produces a more radiant heat, allows him to use less wood, a good thing in my view given the substantial deforestation in Oaxaca.
Another example of Eric applying his engineering skills to the production process is how he has made small adjustments to his copper stills. Pictured below is one of the stills he uses for the second distillation. Over time as a still ages, tiny flecks of metal will make their way into the distillation – it frequently evidences itself as sediment in a bottle of mezcal. As you may be able to see in this picture, there are 2 clamps attached to the vapor tube of the still which brings a small electrical charge to the vapors and extracts any potential metal flakes. Who thinks of this stuff? I don’t know if he developed this concept himself or read it in a book, but either way, it’s pretty cool.
After our palenque tour, it was time to do some eating and drinking! While lunch was scheduled for 1:00pm it was now about 4:00pm and we were starving (as a general rule of Oaxaca palenques, you can add 3 hours to any time estimates). But it was all worth the wait. Eric laid out a spread of beef, pork, chorizo, avocados, onions, salsa, and much more, which was all to be wrapped up in delicious homemade tortillas. But wait, that’s not all…
Eric also put out the Ilegal line plus a line of silvestre mezcals that he sells locally under a separate label. Plus he had a bartender whipping up some yummy cocktails! We felt special. We felt pampered.
So we ate and drank and listened to some music too. John had brought a few musicians along, who kept it lively and added to the positive vibe all around.
I found that all of Eric’s mezcals have a beautiful consistency. As his signature is one of light smoke, the flavor of the individual agaves shines through brilliantly. His espadin is light and fresh with citrus and roasted agave. The wild tepeztate under his local line is perfectly herbal and not overpowering. He had an ensemble made with seven agaves that had great balance that I couldn’t stop drinking. And the list goes on. All fantastic and oh so drinkable.
All in all, what a memorable day. John and Eric were generous hosts with great hospitality, great food, and amazing mezcals. I look forward to my next visit!
Next Post Coming Soon: My visit to the Real Minero palenque. Super cool!
Last year was the first edition of the mezcal-y holiday gift guide and it was a rousing success. Due to the overwhelming demand (can you believe a total of 3 people have asked me about it?!), I am back this year for Round 2!
So are you looking for that special gift for your favorite mezcal aficionado? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 33 reviews and 30 of them are 5 stars! You can’t make this stuff up (well, you actually could, but I didn’t!). The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced ($35 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
Throughout the mezcal making regions in Mexico, you will find that a very common way to drink mezcal is in these cool little gourd cups- called jicaras. They feel like a thin wood, and the have a rounded bottom so they roll around a tiny bit. But as long as you have mezcal in them (and why wouldn’t you) they balance quite nicely. They are a pleasure to sip mezcal out of and a nod to the traditions of mezcal as well. I have NEVER seen these sold in the U.S. and now my friend Eduardo at Artisanal Mezcals has them ready for you. Yes, they are cheaper in Oaxaca, but you are not in Oaxaca – sadly, neither of us is. So 4 cups for $10 is a bargain and you can buy them HERE! Also, check out the mezcals he has for sale. Most of these are only available in the U.S. through his site, and he has some damn good mezcal there!
Now that you have jicaras, you may want to check out some cool copitas. As you may know, another traditional way to drink mezcal is out of little clay cups. The Del Maguey team has popularized this in the U.S., and it is indeed an enjoyable way to experience this fine spirit. I came across these on Etsy, and I think you will like them as well. Six copitas for $40 and you can buy them HERE!
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog, just hosted their second annual bitchin’ mezcal event in San Francisco, and make some super cool T-shirts. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the current prints.
Sal de Gusano
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. The team behind Mezcal Vago is importing this now – much respect mon!
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 1)
So many great bottles to choose from. Lucky for you I have several guides geared to help you. Check out my Mezcal Starter Kit for some great ideas if you want to give some moderately priced mezcal bottles as a gift.
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 2)
If you want to elevate your gift to another level, check out my post on Mezcal – Premium Edition. When price is no object, this is the place to look. Some unbelievable bottles can be found here! Anyone of these will make a fine gift.
Experience Mezcal Tours
Experience Mezcal is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site. The 2016 dates have not been set, but you can contact Clayton and get a gift certificate. That would be one AMAZING gift!!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!
Over a year ago I published the Mezcal Starter Kit, which was intended to be a resource for people who are just beginning their heroic journey into the world of mezcal. So I focused on bottles that started at about $30 and did not list anything beyond $70 a bottle. As that post has been digested (perhaps ingested) over the past year, I frequently get emails from people asking “What’s next?” (more mezcal for sure!). These readers have tried a few of these starter bottles and now are looking for something more exotic and potentially more expensive.
Readers want to know about silvestres (wild agave varietals), aged mezcals, pechugas, and other premium selections. “Are they good?” “Should I buy them?” “Do I have to go to Oaxaca to get them?” “Did someone really invent a goldfish walker?”
So this post is a look at some amazing mezcals, that are available in the U.S., without regard to price. Yes, many of these are in excess of $100 or more a bottle. I have often said that with mezcal, you generally get what you pay for. So if they are on this list, and they are pricey, I doubt you will be disappointed. Also, many people will readily buy a $100 bottle of wine and it will be gone in a few hours. But if you purchase one of these brilliant mezcals, you might be enjoying it for the next few months or longer. If you drink it like wine, you probably need professional help!
However, you don’t always have to shell out $100 to get a great mezcal. There are many many in the $50-$100 range that are fantastic – I included many of those as well (and by the way, not that $50-$100 for a bottle of booze is a bargain – but remember this is the Premium Edition!).
