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What Is Mezcal?

What Is Mezcal?

We talk to Richard Betts of Sombra Mezcal about this increasingly popular spirit

Mezcal is showing up more and more frequently in cocktails — but what exactly is it? In the video above we spoke to Richard Betts of Sombra Mezcal about this smoky liquor.

Though it has similar roots to tequila, mezcal has a different process for production. According to Betts, "[It's] ultimately taking many different species of agave and distilling [them], super traditionally." It's roasted in the ground, ground with a horse-turned millstone, then fermented naturally, says Betts. Then everything is distilled — the liquids and the solids — two times to "get the real thing."

Betts also believes that mezcal is a liquor that holds its own in a variety of cocktails. "A great place to start is to start with your favorite drink and just substitute it," he says. "The margarita, that’s my favorite way to do it, I just make a smoky margarita."

For more from Betts, including why mezcal has its distinct, smoky flavor, watch the video above!

Tequila is subject to more rigid standards than mezcal. Tequila was originally distilled from the sap (called aquamiel, meaning honey water) and the heart (also called the pineapple) of the blue agave plant. That agave was also turned into a brandy known in old Mexico as vino mezcal. Other types of agave can be used to produce brandies, but they're known simply as mezcals.

Today, mezcal and tequila are two completely different liquors. Tequila may be made only from the blue agave in five Mexican states, with the majority produced in Jalisco. Mezcal may be made from any variety of agave and in eight Mexican states, with the majority produced in Oaxaca. The original fermentation is 104 to 106 proof but is reduced to 80 to 86 proof for shipment to the United States.

To be considered tequila, Mexican standards require the liquor to be at least 51 percent derived from agave sap sugar, with the remaining 49 percent generally being corn or cane sugar. These lower-quality tequilas are perfect for using in cocktails. Tequilas made of 100 percent agave are much more expensive and are sipped on their own so as to appreciate their high quality. Because of their sweet taste, they make a wonderful dessert liquor.

The History

The Mezcal Old Fashioned, aka the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, originated in NYC (where all great things do) in 2007 by Phil Ward, a bartender and tequila specialist at Death & Co. in the East Village. Ward later added his signature cocktail, among a variety of other agave cocktails, to the menu at his own bar, Mayahuel (no longer open).

The Mezcal Old Fashioned is largely credited with igniting the newfound popularity of mezcal in the United States. And it makes sense. Ward took a familiar cocktail—whiskey old fashioned—and gave it a makeover. The key to encouraging people to try something new is to package it up as something they already recognize.

Even though this cocktail is made with completely different ingredients, it’s recognizable and still features the expected oaky flavor from reposado tequila instead of whiskey. The original cocktail featured just half an ounce of mezcal to two ounces of tequila, a soft introduction to the smoky agave spirit.

My version of the Oaxaca Old Fashioned features a whole ounce of mezcal to one and a half ounces tequila. I like the smokiness, but if you prefer cocktails to be light on the mezcal, start with a half an ounce.

The mezcal craze is inspiring new gathering places around the globe.


Scheduled to open this winter in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, this bar—from Gonzalo Gout, another alum of Cosme—takes its name from the indigenous Oaxacan word for “bat.” “Bats pollinate agave and were seen as messengers of the gods,” explains Gout. In addition to a range of mezcals, the cavernous, stone-and-wood establishment will also offer corn-based plates like tlayudas (akin to Mexican pizza) and tamales.


Billed as Paris’s “first true mezcaleria,” Botanero opened this fall in the Marais. Owner Davy Ngy, who is also behind the Paris taqueria Distrito Francés, serves what he describes as a mash-up of “bistronomy and junk food” (ceviche, grilled corn, sardine tacos) alongside the city’s most exhaustive mezcal list.

