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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.
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 23 mezcals sampled by BBC Good Food has been anywhere near a worm.
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.
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.
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.
Ilegal Mezcal Reposado
Read our full review of Ilegal Mezcal Reposado
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 QuiQuiRiQui
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.
Gente de Mezcal Tobalá Joven
Read our full review of Gente de Mezcal Tobalá Joven
This unaged mezcal uses 100% tobalá agave, a rare and small agave that requires 12-15 years to come to maturity, which cannot be cultivated. The result is a mezcal that’s both smoky and sweet, and with a rich, almost gamey, taste to it. It was made in a limited batch of 1,200 litres in the town of San Baltazar de Guevila in Oaxaca, and won a Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine and Spirits Competition.
Corte Vetusto Espadín mezcal
Read our full review of Corte Vetusto Espadín
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.
Dangerous Don coffee mezcal
Read our full review of Dangerous Don
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.
Sin Gusano Ensamble of 6 mezcals
Read our full review of Sin Gusano Ensamble of 6
This is an unusual blend of six different agaves, including the espadin, tobala and barril. It’s a complex mezcal, and only 250 litres were produced. On the nose, it smells like a meadow or a garden, with floral aromas, and on the palate there’s a swirl of flavours, including straw, citrus and earthiness.
Buy from Sin Gusano (£75)
Del Maguey Chichicapa
Read our full review of Del Maguey Chichicapa
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.
Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
Read our full review of Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
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.
Buy from Master of Malt (£45.34)
Read our full review of Bruxo X
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.
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.
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