Why are some of these mezcals so expensive? First, in general, mezcal is not an inexpensive spirit because it is hand-crafted, small batch, and labor intensive. There are no large column stills, industrial-sized ovens, or factory workers. An exceptional artisanal mezcal is produced at a small distillery, or palenque, and is essentially produced in a fashion that has been unchanged over several centuries.
Second, many of these mezcals are made from rare, wild agaves that are extremely limited in supply, difficult to find and harvest, and can take twenty plus years to mature. I snapped a shot of this wild tepeztate shown here in the cliffs outside Santiago Matatlan – a tepeztate can take thirty plus years to mature!
Third, when you move to aged mezcals, there are additional costs for the barrels, storage, and loss due to evaporation – the angel’s share, as you may know.
So yes, mezcals can be expensive. But again, if you can afford it, you will not be disappointed!
So where do I begin? So many great mezcals – what order should I put these in? Can I possibly rank them by my favorites? Not a chance – all amazing. By bottle height? (“How do you measure yourself against other golfers?”)? Price? That is not the goal of this exercise. So what order have I listed these in? Good ole boring alphabetical order. Not very creative but effective nevertheless. At any rate, you cannot go wrong with any of these…..here we go…..
Brand / Bottle
Where To Buy?
Brand / Bottle
Where To Buy?
Just arriving in the U.S.
Excellent Agave durangensis from Durango. Think passion fruit. Really unique.
Bruxo #4 Ensemble
Ensemble of espadin, barrill, cuishe. The best of their fine offerings I think.
Del Maguey Arroqueno
It does not get much better than this. Rich and robust.
Del Maguey Tobala
One of the original crowd pleasers. Amazing.
Del Maguey Madrecuixe
Beautiful madrecuixe - category defining I think.
Del Maquey Tepextate
Andrews Wine Cellar
Perfectly herbal tepeztate. Right down the middle of the category.
El Jolgorio Arroqueno
Working on it.
Every Jolgorio could be on this list. Arroqueno is ripe bananas and oh so good. The only problem is finding it right now.
El Jolgorio Tepeztate
Old Town Liquor
Gently herbal. From the hands of a master.
El Jolgorio Barril
Old Town Liquor
The barril-iest of the barrils says my friend Mario. Perfectly Karwinskii with crisp citrus and earthen roasted agave.
Yummy ensemble of tobasiche, mexicano, and espadin.
Another excellent Tep. Right there with Del Maguey and Jolgorio with a bit more power on the herbal quality.
Fidencio Tierra Blanco
Agave espadin grown in white soil - strong minerality to this one.
The one that started it all for me. Chocolate, orange, roasted agave, gentle smoke. Amazing.
Butterscotch, vanilla and roasted agave. Brilliant.
Marca Negra Ensemble
Old Town Liquor
Ensemble of bicuixe, madrecuishe and espadin. Probably my favorite of their line. Rich and fruity.
Marca Negra Arroqueno
Yes, I am a sucker for arroquenos, and this one knocks the cover off.
Marca Negra Tepeztate
My amigo Mario says this is one of the best. He knows. We call him Tepezario....
Mezcal Tosba Espadin
On sale as of this post. A steal at $45. Pick up a case.
Mezcal Vago Mexicano
Bright, fresh, green. Delicious.
Mezcal Vago Ensamble en Barro
The varietals in their ensembles may vary but they all rock!
Mezcal Vago Coyote
Like all Vago's, dark and mysterious. Here, dark fruit flavors and roasted agave.
Mezcalero Special Bottling #1
Caddell & Williams
Brilliant madrecuishe. Dusty and musty (that's good!). Get it while you can. Limited supply.
Pierde Almas Espadin
Andrews Wine Cellar
Up there with the best of espadins.
Pierde Almas Tobala
Andrews Wine Cellar
Recently tried after a long absence and was blown away. Rich floral with hints of anise on the finish.
Sotol Por Siempre
Excellent sotol Crushes Hacienda de Chihuahua. Worthy in a fine mezcal collection.
Viejo Indecente Espadin
Just reaching the U.S. now. Great ensemble as well.
Just one of many in their great line of mezcals. Sadly, hard to find these days!
Old Town Liquor
One of the best ensembles to be found. Infinitely drinkable. Sublime....
Now there are many things left unsaid, or bottles not listed, because they cannot be currently found in the U.S. or for other reasons. For example, I love Real Minero but you cannot get that fine ensemble anywhere right now. They sell many varietals in Mexico, but they are not to be found north of the border. And there are many like that. Also, for certain brands like El Jolgorio, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, or Vago for example, I readily could have included all or most of their whole line – yes they are that good. But I did not want to overload the list with a few brands.
What else? Well, I can’t find much of Siete Misterios in the U.S. anymore (other than their Doba-Yej and Tobala), though they tell me on Twitter that they are shipping their Barrill to the U.S. soon. Also, I am looking forward to the rumored arrival of special offerings from Mezcaloteca, Rey Campero, and Mezcal Koch, but they are not here yet.
At any rate, this is more than enough to get you going if you are searching for your next great mezcal. Nothing on this list will disappoint you. Are some better than others? Well, it is really a matter or palate and opinion – not better or worse when you are playing at this level. For example, I did not put an Agave cupreata on this list because they are not my favorite, though I know many mezcal lovers who disagree. So you have to find what you like and even then it is likely to vary on the day you are drinking it, the food you are drinking it with, and the company you are keeping at the time. It all matters. And it is fun to keep trying the broad range of mezcals to be had. I am sure you are doing just that!