Joann’s Fine Foods

This Austin Tex-Mex eatery opened in October with 40 different mezcals on the menu. The intention, explains assistant beverage director Alex Holder, is to “support a lot of families working hard to produce products.” Each mezcal is served in a handmade copita, a clay vessel created by a Texas artisan, with a side of citrus and sal de gusano.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Domino, titled “Salud, Mezcal.” Subscribe to be the first to receive each issue!

The Paloma

Here’s a fizzy little number that you might already have met: the Paloma! This tall drink is pretty much nature’s best answer to a hot afternoon. It’s typically made with tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda, but I like putting real grapefruit juice in with just a little lime, sweetening with agave, and throwing in a pinch of salt, too.

In a shaker, combine 1½ oz. tequila or mezcal, 1 oz. grapefruit, ½ oz. lime, ½ oz. agave nectar and a pinch of salt. Fill with ice, seal the shaker and shake well. Strain into a collins or highball glass filled with ice and top with soda. Garnish with a lime wedge.

What Is the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

There’s a never a day more suited than National Mezcal Day (Oct. 21) to wonder: What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? They’re both made from agave, sure, but different species from different regions of Mexico—and the production process for each results in different flavors too. So pour a shot, sprinkle on some bug salt, and keep reading.

Arriba, Abajo More Mexican Spirits to Sip While tequila has been a bar mainstay for years (margarita, anyone?), as imbibers are beginning to look for different layers of flavor, tequila’s cousin, mezcal (also spelled mescal), has been finding a place on bar shelves. While both spirits are made from the agave plant, they are distinct in flavor, harvest location and manufacturing process.

“To make mezcal, you can use around 40 different types of agave. One of them is blue agave, which is the only agave used for the production of 100 percent tequila, so in theory all mezcal is tequila but not all tequila is mezcal,” says Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez of New York, NY-based Ghost Donkey.


According to Nico de Soto, co-owner and mixologist at New York, NY-based Mace, tequila is harvested from five locations in Mexico: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco. Mezcal, however, comes from more locations, including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla, and Oaxaca. Additionally, he says, the city of Oaxaca produces about 85 percent of mezcal.

Rather than pitting two beloved agave spirits against each other, this Margarita brings tequila and mezcal together harmoniously. Tequila’s bright, vegetal notes are balanced with mezcal’s earthiness. Created by New York restaurant Flinders Lane , this bright orange Marg also incorporates carrot juice, chiles and cardamom for an even more savory twist on the classic.

Rum may be the king of all things tiki , but mezcal is throwing its hat in to the tropical ring with this exotic fruit cocktail. Created by Chad Solomon of Midnight Rambler in Dallas, Texas, this drink combines passion fruit purée with mezcal and amontillado sherry , along with white crème de cacao. It’s zesty, rich and oh so satisfying.

Best for a Negroni: Derrumbes San Luis Potosí

This unique mezcal is produced in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, where wild-growing Salmiana agave is cooked to release its sugars, not through traditional pit roasting, but by steam roasting in a brick oven similar to those used by makers of tequila. The result is a mezcal that’s “a whole different beast,” says Mix. “You really get to taste the agave, and it’s super-green and vegetal, kind of like eucalyptus and green bell pepper,” with none of the spirit’s typical smokiness. “You’re surprised to find it’s still mezcal,” says Mix, “but it makes for a really interesting Negroni.”

How Is Mezcal Made?

All tequila comes from a single variety of agave: the mild-mannered blue weber. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from dozens of agave varieties, and each has its own character, which may express itself completely differently depending on how the mezcal is produced and where the plants are grown. The Mexican states of Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas are permitted to call their agave spirits mezcal, and as climate, elevation, and soil composition vary, so too does the resulting spirit. As far as tasting terroir goes, mezcal is as pure an expression of place as a spirit can be.

Depending on the variety, an agave takes anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. Once it’s ready—a farmer and distiller’s judgment call as much as any biological marker—the hulking plant is harvested by hand. Agave is fully ripe right before it blooms, but by the time the flower stalk shoots up 10 or 15 feet into the air, the heart is spoiled and unsuitable for distilling. Try again in a decade or three!

