Mexican mezcal (or mescal) is one of the most fascinating spirits around. It's a truly artisanal product, before that term became fashionable. It's made in small batches, mostly in one-person or family-run distilleries, with supplies often going no further than the local town or village.

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The aroma and taste most commonly associated with mezcals is smoky, in the same way that Islay whiskies are renowned for their smoky or peaty notes. If you like peaty whiskies, there are going to be many mezcals that you will also enjoy, and the best way to describe mezcal to someone who hasn’t tried it is somewhere along a spectrum between smooth tequila and smoky whisky.

Most mezcals are made to be drunk immediately, and are known as joven, i.e. young or unaged, though they can be aged for up to two months. A reposado has been aged from 2-12 months, and an aňejo for at least a year, but often more. They tend to be bottled at 40-50% ABV but can be even stronger. Once you've invested in a bottle, our top 10 mezcal cocktail recipes will help you make the most of this unique spirit.

Because mezcals are made in small quantities using traditional techniques that are not always the most efficient, they remain both elusive and expensive. This is all the more reason to choose wisely, if trying them out. Our drinks experts Mike and Richard have tested more than 25 mezcals to select their top 10 favourites below. These cover a range of styles, from young to smoky to flavoured, and a range of prices between £36-£75, to find a mezcal to suit everyone.

Read on to discover our pick of the best mezcal. For more, visit our reviews section and find taste-tests for pisco, gin, vodka, rum and more.

1o best mezcals at a glance

  • Best overall mezcal: Ilegal Reposado Mezcal, £58.10
  • Best young mezcal: QuiQuiRiQui mezcal, £36.29
  • Best smoky mezcal: Corte Vetusto Espadín Mezcal, £58.95
  • Best flavoured mezcal: Dangerous Don coffee mezcal, £59.99
  • Best luxury mezcal: Del Maguey Chichicapa, £73.94
  • Best sweet mezcal: Del Maguey Cream de Mezcal, £46.90
  • Best non-smoky mezcal: Bruxo X, £43
  • Best artisan mezcal: Pensador Espadín, £32.95
  • Best for discovering new mezcals: Sin Gusano, De Horno – San Jose Rio Minas, £60.99
  • Best regional mezcal: Derrumbes Oaxaca, £49.48

What is mezcal?

So, what is mezcal? Well, let's start with what it isn't. It has nothing to do with mescaline, the drug made from a cactus plant, as mezcal is made from the agave plant, which is a succulent and not a cactus.

Nor is mezcal the drink with a worm in it. This 'tradition' began in the 1950s as a marketing gimmick by one brand and was copied by others. None of the 25 mezcals sampled by BBC Good Food has been anywhere near a worm.

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As tequila is made from the blue agave plant, it is a type of mezcal, but it has rules and a category of its own. Most tequila is made in the state of Jalisco, and most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, though several other states are also official mezcal-producing states as defined by Mexican government regulations.

There are over 200 different types of agave plant, though only 30-40 of them are suitable for making mezcal. The one most commonly used is Oaxaca’s most common agave, the espadin, which is used in about 90% of mezcals and does make a very smooth-tasting drink. Others include tobala, tepeztate, madrecuixe, and arroqueño.

Best mezcal to buy 2022

Ilegal Mezcal Reposado

Best overall mezcal
ABV:
40%

In Mexico they prefer their tequila reposado, or rested and aged in barrels, but like their mezcals young and unaged. This is an exceptional reposado from one of the leading brands in the UK, with a straw-like colour to it from resting for four months in American oak barrels. There’s a smell of straw too, and a more earthy taste with a dash of spice.

Read our full review of Ilegal Mezcal Reposado

Available from:
Amazon (£58.10)
The Whisky Exchange (£59.95)
Master of Malt (£58.10)

QuiQuiRiQui mezcal

Best young mezcal
ABV:
45%

QuiQuiRiQui proves that the most common agave plant, the espadin, can produce outstanding mezcal without any ageing at all. The nose is rich and buttery, like a good chardonnay, but with a vanilla sweetness and several other scents wafting around, while on the palate it’s equally complex and satisfying.

Read our full review of QuiQuiRiQui

Corte Vetusto Espadín mezcal

Best smoky mezcal
ABV:
45%

Corte Vetusto cooks its agave for four days using mesquite wood, to enhance the smoky flavour and give an extra taste of Mexico. It provides a whisky-like aroma, with hints of vanilla and pear, while on the palate there’s more vanilla, more fruit, and a fully-rounded mouth-feel leading to a smooth finish. It won a Gold Medal in the 2017 San Francisco International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Read our full review of Corte Vetusto Espadín

Dangerous Don coffee mezcal

Best flavoured mezcal
ABV:
48%

Flavoured mezcals are rare but this one, steeped in coffee beans, is an absolute winner. The organic coffee beans come from the Oaxaca coast and are introduced to the mezcal between its second and third distillation, producing a spirit that's not actually over-rich in coffee but full of flavours like chocolate, nuts, citrus, and the scent of an autumnal bonfire.