And as you have probably figured out, I do most of my mezcal buying online so I have listed where you can find these bottles. These are the places that I have found to have the best selection – though it is usually best to shop around between them to find the best price.
Finally, if you are a brand owner, representative, importer, fellow blogger (my amigos at Mezcalistas?) or other and think I have missed something important here, please let me know. I have omniscient-like powers of revision! In the interim, drink mezcal!!
People ask me all the time how many bottles of mezcal I have. I look around my apartment and I see bottles stashed everywhere: closets, cabinets, laundry room, kitchen, billiard room, parlor, library, conservatory, observation wing, theater, gazebo, tanning room (for hides not skin of course), and even the laboratory! With all these rooms, how can I find them to count them? Well OK, maybe that is not really the set up in NYC apartment. But I do have a lot of bottles and they are spread out a bit, and I have never taken the time to count them up….until now….
So people ask how many bottles I have, and then they usually ask me how that stacks up to other mezcal fans or bars and restaurants. Do I have more mezcal than any individual in NYC? In the U.S.? Or do I have more mezcals than any bars in the City? Of course, I really don’t know the answer to any of these, though I suspect I have more mezcal than any bar. That really is not that hard when you realize that the bars are pretty much limited to what they can buy commercially in the U.S. – things like liquor laws, tax stamps, importers and distributors come into play, so they are handicapped. Whereas, a private collection is uninhibited by such restrictions. So if you buy what is commercially available in the U.S. (which I pretty much do), plus you bring back a lot of bottles from Mexico (which I also do), then it is hard for a bar to keep up with that due to the restrictions they face.
So yes, I THINK I have more mezcals than any bar in the country but I don’t know if I have more than any private collection here in NYC or beyond. In fact, I highly doubt it. My friends at Mezcalistas on the West Coast may be killing me! (But no combining collections Max and Susan). But I don’t know. That’s what this post is all about. Take the Mezcal Challenge!
Are there bottles in the US that I don’t have? Absolutely. I buy what interests me. I don’t buy to artificially expand my collection. For example, I love most of the Del Maguey line but I really don’t need all 18 of their bottles in my apartment! I’ve tried them all, and I buy the ones I really like. Also, budgetary and storage constraints come into play (we are actually renovating our apartment in part to create more mezcal storage space….really). But I still have acquired much of what is out there, and probably tasted almost all of it.
I have acquired it but that doesn’t mean I still have it. My mezcal collection, probably like yours, is a living and breathing entity. Bottles come in, bottles are consumed, bottles go out. And there is a fair amount of turnover here as I drink a LOT of mezcal (not all on my own mind you…OK, maybe most of it).
So the Mezcal Challenge is a snapshot in time. How many bottles of mezcal do you have RIGHT NOW? But first, we need a few rules. I know, I know. Mezcal don’t need no stinkin’ rules! But we had to have a few. And yes, there is of course subjectivity, but we needed a methodology to count our bottles. For example, I have a lot of little sample bottles, but should those count? It does not feel right to me since they disappear with one swig. So they are out. What about mezcals you may have brought back from Mexico that have no label? Fantastic. They are in. Or the 200ml flask that fits in your back pocket? I say yes. So you see, there are a few considerations, and I have clearly given it deep meditative thought….
Bottle Counting Rules:
Size matters. No 2 ounce sample bottles. Size has to be 200ml or greater.
Bacanora, Sotol, Distillates de Agave, and Raicilla count. You deserve the credit if you have some of these.
Tequila does not count. No offense to tequila but this is about other agave distillates. My friends at Agave Idiots can run the Tequila Challenge.
This is a unique bottle competition. What does that mean? Well, if you have a case of Ilegal Joven or Del Maguey Vida in a closet, that does not count as 6 bottles – it is just one. Even if you have 2 of your favorite bottles, it still only counts as 1. But if you have 4 different expressions from Pierde Almas, that’s 4. Unique bottles only.
Different lots do not equal different bottles. This one is admittedly tricky. Different lots of the same brand can taste different for sure, but it is the same brand and same expression, so I am going to say it does not count. Tough call though and it would inflate my totals for sure.
Honor system. Ernst and Young will not show up at your door seeking verification. Photographic evidence may be requested for bold claims!
Personal Category and Professional Category
As I am anticipating an onslaught of entries (Mario help me out here!), I will have two categories. The Personal Category for individuals and The Professional Category for bars and restaurants. Depending on the geographic breakdown of entries, I may make a few categories for the winners (like US, Europe, Mexico, International, etc). Many bars want to claim that they have the largest selection of mezcal (I know because they want to be included on my Mezcal Joints page and they make these types of claims). I get that. Submit your entry. Let’s see how it goes, and maybe some obvious sub-categories will develop. Or perhaps, I will only get a handful of submissions (lame). We will find out!
But man am I curious. I would love to know you if you are a serious collector of mezcal, and I would love to know what bar or restaurant has the largest mezcal selection in the US and beyond!
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
Since I am initiating the Mezcal Challenge, you probably want to know how many unique bottles I have in my collection??? Should I disclose now or wait until other entries come in? Well, I want to set the tone so I will disclose my current unique bottles count with the complete list at the end of this post. So…….
I have 142 unique bottles of mezcal currently in my possession.
I guess it is a good number but it seems small when I think of tequila collectors I know (Hello Mark!) who have something like 2,000 bottles in their private collections (though that is probably not unique bottles). But anyway, it feels small. Well not small small, but big small. With me? But maybe not. You tell me. What have you got?? You don’t even have to list them all – just give me a number.