Before agave can be harvested, its woody leaves must be hacked away with a machete to reach the heart of the plant, or piña, so named for its resemblance to a pineapple. But unlike the leaves of the aloe plant, which agave resembles but is in no way related to, the sap from agave leaves can irritate your skin. So mezcaleros wield their machetes with caution, and once the pile of mildly poisonous greenery is cleared away, they use their blades as makeshift shovels to dig the chubby piña out of the earth.

Once it's excavated, they repeat the process again—and again, and again, over a hundred times, just to gather enough piñas for a single batch of mezcal.

In modern tequila production, distillers convert agave starches into simple fermentable sugars by steam-roasting the piñas in fast, efficient ovens. To make mezcal, they dig a big pit. The principle is the same as a pig roast or clam bake: Light a large fire, heat rocks over it, then layer a hundred or more piñas over the rocks and cover it all with soil. This earthen oven slowly roasts the agave anywhere from a couple days to a week, and is the crucial step that gives mezcal its famous smoky flavor. Every mezcalero has their own roasting technique, and if they screw up the roast and burn the agave, that’s the end of that batch.

Assuming the agave isn’t scorched, the next step is to mash the piñas so they can ferment. The mezcalero starts by hacking the hearts into palm-size chunks with their machete—a size small enough to be crushed under a tahona, a big stone wheel pulled in a circle by an ox, bull, or burro. This is actually the high-tech approach for handmade mezcal there’s also a method that involves sandwiching a piña between two pieces of wood and beating the hell out of it with a sledgehammer until the juice runs free. It’s up to the mezcalero to decide which method is best for any given batch of mezcal.

From there, the mashed agave pulp gets shoveled into open-air wooden barrels to ferment for four to 10 days, with the exact time determined by the weather, the agave variety, the intensity of the roast, and the mezcalero’s judgment. Again, there’s no rulebook here you just have to sniff the wind and know.

During my visit, the batch in the barrels was fermenting in two stages: a "dry" ferment of just the pulp and its juices, followed by a "wet" ferment with added water. If the fermentation process was stopped there, you’d have a lovely beer-strength drink called pulque, which tastes delightfully refreshing on the palenque but, by the time it makes its way to the city, continues fermenting into something downright funky.

Before distillers had access to metalsmithing technology, they used clay jugs. Some still do today (look for "en barro" or "distilled in clay" on the label), and though the method is hardly efficient, it adds a smooth, mineral, tongue-drying quality that’s quite complementary to some mezcals. Other mezcaleros use copper stills instead. If a mezcal brand is truly proud of the product in their bottles, they’ll usually tell you which method they used on the label.

Lopez distills most of his mezcals twice, though some palenques opt for three distillations. Like everything else in mezcal, each step is an opportunity for a mezcalero to leave their mark on the product. One of Vago’s most popular bottles is Lopez’s Elote, for which he takes the unusual step of adding toasted corn to the ferment during the second distillation to infuse the spirit with a nutty caramel character.

Finally, you have mezcal. That is, assuming its acid, methanol, and aldehyde levels fall within the numbers dictated by the Consejo Regulador, and they’ve approved the methods of production. And one more thing: Unlike most whiskies and brandies, which are diluted with water after distillation to a uniform 40% alcohol by volume, the best handmade mezcals are bottled at full strength to preserve the integrity of the agave flavor, which is good news for us drinkers, but another cost mezcal distillers must swallow to make their product right.

This is how Lopez does it, and as a point of pride, most premium mezcal brands include details about the production process right on the label. But it’s far from the only way mezcal is made. Regional differences in agave cultivation and processing abound, and as the mezcal industry gains (profitable) traction across the world, some of the industrial technologies that have come to define tequila production are creeping their way onto palenques, such as mechanical shredders to crush the piñas into pulp and steam-pressure autoclaves to cook them. Generally speaking, fully handmade mezcal remains the best mezcal on the market there are just too many variables in mezcal production to preserve its finer nuances on an industrial scale.

