Look at the menu of any cocktail bar worth its salt, and you’ll likely find a list of creative drinks based on mezcal. The smoky agave spirit has become a go-to for bartenders and sales of the trendy spirit are booming. In 2019, North American consumers spent over $326 million on mezcal, according to one industry report, and that number is expected to swell to $521 million by 2027.
What we in the U.S. label as mezcal is typically made by smaller, less consolidated producers, often family farmers who have been cultivating and harvesting agave plants using traditional techniques for generations. But the current wave of popularity could pose a threat to that way of life for the farmers and to the biodiversity of the ecosystems where they grow native agaves – unless consumers are mindful to spend their money on products that support artisans working to preserve those historic methods.
For some insight on what to look for when shopping for sustainable mezcal, we spoke with agave spirits expert Chris Chernock, beverage director of Broken Spanish, chef Ray Garcia’s Michelin-recognized Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, currently operating a pop-up residency at NeueHouse Hollywood. This month, Chernock and Garcia opened Bar Sala, an intimate mezcal and tequila bar, where Chernock offers personalized tableside tastings from his curated spirits list.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the potentially non-vegan association with ‘worms’ in bottles, let’s put that to rest. While it is still possible to encounter bottles con gusano, the majority of brands, especially in the craft spirits category, are almost all worm-free. Unlike wine and beer production, which can sometimes utilize animal products in the making of the drink, mezcal ‘worms’ (they’re technically insect larva) play no role in the distillation process. Some companies started dropping them into some bottles as a marketing gimmick starting in the 1950s, when there were fewer distinctions between agave spirits classifications.
How do you describe mezcal to someone who has never tried it before, or isn’t quite sure how it’s different from tequila?
Mezcal at its core is a spirit distilled from the agave plant. With tequila, the agaves are harvested and steamed in ovens, but in mezcal production the agaves are fire-roasted in pits underground for days. That causes mezcal to have a more complex and smokier flavor profile. Additionally, tequila can only be made using the Blue Weber agave in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, while mezcal can be made from almost any agave across 10 different Mexican states. Think of tequila as a very specific type of mezcal in a similar way we know champagne is a specific type of wine with a specific set of rules.
Tequila makers, particularly the big corporate brands, sometimes include various additives and artificial ingredients. Should we be worried about that when buying mezcal?
Generally, mezcal producers are families who grow agaves among other crops and distill in their backyard or small palenques. They follow recipes that are handed down from generations of family members before them. The process is usually as rustic as you can get and additives are not used. As demand grows for mezcal companies and production becomes less transparent, it’s hard to know if additives are becoming necessary to meet production needs.
What should a consumer look for when they’re picking out a bottle of mezcal at the store? Are there certain key terms to know or details to look for?
Something to keep in mind when searching for bottles of mezcal is the level of transparency provided on the label. The more information provided, the better. I usually look for the type of agave the bottle was made with and also where the mezcal was produced.
Oaxaca is the most common state that produces mezcal and Espadin is the most common agave; exploring other states and agaves will often lead to discovering some amazing bottles. Keep in mind there are many different microclimates within Mexico and the terroir where the agaves grow can have an impact on the flavor so my best advice is to keep tasting so you learn what region and agave is your favorite.
Can you speak a bit about how the artisan mezcal makers and agave growers are keeping this agricultural process sustainable?
Agaves can take anywhere from eight to 30 years to fully mature before they are harvested and used for mezcal production. This can result in stock issues and over-farming of the most popular agave varietals to meet production needs. That can strip the soil and the plant of its nutrients, and it has resulted in changing flavor profiles and even extinction of some agaves.
Many mezcal makers and agave growers have established rules to plant a number of agaves for every agave that is harvested, working to ensure there will be agaves for years to come.
Producers are also releasing more ensambles, meaning that more than one type of agave is being harvested and cooked together from start to finish. The farmers are harvesting the plants as they become mature and ready, rather than over-farming a single agave. This not only results in some unique bottles of mezcal, but is also a more sustainable method of farming and production.
Ready for a drink? Chris shares three suggestions for artisan, sustainable mezcals to try:
Legendario Domingo Oaxaca Espadin ($47)
This is a very approachable Espadin from San Luis Del Rio, Oaxaca and the distillery sits next to the river. The tropical climate and surrounding fruit trees that share the soil with the agaves play a role in the flavor of this bottle resulting in a citrus and fruit forward Espadin that truly highlights the importance of terroir.
La Luna Mezcal Cupreata ($40)
La Luna Mezcal focuses on highlighting the biodiversity within the lesser-known mezcal producing state of Michoacan. Cupreata agave is the most common agave within this state, similar to the way Espadin is the most common in Oaxaca. Cupreata agaves are much smaller in size and have a higher sugar content, which results in a less smoky and more floral flavor profile.
El Mero Mero Tobala ($80)
The tobala agave is much smaller in size and grown in a very hot and arid climate, which results in a sweeter flavor profile that is incredibly inviting and quite addicting. It’s approachable, crowd pleasing, and not as expensive as some other bottles of Tobala, which is a rarer variety of agave. Be prepared to spend a little bit more for this one because these agaves not only take longer to grow but also require more raw material to make a bottle because of their smaller size.