I will publish the results. You can send me an email to email@example.com or respond to this post. But either way, I will publish a results post in a few weeks time.
I am working on producing Mezcal PhD T-shirts – the logo design is in process. While not there yet, I will have these in the coming months, and that my friends will go to the lucky winners of the Mezcal Challenge!
So that’s it. I hope that some of you – any of you stake your claim to the title and give me a unique bottle count. And for the bars and restaurants out there, the crown of most mezcals in the US, London, Australia, Canada, Paris or wherever hopefully has some appeal! I look forward to any and all submissions!
So after many months and hundreds of submissions (would you believe dozens?), the results are in! A bit to my surprise, it appears that I have the largest private mezcal collection in the U.S. While no one from Mexico submitted a larger list, I would bet that my collection can be readily topped south of the border by more than a few people.
At any rate, I thank those that submitted their collections and here are some of the notable numbers:
Mario (“Marwinski”) 85 bottles (Hated mezcal 3yrs ago!)
Max (Mezcalistas) 40-ish (Turnover high – excessive consumption)
Ken (Mezcal journalist) 30-ish
Mike Jones (enthusiastic contributor) 15
Judah (Mezcal Vago) Unknown (Talks a big game – can prob back it up)
So there you have it! I owe T-shirts to Mario and Mezcal Review, though I have to make them first. They are extremely well-designed and super cool in my head, but I am slow to execute. But I will get there. I may send out some more freebies as well! Thanks to all for contributing!
Marca Negra has been around for a few years – guessing that they came into the US market in 2011. I have always liked their super cool funky green bottle with the black hand print running from front to back, and found their mezcals to be really good. The first iteration of the brand was Mano Negra ( the Black Hand), but they had some trademark issues so they changed the name to Marca Negra (effectively, the Black Mark). I think I first tried it at Pulqueria in NYC about 3 years ago – it was their tobala and it was excellent! I looked forward to trying more.
Since that first tasting, I have bought a few more bottles over the years in exploration of the brand, and my mezcal-y mother-in-law swears by their espadin! But I do not see the brand around NYC that often so I have not tasted all of their offerings.
Then about a year ago I was in Oaxaca, and I met the founder of the brand, Pedro Quintanilla, a very nice guy who I am happy to drink mezcal with anytime! He promised to send me a bottle. Never came. And that is not very unusual as it happens with a fair amount of regularity (I never take it personally, though as a business guy I find it to be a bad practice). Then this summer (are you still with me?) in a thread to one on my posts I mentioned that Pedro never followed through. I quickly received an apologetic email from Pedro which was soon followed by a delivery of three 750ml bottles of Marca Negra! Maybe I should call people out more often??
But 3 bottles? Very generous. Overly generous. He sent an arroqueno, a tobala, and an ensamble. So then I went out and bought their espadin and their dobadaan – I wanted the complete set! With all five bottles now in hand, I felt a review was in order.
(Reviews are tricky sometimes and I really do not do that many. I should do more. I will do more. But they are tricky because sometimes people are kind enough to send me a sample, but then what do I do if I don’t really like it? Do I bluff and say I like it anyway? Hmmmm….not really my style. Or do I write something negative about a well-intentioned premium brand that generously sent me a bottle? That’s hard for me to do as well. So usually what I do is simply say nothing. If you have sent me a bottle and I have not reviewed your mezcal, it may also just be that I am way behind, which I am!).
If you are regular reader of the blog, you know that while I don’t do many full blown brand reviews, I frequently make qualitative comments about mezcals I am drinking on any given night (or morning). I put a lot of these one-off micro-reviews on FB and Twitter. And I only tend to do full brand reviews if a brand has a lot to offer, such as multiple expressions – be it agave varietals, special bottlings, or repos and anejos, for example.
Man, enough said. Let’s taste some mezcal! So I have all 5 of Marca Negra’s offerings (though they tell me a tepeztate is on the way soon as well). And I really like what they are doing here. Let’s check them out:
Arroqueno. When I first tasted this several months ago, I thought it was good, but I was getting a bit of alcohol on the finish (at 48.6% ABV this would not be very unusual). And a great arroqueno would not have that in my view. I mentioned this to Pedro and he suggested putting the bottle in a dark place for a few months to let it mellow since this batch was literally fresh off the still. So I did that, and man was he right! It went from good to excellent. On the nose, I find fresh tropical fruit – citrus, banana, and maybe pineapple. Rich and fruity! On the palate, it fills your mouth with robust flavors of fruit and sweet roasted agave. Really nice. The finish still fades a bit for me but the prominent alcohol taste has dwindled significantly. All in all, a lovely arroqueno!
Dobadaan. Dobadaan and Mexicano are synonymous (same varietal of Agave rhodacantha, just a different name). I believe the term “dobadaan” was popularized by Jonathan Barbeiri, founder of Pierde Almas. He told me that he found dobadaan was an old colloquial term for mexicano and it resonated with him, so he used it. The Marca Negra Dobadaan, clocking in at 48%, is really wonderful. It is not as fruity on the nose as the arroqueno, but still coaxes you in. The taste is full of ripe banana, and it also brings in spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It is really good and I could drink this all day (at least until I pass out).