Which isn’t to say that handmade, traditional mezcal is the only mezcal worth drinking. If you haven’t figured it out by now, making mezcal by hand is literally backbreaking work, and if developing technologies make life easier for the people who make these tasty spirits, you’d have to be heartless to deny them that option. As of now, most industrialization in the mezcal business benefits larger companies rather than small producers, since that’s where the bulk of investments tend to go. But as global demand for mezcal balloons, these technologies offer the little guys an opportunity to add scale to their business while improving their quality of life.

Mezcal Battle

No sooner has the American drinking public embraced tequila, understood it, learned to love it and mix with it and even sometimes tell the good from the bad than there's suddenly mezcal to deal with. It's not everywhere yet, but if Toby Keith is promoting it &mdash he launched his Wild Shot brand last year &mdash odds are it's on its way. In the meanwhile, you can walk into just about any serious cocktail bar in America and the tattooed mixologist behind the stick will make you a mezcal cocktail. Sometimes that cocktail will even be good.

Mezcal, you see, is not easy to mix drinks with, at least if you're using the artisanal stuff, which is the sort you'll find in those bars. If tequila is the electric guitar of spirits, artisanal mezcal is Jimi Hendrix's Strat at Monterey: volume cranked, feeding back like a motherfker, and on fire. We should explain what we mean by "artisanal mezcal," although if you've ever had it, you'll know. In Mexico, mezcal is a generic term for any spirit distilled from the starchy bulb of the agave plant. If that agave is of the species tequilana, subspecies Weber, and grown in Jalisco or one of four neighboring states, the spirit distilled from it gets to be called tequila. But Mexico has many other types of agave and many other states. There are, therefore, other subspecies of mezcal, traveling under names such as bacanora, sotol, and raicilla. The one bartenders and tequila fiends everywhere are geeking out over, however, is the kind that's handmade in the Zapotec-speaking mountain villages of Oaxaca by roasting the pineapple-shaped agave hearts in charcoal-heated pits in the ground, crushing them, and distilling the juice in oftentimes ancient, sometimes even decrepit, pot stills. The result has roughly the same relationship to tequila that Islay malts do to other single-malt Scotches: They're very smoky, briny, and intense.

Good artisanal Oaxacan mezcals, such as the single-village ones imported by Del Maguey (the pioneer in the field), generally cost north of $50 a bottle. Because it's distilled to bottling proof or close to it (most spirits are distilled to a much higher degree of alcohol and then diluted), its flavor is deep and penetrating and not one to blend easily. That said, if it can be tamed, it makes for a memorable cocktail.

Fortunately, mixing-priced examples that still have all the intensity of their more refined brethren are starting to appear on the market. Compared with a fine sipping-grade Oaxacan mezcal such as [1] Los Nahuales ($60), [2] Sombra ($35) and [3] Del Maguey's Vida ($36) might lack the subtle, appealing tropical-fruit notes in the finish, but that's just the sort of thing that tends to get buried in a cocktail. All of the bold smoke, acidity, and brine are still there.

The easiest way to tame the spirit is to use it as a rinse for the glass you're going to pour your straight-up margarita, daiquiri, or even gimlet into (in small quantities, mezcal adds interest to the kind of drink that combines white spirits and citrus juice). Easy. For something a little bolder, replace half an ounce of your other booze with mezcal. Beyond that, though, things get complicated. New Orleans's own mellow red Peychaud's bitters, when used in an unusual quantity, seem to pull the mezcal into line without clashing with it. (Try a margarita made with 1½ oz mezcal, 3/4 oz Cointreau, ½ oz lime juice, and a whopping ¼ oz Peychaud's &mdash it's alarmingly pink, but truly delicious.)

