The unstoppable growth of mezcal

From humble origins it rose to prominence on the New York bar scene. Now, says Liza Weisstuch, this beguiling spirit is expanding its reach further afield – and into collectors’ cellars

Words by Liza Weisstuch

While Tequila can only be made in Jalisco from the Blue Weber strain of agave, mezcal can be produced in nine different states with a range of species. Photo: Greg Buda

This article is part of The Collection, the new home of our premium content. Sign up for free here.

On a Saturday evening in July, before the sun went down, there wasn’t an empty table in the outdoor seating area at The Cabinet, a mezcal-focused bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Inside, the bar that extends the length of the dark, narrow space was completely occupied, too. Among the guests sipping colourful cocktails and frozen Margaritas – a summer necessity amid the city’s stifling humidity – a few drinkers sampled from line-ups of small glasses arranged on a wooden board before them. Some slices of orange and a bowl of small, crispy cricket carcasses rounded out the presentation – one culture’s palate-cleanser is another culture’s curiosity.

A server delivered my quartet of samples and gave me a rundown of the one-ounce pours. She explained different agave variations – arroqueño, cuishe, tobala – and the flavours they impart: mineral, grassy, fruity, earthy, herbal, smoky. Each was indeed wildly different from the last. I’d go so far as to say as different as bourbon is from a pot-still Irish whiskey.

As a spirits category, mezcal may be one of the most challenging – or the most exciting and engaging, depending on your outlook. What’s clear is that American imbibers are up for the challenge. Mezcal has become, in no uncertain terms, a phenomenon, growing quickly from cultishly popular tipple among industry insiders to mainstream darling.

US sales of mezcal are projected to rise by 50% in the next five years. Photo: Deborah Wastie

The numbers tell it best. Recent figures from the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal show mezcal’s value grew from 6.9bn pesos ($349.5m) in 2019 to 8.2bn pesos ($413.3m) in 2020. According to research group IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, mezcal is one of the fastest-growing categories in the United States, with sales increasing by nearly 15% by volume in 2020 over 2019. Sales are forecast to grow 49.2% by volume between now and 2025. Many credit that steady growth to imbibers’ deeper knowledge of other spirits, which has led curious drinkers on an Indiana Jones-like pursuit of the next big thing.

‘It’s actually whisky drinkers – and to a smaller degree, rum drinkers – rather than Tequila drinkers who are moving into mezcal,’ says Justin Lane Briggs, an agave spirit expert and consultant who developed The Cabinet’s collection of 300-plus expressions and cocktail list. ‘People who are into funky Jamaican and Haitian rums make the jump pretty easily. It’s also whisky drinkers looking for the next thing, rather than Scotch drinkers looking to exchange smoke for smoke. It’s bourbon drinkers coming at it from an understanding of small-batch exclusivity. They’re interested in one-offs like they can experience in the whiskey world – a batch the producer only released once as a commercial variety, say.’

Milling, roasting techniques, fermentation vessels and ambient yeast are just a few of the factors that determine a mezcal’s character. Photos: Greg Buda/Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal

So, what is it that attracts drinkers long committed to other spirits? You’ve likely heard mezcal explained as Tequila’s smoky cousin. This is an extremely inadequate description, because it brushes over the many elements that make mezcal unique. While Tequila can legally only be made in the state of Jalisco, its Consejo Regulador allows mezcal production in nine different states within its sweeping denomination of origin. And while Tequila must be made with Blue Weber agave – one species among nearly 200 – mezcal producers can employ 40 to 50 species, each of which can encompass several varieties. Espadín, a variety with a relatively short growing time of six to eight years, is used in about 90% of mezcal production.

To make Tequila, agave hearts are usually steamed before fermentation. Mezcal-makers typically fire-roast their agave in pits or stone ovens, which contributes the spirit’s smoky notes. But as Briggs noted, what makes mezcal particularly intriguing is its small-batch, truly hand-crafted nature and its ability to express terroir, in terms of both geography and distinct generations-old techniques, most of which are quite labour-intensive. Altitude, weather, soil, sunlight, roasting techniques, fermentation vessels and ambient yeast are just a few of the factors that determine a mezcal’s character.

Espadín, a variety with a relatively short growing time of six to eight years, is used in about 90% of mezcal production. Photos: Ritch Wedeking

Many credit Ron Cooper for unleashing the mezcal craze. In 1995, when he began exporting mezcal to the US under his Del Maguey label, Americans knew mezcal as rough, industrially produced stuff, a far cry from the small-batch products made with generations-old recipes on individual palenques. In his effort to highlight the human element, the personalities that give each expression its character, he referred to the products he bottled as single-village mezcals. Cooper sold a controlling interest in the brand to beverage giant Pernod Ricard in 2017.