Tobala. The tobala is called the King of Mezcal by many because of its rarity and robust flavor. While they grow wild, they are also being routinely cultivated these days, making them less
rare. They may not taste exactly the same, but directionally so. And if this allows us to drink more great mezcal, I am all for it. This Marca Negra is made from wild tobala and tips the ABV-scales at 52%. Wow! I can only think of one or two bottles in the US that have a higher ABV. The high ABV can be challenging on the palate because the alcohol can overpower everything else that is going on. In this case, while present, the high ABV does not overwhelm the mezcal and leaves plenty of room for the tropical fruit flavors to flourish. But like my original tasting of the arroqueno, perhaps I need to let this mellow in the dark because I do get a bit of medicinal alcohol on the finish. All in all, this tobala works but I suspect I might enjoy it more if the ABV were below 50…
Ensamble. This is a 47% ABV blend of espadin, and 2 Agave karwinski varietals, bicuixe and madrecuixe. And this works big time! On the nose I get chocolate and oddly, something really candy-like, as in bubble gum or cotton candy. Really rich and sweet with a bit of chocolate thrown in to balance out the super sweet aroma. Smells yummy. And the taste follows in a harmonious fashion with that light bubble gum sweetness and black pepper to bring it down. It also has a long lovely finish that lingers brilliantly on the palate. Great stuff!
Espadin. As you know, most mezcals are made from Agave angustifolia, varietal espadin, so they are quite common. At 51% ABV this is stronger than most but the alcohol does not overpower the spirit. It has a nice, soft perfume on the nose. On the palate I find nice notes of roasted agave and an elegant, medium finish. Like most espadins, and their accompanying price points, this will work great in a cocktail and you can enjoy it neat as well.
Now that was a fun tasting! Marca Negra has a really nice line of mezcals. They certainly do not shy away from bringin’ the pain with the high ABV offerings. But as I look across the 5, the two highest ABV’s were my least favorites – these are the tobala and the espadin. I preferred the arroqueno, dobadaan, and the ensemble, which are all below 50% ABV. While I almost always favor the arroquenos in such a lineup, in this case I think I would make the ensemble my number one draft choice. It is wonderfully balanced and just oh so drinkable.
But as usual when I am tasting great stuff, I am splitting hairs – and these are all excellent mezcals. And everybody’s palate is of course different. And my own palate changes based on so many factors – time of day, what I am eating, who I am with, how MY BOOK is selling. You know, all those important things!
So if you have not tried the Mezcal Marca Negra offerings, now is the time. Enjoy and as always, drink mezcal!
ADDENDUM TO THIS POST
After I published this post, the brand owner Pedro, came back to me with a few interesting comments. First:
“Something that’s relevant to the piece you just wrote is that we go the extra mile to bring to market mezcal that is distilled to suit the tastes of the makers and the communities where it originated. We are not trying to speculate on what the greater market would embrace. So that is why the last batch of our tobalá is so rich in alcohol content – Jorge and family, that’s how they like it. Same as our espadín, which is also from San Luis del Rio. Abel, the master distiller, recently got married and at his wedding he gave exactly the same mezcal that was bottled in the current batch (they like their mezcal at 50%-51%). You can’t get more authentic than that.”
Pedro! I love this. Thank you for educating us on why Marca Negra tastes like it does. This also speaks to the cultural roots of mezcal – it has been made for centuries for the communities in which it is produced. They are not solving for the equation of what some guy in New York likes. They are making what they have always made and have confidence that others will want to share their world. I embrace the differences across brands and varietals as it is core to what mezcal is all about. Of course I prefer some more than others – we all do.
Pedro also commented on why they changed the name from Mano Negra to Marca Negra:
“In your piece you mention the fact that first off we were Mano Negra which is absolutely right. However, there weren’t really issues with registration in the US but there could have been in the future since there is a wine that’s called Black Hands, and according to our lawyer (John: it’s always the lawyers isn’t it?) our registration could’ve been contested. Then, a few days after we learned about that potential liability, something else came up: a maestro producer asked me why we had named our mezcal Mano Negra since we were all about bringing the truest, most honest product. You see, ‘mano negra’ is also an expression that denotes that something is fraudulent, that something has been rigged as an election would be, in which case you would say “there was mano negra in that election”. That did it. Marca Negra was the new name.”
Cool. I like a bit of the back story. Thanks Pedro.
This is a public service post. I am not an airline employee. I do not work for US Customs. I have not searched with an unrelenting fervor into all the rules and regulations on bringing bottles of booze back into the US from abroad. But I know enough to be dangerous and have several bottle-laden trips behind me so I have a bit of experience. Experience does NOT equal expertise so please do not take this as gospel.
When I post a bunch of bottle shots after a trip to Oaxaca, I frequently get asked how I was able to bring back that much mezcal (and I get asked even more frequently if I will share!). So here is a quick take on the way I see it.
What the Airlines Say
I think this is the trickiest piece of the puzzle, because it turns out that the airlines are more restrictive than US Customs. Living in NYC, I usually fly United through Houston to Oaxaca. Going through Houston gives me the added benefit of a stop at Papasito’s in the Houston airport – it’s mandatory if you have time! Looking into the United Airlines baggage policy, you will find that you can bring in 5 liters per person. 5 liters is equal to 6.67 typically sized bottles of 750 ml each. In other words, it rounds down to 6 bottles per person. That’s it. That’s their policy. 6 bottles. But I just brought back about 4 times that! How?
Well, the good news is that it does not appear to be the United Airlines employees’ responsibility to enforce that – at least not in Oaxaca. I had two suitcases this last trip – one was very heavy and one less so. The max limit on weight per bag is 23 Kilos, about 50 pounds. The counter agents told me they can give you leeway up to 25 kilos, or 55 pounds. Above that, you will pay a lot for excess weight (about $100 for every 5 lb overage). I was right at the 25 kilo leeway zone on one, and the other was probably 40 lbs. Two dense bags of 55 and 40 pounds is a lot of luggage for one person so I expected a few questions. To my now warmed mezcal heart, there were none! They checked the bags and on I went.