Yet the boys in the Esquire Institute for Advanced Research in Mixology didn't stop there. They started thinking not just outside the box but also as if the box were torn apart by angry orangutans, and came up with the Anthony Quinn, christened after the Mexican-Irish actor and legendary wild man: Shake up 1 oz mezcal, 1 oz Connemara peated (hence smoky) single-malt Irish whiskey, ½ oz lemon juice, ½ oz orange curaçao, and ¼ oz rich simple syrup (made with 2 parts sugar and 1 part water). Strain. Also, enjoy.

Must-Try Mezcal Cocktail Recipes

Ahumado Seco. | Photo by Jody Horton. All Jacked Up. | Photo by Eric Medsker. Bitters & Smoke. | Photo by Greta Rybus. Calebassito Cocktail. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni. Carter Beats the Devil. | Photo by Angkana Kurutach. Esplanade Swizzle. | Photo by Emma Janzen. El Camino. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni. How To Kill a Friend. | Photo by Justin Alford. Limantour's Jamaica Cocktail. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni. La Capirucha. | Photo by Amy Gawlik. Last of the Oaxacans. Limantour Michelada TJ. | Photo by John Valls. Mezcal Ancho Paloma. | Photo by Maddie Teren. Mezcal Milk Punch. | Photo by Kelly Puleio. Mezcal Avocado Margarita. | Photo courtesy of Margo's. Pasion de Oaxaca. | Photo by John Valls. Smoke & Mirrors. | Photo by Emma Janzen. Tamarind Margarita. | Photo by Lara Ferroni. Oaxacan Old Fashioned. | Photo by Daniel Krieger. Virgin's Sacrifice. | Photo by Lara Ferroni.

With characteristics that range from earthy and smoky to fresh and verdant, mezcal is a versatile spirit primed for mixing into cocktails. Here are 20 of our favorite recipes.

Ahumado Seco
The earthiness of mezcal shines with the brightness of hibiscus and ginger.

All Jacked Up
One of Mayahuel&rsquos boldest cocktails, made with apple brandy, Fernet Branca, maraschino and sweet vermouth.

Bitters & Smoke
For amari and agave lovers, a cocktail combining mezcal, tequila, Cynar and Fernet.

Calebassito Cocktail
Straight from Mexico City, this cocktail combines watermelon, mezcal, Strega, lime and ginger beer.

Carter Beats the Devil
Thai chilis lend a little heat to this tequila and mezcal classic from San Francisco bartender Erik Adkins.

Esplanade Swizzle
Mezcal and sherry meet in this summery swizzle.

El Camino
A mashup of mezcal and whiskey makes for a rich, smoky combo.

How to Kill a Friend
A tropical cocktail that hits all the right flavor notes.

Jamaica Cocktail
Hibiscus steals the show in this simple mezcal cocktail from Mexico City.

La Capirucha
Juicy prickly pears bring an earthy sweetness and electric pink color to this cocktail.

Last of the Oaxacans
The classic gin cocktail meets mezcal.

Limantour Michelada TJ
Inspired by flavors of Tijuana, this spin balances cucumber and Clamato with mezcal.

Mezcal Ancho Paloma
A spicy, smoky take on the traditional tequila cocktail.

Mezcal Avocado Margarita
A unique twist on the classic.

Mezcal Milk Punch
An amped up milk punch from Velveteen Rabbit in Vegas.

Pasion de Oaxaca
Tropical flavors abound in this agave spirits cocktail from Guelaguetza.

Smoke & Mirrors
The heat of jalapeño makes the flavors of pineapple and ginger pop.

Tamarind Margarita
An inventive riff that&rsquos a little tart, a little savory and a touch smoky.

Oaxacan Old Fashioned
A Mexican-accented Old Fashioned riff, created by Phil Ward, mixes reposado tequila with mezcal and mole bitters.

Virgin&rsquos Sacrifice
A frozen cocktail inspired by one of San Francisco&rsquos modern classics.

Watch the video: Tequila u0026 Mezcal Expedition in Mexico - European Bartender School (December 2021).