‘Ron recognized the parallel between the language of mezcal and wine, so he started going to food-and-wine events and talking to people who understand complex flavours and the vernacular of different varietals, different terroirs and things we didn’t exactly talk about in the spirits world,’ says Misty Kalkofen, who works for Del Maguey in a largely educational capacity under the title ‘godmother’. ‘Ron focused on the growing craft-cocktail movement of the time. Cocktails weren’t so much about hiding flavours like we saw earlier, coming out of our vodka stupor. They were about creating layers of flavours. Spirits like mezcal resonate with bartenders making strong and stirred drinks.’ Kalkofen adds that in the past decade or so, consumers have become increasingly focused on where their food and drink come from. ‘People want provenance and history and these are all things you find in mezcal. It was a perfect storm. A lot of things happening within the food and drink world have themes that mezcal speaks to.’

Danny Mena is a partner in Mezcal de Leyendas and Pelotón de la Muerte, two growing brands. He serves a négociant-like role, bottling far-flung producers’ spirits for export. The former was started in 2006 by the founder of the first mezcal bar in Mexico City. Other outposts have since opened around the world. Despite his deep involvement in the world, Mena is endlessly amazed at the variety he encounters. ‘Nothing compares to how artisan it is. Between the natural yeast and fermentation – some even ferment in leather hides – every batch of every product is so unique, so special,’ he says. ‘When you look at the bottle, you’re never sure what you’re gonna get.’

Mezcal is moving beyond popular culture and into the collector’s world. Some esoteric bottlings sell for hundreds of dollars

Mezcal has taken off in cocktail bars, to be sure. The Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, a smoky twist on the standard, was created in 2007 by New York bartender Phil Ward, who worked at acclaimed cocktail bar Death & Co before opening Mayahuel, his own agave bar. Now it’s a modern standard, known in any watering hole worth its weight in bitters and artisanal ice. As all this has happened, bar managers at many high-end establishments, often destinations for whisky drinkers, have bulked up their inventory with mezcals.

Meanwhile, a young generation of chefs is working with bar staff to develop recipes that pair well with different mezcal expressions. At De Mole, a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn, beverage director Daniel Flores, whose family owns the spot, has created imaginative cocktails involving things like chamomile- and saffron-infused mezcals. But ask him about the spirit, and he speaks enthusiastically about the mezcal-infused smoked salmon.

The Koch El Maguey Madrecuishe mezcal (£66.45, The Whisky Exchange) took a Gold Outstanding award at this year’s IWSC, where it was praised for its ‘amazing aromas of limes, blackcurrant, chocolate and rose petals'. Photo: Deborah Wastie

Now the spirit is moving beyond popular culture and into the collector’s world. Options that make up a brand’s core range, like Del Maguey’s Vida, run at a user-friendly $35 or so, while the more fascinating Pechuga, which harnesses chicken breast in the distillation process, fetches around $200. A safe bet for a higher-end heritage mezcal is about $150; some esoteric bottlings have been known to sell for several hundred dollars.

Whisky-drinkers who are on the hunt for limited editions and collector’s edition releases may find a whole new thrill in mezcal in that many mezcaleros can be equated to fine wine producers. Nearly everything they make is a vintage, and once it’s gone, they’ll have to just wait and see what’s next. A lot of committed mezcal drinkers will discover a producer they particularly like and track his or her releases.

Flavien Desoblin, who opened New York’s whisky-focused Brandy Library in 2004 and the more laid-back Copper & Oak in 2014, has begun to see the mezcal cult of personality emerging. He calls out Berta Vasquez, a veteran distiller who produces for the Rezpiral label, as having a particularly committed following. ‘It’s so artisanal, it’s so craft, it’s so small-craft. Generally speaking, those who are into unique spirits – whether it’s rye or Armagnac – want to try mezcal,’ says Desoblin. ‘We find some people spending money on whatever’s the weirdest or oddest or most expensive mezcal because it offers them this edge. If you have a very expensive example, it’s going to grab their attention, for sure. It’s another degree of sophistication. But now is just the beginning of the mezcal movement. It’s in its infancy.’

This article appears in the latest issue of Club Oenologique and is part of The Collection, the new home of our premium content. Sign up for free here.