Now if someone from United Airlines is reading this, let’s not make a big deal out of it. The 5 liter limit seems arbitrary and unnecessary in the first place. If there is a reason, please let us know. We are not breaking any laws, US Customs or otherwise. The materials are not hazardous (unless CONSUMED in vast quantities). We are not bringing these back for commercial purposes. We are just mezcal geeks who love this shit and want to bring back as much of the stuff as possible that we cannot get in the US. That’s it. Nothing untoward.
That all said, I don’t think you want to be bragging to the people at the ticket counter about how much mezcal you scored! And my experience was with United. My friends Tom and Brenda recently came back from Oaxaca on AeroMexico and they got nailed. They were told they could only check 6 bottles PER BAG, and they actually had to give up 5 bottles. Imagine their pain! They had already checked the bags and they came and found them at the gate and told them them about the 6 per bag limit. Different from United Airlines where their website says 6 bottles PER PERSON. But United also did not come track me down at the gate, and one of my bags probably had 12 bottles of 750 ml (again, they never asked me about the weighty contents).
A mezcalero who regularly brings large quantities of mezcal to the US for tradeshows, etc told me that he is occasionally asked how many bottles he has in his very heavy luggage, and his response is always “4 bottles”. That’s his story and he is sticking with it. And it works. They don’t question it.
Bottom line: different airlines have different policies and different levels of enforcement. A number of us have had different experiences with different airlines so your experience may vary.
What US Customs Says
Most people think they can only bring back 1 or 2 bottles through US Customs. Not true. From the US Customs and Border Protection website:
“There is no federal limit on the amount of alcohol a traveler may import into the U.S. for personal use, however, large quantities might raise the suspicion that the importation is for commercial purposes, and a CBP officer could require the importer to obtain an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) import license (which is required for all commercial importations) before releasing it. A general rule of thumb is that 1 case of alcohol is a personal use quantity – although travelers are still subject to state restrictions which may allow less.”
So you can bring back as much as you want as long as you declare it! The only catch is you are likely to have to pay tax above the 1 bottle limit. But note the “state restrictions” comment. I have only come through customs in Houston and if you go to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website, it says you can only bring in 1 gallon of distilled spirits. It seems this is not being enforced by the US Customs people in Houston. Right on my people! I have not looked into what other states say and have no idea if they enforce any limits. Maybe you know?
When I came through recently they asked me no questions and I went right through. My buddy Mario was pulled over and had a few less bottles than me (he could not keep up!) and he paid a total tax of $19. That’s it. No issue with the quantity he had.
So it appears US Customs has no issue with quantity as long as you will pay the tax (again with the caveat that some US states may enforce things differently).
The final piece of this public service announcement contains a few packing tips:
Take an empty suitcase. If you are really planning on loading up, it’s a pretty good idea to take an empty suitcase down there filled with packing tape, bubble wrap and WINE SKINS.
Buy Wine Skins. These things are fantastic! You can buy them at the Container Store or Amazon. They are wine-bottle shaped bubble wraps – sleak and compact yet highly protective. They will handle almost any-shaped mezcal bottle that you come across. The bubble wrap and packing tape are handy if you run out of Wine Skins or for smaller bottles.
Saran Wrap your bags. When you are leaving, at the Oaxaca airport, there is a guy there with one of those Saran Wrap machines (not sure what else to call it) where they wrap your bag about 30 times with a thin plastic cellophane. As your bag is likely to be heavy, this will help the structural integrity of the bag and keep everything nice and tight. It costs about $15 per bag, but I think it is a good investment.
I am sure I am forgetting a few other things, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. Remember this is based on a handful of experiences and is not gospel. So please no nasty hate mail if you follow this advice and you have to give up bottles. But again, this is all perfectly legal and not even perfectly legal with a wink of an eye. The US government says you can bring back as much as you want. So try it, or if you have an experience to share, reply to this post. Good luck in your mezcal adventures, and as always, drink mezcal!
Many people in and around the mezcal world know that “change is a comin'” to the Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994, which is the law that governs the application of Mezcals’ Denomination of Origin – the rules and regulations of mezcal production, certification, classification, regions, labeling and everything else. The law was passed in 1994, and while it set mezcal on a path to legitimization, it was controversial from the start.
One main point of consternation was that this law closely mirrored the tequila NOM, and many producers and stakeholders recognized from the beginning that this was a poor place to start given that mezcal is different (and way better!) from tequila in so many fundamental ways. But it was a starting point, and I would argue that, while flawed, mezcal has benefitted tremendously from regulation.
The mezcal world is different from where it was in 1994. For example, I recently met someone who had actually heard of it! Wahoo! We are making progress and the industry is energizing in the right direction to create a mezcal regulatory framework that is separate and distinct from tequila, while also recognizing the unique characteristics and history of mezcal.
With that quick backdrop, the other night I attended a small gathering (maybe 15 people) at Salon Hecho where Juan Lozoya, the secretary of COMERCAM (now CRM) was going to discuss the proposed changes to the NOM. But Juan’s flight was delayed so Danny Mena, owner of Salon Hecho as well the fine brand Mezcales de Leyenda, opted to pinch hit for Juan. Danny has been very involved with the process and is well-versed on the proposed new NOM. He gave an excellent presentation and also noted comments from the audience of brand owners, importers, distributors, bartenders, and store owners, among others.