Read our full review of Dangerous Don

Del Maguey Chichicapa

Best luxury mezcal
ABV:
46%

Del Maguey has proved to be one of the most reliable brands, and a very early mezcal promoter. This one from the town of San Balthazar Chichicapa uses 100% espadin agave and cooks them using a variety of woods, including eucalyptus. The outcome is a mezcal that has a mix of vegetal and sweet notes on the nose, and an earthy and peppery flavour.

Read our full review of Del Maguey Chichicapa

Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal

Best sweet mezcal
ABV:
40%

If you have a sweet tooth, Del Maguey’s Crema de Mezcal will indulge it, as a dash of agave syrup has been added to the base spirit. This has produced a mezcal with slightly more vanilla and honeyed sweetness than usual, but balanced with some smokiness on the nose and palate. It's the perfect introduction for the mezcal novice.

Read our full review of Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal

Bruxo X

Best non-smoky mezcal
ABV:
40%

This blend of two agaves, espadin and barril, has produced a non-smoky mezcal that's ideal for anyone who doesn’t care for too much smokiness. It's a crystal-clear mezcal, with a nose that offers both sweet and savoury aromas, along with the usual earthiness, while the taste brings in honey, caramel and a dash of peppery spice.

Read our full review of Bruxo X

Pensador Espadín

Best artisan mezcal
ABV:
47.5%

Founded by a Londoner who was so overwhelmed by the experience of trying high-quality mezcal on a trip to Mexico City in 2015, he spent the next two months touring the areas it's produced in. Soon after his return, he'd booked tickets back to Oaxaca intent on making the connections that would allow him to import the kind of mezcal that had so wowed him.

Small batches, dealing with the producers as a collective and keeping the process sustainable is key to the Pensador business ethos, and from it springs their Espadin bottling. The nose trails lightly mineral notes alongside a fresh green herbal element, some honey sweetness and woodsmoke. This grows on the palate, with a full mouthfeel contrasting with the fresher elements, before the smoke bridges to a dry finish. Complex, but approachable.

Sin Gusano, De Horno – San Jose Rio Minas

Best for discovering new mezcals
ABV:
49.1%

Explicitly founded on the principles of sustainable development, Sin Gusano ("without the worm") is a passion project for founder Jon Darby. He spends a huge amount of time seeking out independent producers and sourcing batches that highlight the massive range and diversity of mezcal. Certified carbon-neutral, and donating 10% of their profits to charity, Sin Gusano also run the Mezcal Appreciation Society, a subscription service that allows drinkers to taste an ever-changing series of artisanal mezcal, with a deep dive into each one's heritage alongside.

The latest current release highlights a producer from a remote community in western Oaxaca, and the nose has a contrast of the earthy and floral, with ripe melon, pear, smashed cucumber juiciness and pale fudge sweetness. The palate is full of peppery green herbs, creamy citrus, a light salinity and aromatic smoke at the end.

Available from:
Sin Gusano, £60.99

Derrumbes Oaxaca

Best regional mezcal
ABV:
48%

Derrumbes bottle a range of mezcals, each focusing on a specific region, with an eye to highlighting the incredible biodiversity that marks out the potential of mezcal to many of its adherents. The Oaxaca bottling focuses, naturally, on a spirit that shows the central valleys of Oaxaca to good advantage. Produced in Santiago Matatlán.

A blend of Espadin and Tobala agave, this has a light smokiness on the nose, with an accompanying minerality, and some jasmine and agave sweetness opening up a minty herbal edge. It sips slightly lighter than expected but is still full-bodied, with citrus fruitiness, a bit of leather and a big pepper hit before the smoke returns to see you through to the finish.

How is mezcal made?

Mezcal distilleries are called fábricas or, more commonly, palenques. The agaves are brought here, and the leaves and roots removed to leave just the heart, or piña. The piñas are then cooked for several days, usually in underground ovens, before being crushed, traditionally under a stone wheel that's pulled by a horse.

The mash this produces is then fermented, followed by two distillations, as with tequila. Herbs and spices can be added at both the fermentation and distillation stages, which is another reason mezcals have subtle differences.

This review was last updated in October 2022. If you have any questions or suggestions for future reviews, or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at goodfoodwebsite@immediate.co.uk. For information on alcohol guidelines, read our guide to drinking responsibly.

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