I will start with the proposed 3 new Categories for mezcal as these are the most important pieces to the new NOM. Keep in mind, today we just have one general category called Mezcal, which captures everything from industrial mezcals to small batch mezcals made in rural communities. In the current law and with this new proposal, a producer will still have to go through the certification process to put “mezcal” on the label, but now there will be 3 categories of mezcal. Here are the proposed Categories with the specifically allowed production techniques for each Category:
Three New Categories
Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills
Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks
Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel
Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder
Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers
Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers
Pit ovens only
Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets
Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process must use maguey fibers
Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process must include maguey fibers
In short, the key points are:
“Mezcal” Category: you can use autoclaves (pressure cookers), shredders, stainless steel fermentation, and column still distillation. This basically allows industrial production to continue for unnamed brands (that begin with the last letter of the alphabet). One key point is that a diffuser can no longer be used in this Category (or any other) for mezcal production.
“Artisanal Mezcal” Category: no autoclaves, shredders still OK, no stainless steel fermentation, but single batch distillation only in clay pots or copper stills.
“Ancestral Mezcal” Category: pit ovens only, no shredders, no stainless steel fermentation and must use maguey fibers, and only clay pot distillation where maguey fibers must be used.
So what does this all mean? Well, the industrial boys fought hard to protect their investments in industrial processes, and they had some success. The ability to use diffusers is still desired by the industrial producers, and there are conflicting views as to whether they will be allowed to or not. Though their use is unlikely to be allowed in the current way, under one proposal diffusers may still be allowed if the agave is cooked first. Others have said they should not be allowed at all. Something to keep an eye.
Either, some amount of industrial production is likely to persist in mezcal. They can still call it “Mezcal” despite significant opposition and the push for an “Industrial” Category (which did not happen). The only meaningful and practical difference between Artisanal and Ancestral is that Ancestral must use clay pot stills. In today’s reality, most of the premium mezcals that you drink and read about here, are Artisanal under this definition and they use the same process as Ancestral except most distill in copper stills.
Assuming these changes actually go through, Artisanal Mezcal labels will dominate the U.S. market because these are the premium mezcals that are already here. Ancestral Mezcal will be less frequent though some producers may invest in this type of production because they can likely command a premium price. The investment is really one of time because clay pots are not expensive, but the batches are small so the production process is longer. And the brands that currently are somewhat or completely industrialized will have the simple Mezcal label. Will the average consumer actually know the difference? I doubt it. That’s why I struggle with the whole thing. The mezcal geeks (present company included) understand all this, but does it help the mezcal category? The understanding of what mezcal is? I’m not so sure.
I think the motivation was largely around protecting the old ways of production – techniques handed down from generation to generation. Keeping mezcal pure. Small batch. Hand crafted. But is this defeated by having a “Mezcal” category that allows for autoclaves, stainless steel fermentation tanks, and column stills? It may be. Because I don’t think the average consumer will really appreciate the differences, or notice the labeling, between these categories – they simply look for “Mezcal” on the label. Of course, I hope I am wrong.
This stuff has been, and is being, debated by sharper agave minds than mine, but despite my misgivings, it is a step in the right direction for mezcal. We are not going backward here. And I know the premium brands, producers and mezcal aficionados will work hard to educate the influencers on the front lines (the bartenders, store owners, media, etc), so maybe it will work more than I expect. But either way, while not perfect, this is a good move for mezcal. And I stress, this proposal is not fully baked and is likely to undergo further revisions.
Let me touch on a few other points in the proposed regs:
They have defined Mezcal as: ” Mexican alcoholic beverage, 100% maguey, obtained by means of the distillation of juices fermented with Mexican yeasts, whether spontaneous or cultivated, and juices that have been extracted from the mature cooked heads of magueys harvested within the territory included in the Denomination of Origin, Mezcal.”
This definition eliminates the Type I (100% agave) and Type II (80% agave) distinctions that were in the original law. Now mezcal must be 100% agave. This is practical as well because the Type II category was little used.
Any species of agave can be used as long as it was grown in the Denomination of Origin areas. This is great because it recognizes that mezcal can be made with any type of agave which has enough sugars to produce alcohol.
Now there are four Classes of mezcal: White, Matured in Glass, Reposado, and Anejo. So it appears the term “joven” is replaced by “white”, or blanco. And Matured in Glass is a new class though it is not very common.
Mezcal can be flavored with additives of up to 5% of volume including; insects, fruit, herbs, honey, coloring agents (hmmm..), and meat, among others.
Mezcal can be distilled with similar additives – thus allowing for pechugas and creativity.
ABV must be from 36% to 55%. Same as the current NOM.
Label must include the Category, the Class, the species of agave, and length of aging, among other things. Previously the agave species was not required.
Export in bulk form is prohibited. So you cannot bottle in the U.S. for example as tequila permits.
There are more details in the proposal, but I think these are the most relevant. Something else that is surprising is that they think this law could be enacted in the first half of 2015! That would be impressive, but I’ll take the over.
There were some other interesting points that I took away from the presentation:
COMERCAM has changed their name to CRM, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. And oh man, I just wrote a 200 page book on mezcal that uses the term “COMERCAM” about 50 times! But I get it – they are conforming the naming convention of the regulator with the tequila regulatory body, Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or CRT. (This is a bit of irony in that they are trying hard to move away from tequila, yet at the same time changing the name to look like tequila!).
CRM is doing some internal streamlining to ease the pain of certification for producers – they are trying to make it easier and to eliminate some of the red tape.
CRM’s goal is for mezcal to be the premium white spirit in the world. Lofty goals indeed when you consider that tequila outsells mezcal by more than 100 to 1. Not to mention rum and vodka. But over 20+ years, maybe the cream will rise to the top. I am the eternal mezcal optimist!
Interestingly, Danny made the point that the growing regions of mezcal are about 5 times larger than that of tequila and even larger still than other denomination of origin regions like Cognac, for example. Again, over the long term, if utilized thoughtfully, the land resource for mezcal suggests the potential for becoming the premier premium spirit.
Clayton Szczech, from Experience Mezcal, has been following this closely and is providing a great service to the mezcal community by keeping us informed. Some of this article is pulled from his work. You can read more on his blog if you are interested. So thank you Clayton.
All in all, it was an informative meeting, and as I expressed earlier, this proposal is a step forward for mezcal. Will this legislation be the lynchpin that propels mezcal to new heights? Your guess is as good as mine, so while we all contemplate, let’s simply drink mezcal! Happy Holidays everyone.
P.S. I am back in Oaxaca in mid-January – hope to see you there!
Do you have loved ones who are mezcal-crazed? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 18 reviews and all 5 stars! Exciting stuff for me. The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced (about $30 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
These are traditional small clay cups for drinking mezcal. The wide rim and shallow depth allow the aromas of a mezcal to flow freely and not concentrate the alcohol on the nose as many narrow mouthed glasses do. Previously, these things have been impossible to find in the U.S. But finally, Del Maguey started importing and selling them through Cocktail Kingdom, and you can now buy them. You can get 12 of them for $17.95! Bargain.
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts thru Etsy for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the three prints.
In Italian, malfatti means “mis-shapen”. In this case, they are wonderfully imperfect. They are elegant, impossibly light, and calling them gorgeous is an understatement. They are “malfatti” because they are individually hand-blown and each one is slightly different from the next. I have bought too many to count over the years as gifts for Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and for simply no reason at all. At $28 a glass, they are a special gift for someone and worth every penny. They are about 3 inches high and probably hold about 5 ounces of liquid. So they are perfect for a nice 2oz pour of your favorite mezcal. And the mouth of the glass is wide enough that the alcohol does not overpower you on the nose. They are quite strong too as they are made from borosilicate glass which you can read about HERE. All this is done by the amazing people at Ten Willow Studio.
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. I am not sure I should be promoting the folks at Gran Mitla since in the past they promised to send me samples, which they never did! But I am all about good karma, and hey, there are worse things than not receiving salt in the mail!
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 1
It is incredibly difficult to pick just 3 bottles from all of the great brands and varietals that are available. But I know people are looking for some guidance, so much so that I did a whole post on this subject which you can view HERE. But if you are looking to buy a few bottles as an awesome gift, and don’t want to break the bank, here are 3 premium mezcals that are quite different from each other, yet are all made from agave espadin, and are great for sipping or cocktails. We have Wahaka Espadin ($34), Ilegal Joven ($47) and Marca Negra Espadin ($52). As I said, it is virtually impossible to choose just 3, but all 3 are well worth their weight in mezcal. All 3 are available from DrinkUpNY. Total damage for all is $133. In choosing these I also tried to stay with one website to limit shipping costs for you – so that was another constraint in picking these bottles.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 2
OK, prices are not that much higher here but I am bringing in different offerings. Again, very difficult choices here but I tried to stay in the mid-range of price (less than $75 a bottle) while still choosing amazing mezcals. We have Mezcal Vago Ensemble de Barro ($70), El Silencio Joven ($50), and Ocho Cientos Sotol ($43). The Vago and Silencio are yummy ensembles and the Ocho is a great sotol which tastes very much like a great mezcal. Total damage here is $163 and they can be purchased at K&L Wines.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 3
Let’s get crazy. Let’s get nuts. Here are a few super-premium bottles. While they have the prices to show it, they also have the quality as well. In fact, they are all unbelievable! We have Del Maguey Arroqueno ($100), which won my arroqueno throw down, El Jolgorio Mexicano ($120), and the amazing Pierde Almas Conejo ($190). The stunning total cost here is $410 and they are all available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars.
These 3 sample packs are tricky because there are many excellent mezcals as I said. You can feel free to mix and match of course but each is available at the websites mentioned. You have to select them individually at these websites since they have not figured out how cool it would be to have the “Mezcal PhD Premium Package” as an offering. As the shipping costs can get high, it is always better to buy multiple bottles at the same time.
This is a special bottling by Ilegal – only 180 bottles – that they created for Esquire magazine. It is a blend of 80% mezcal anejo that’s been aged in American oak for one year and 20% mezcal anejo aged in French oak for two years. I had the pleasure of trying this amazing anejo a few weeks ago and it was off the charts, as it should be for $140 – worth every penny. I have already bought several for Christmas gifts (and a few for myself perhaps…). Get it while you can.
Here is another cool idea. Get your special person a subscription to the Mezcal’s Club, which sends out quarterly care packs of lovely mezcals, all of which they say you cannot buy in the U.S. While their low price point for a regular membership clocks in at a hefty $395, you are getting 3 carefully selected bottles and you don’t have to go to Mexico to get them! According to the folks at Mezcal Club, the mezcal value is around $200 and the shipping is around $150. Their current membership drive expires December 1, but if you miss this slot, they will be reoffering new memberships this summer – so you can always give the gift of a forward membership if you miss this one.
This is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site but the spring 2015 dates are March 16-19 and April 26-29. Pricing is on his website but it is around $1,000 a person. I am sure it is worth every penny, and I wish I could join you!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!