Mezcal is an alcohol distilled from the agave plant. The name comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, meaning “oven-cooked agave.” Around 70% of all mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which helps to solidify the drink’s connection to that country. A saying in Oaxaca, in translation, says “For all bad, mezcal, and for all good, as well; and if there is no remedy, liter and a half.”
Here are some basic rules from experts and novices alike on the best way to drink mezcal, and where to begin.
1. Start Simple and Easy
Bartenders familiar with the drink say that the best way to drink mezcal for beginners is to start with well-known brands. Aleks Medina of Sabina Sabe in Oaxaca recommends Espadin or Papalote. Medina says these “two states have the greatest mezcal tradition” and are therefore a good starting point for getting into mezcal.
2. Sip, Don’t Shoot
Bartender Chris Reyes says the first mistake most people make with mezcal is getting the shot and immediately “pouring it down their throat.” Reyes says that one can only appreciate the aromas of the mezcal if you take your time and sip. Medina also notes that sipping mezcal neat is the best way to enjoy the liquor.
3. Cocktails Lead the Way
Mezcal, and its cousin Tequila, have a reputation for being strong liquors with an almost overwhelming taste. While it may obscure the subtle flavors of the mezcal, mixing the liquor into a cocktail is a perfect way to start your appreciation of this Mexican treasure. One suggestion is to replace the tequila in a Sangrita with mezcal for “a refreshing…summer sipper.”
4. Alcohol by Volume
Another factor to consider when you’re thinking about how to drink mezcal is the alcohol by volume or ABV. Legally, mezcal must be distilled twice to achieve an alcohol level between 36 and 55%. Medina says that this level of alcohol is necessary for the flavors and aromas of the mezcal to “blossom.”
Mezcal is known in part for its smokiness, an aspect of the flavor that is tied to how the agave plants are prepared. But smoke can be a very overwhelming flavor, so knowing your tolerance for this flavor can help with your enjoyment of a mezcal. Choose something mild if smoke is not your preference, and then you’ll be able to enjoy the other flavors and scents of the mezcal. But if smoke is your thing, there’s “a mezcal for every palate.”
More Advanced Rules
If you’re ready to try mezcal, and you’ve covered the basics, here are a few advanced pointers on how to drink mezcal, in an easy-to-digest FAQ section.
What To Drink Mezcal With?
Washington Post columnist Carrie Allen suggests drinking mezcal with other fruity flavors in a cocktail. She suggests a Sangrita cocktail with mezcal or using mezcal as a spirit substitute in a Margarita. Aleks Medina calls the “Last of the Oaxacans” his favorite mezcal cocktail. It is equal parts mezcal, “Luxardo Maraschino, Green Chartreuse, and lime juice.” Mezcal is versatile alcohol, and experts note that the same mezcal consumed with different fruits or flavors can be very different experiences.
How To Drink Mezcal With Worm?
An old rumor is that if one consumes a worm from a bottle of mezcal, you’ll start hallucinating. More recent thinking suggests that if you find a worm in your bottle of mezcal, it’s likely not been well-made and is not a good mezcal. Chris Reyes instead suggests using worm salt - salt that has been created from the worms that come out of the agave plant. The salt helps to keep the palate clean while tasting mezcal.
How To Drink Mezcal Neat?
The best way to consume mezcal neat is at room temperature, and with a small glass of water. The water helps to cleanse the palate and rehydrate the mouth. This attention to revitalizing the mouth between sips allows the drinker to taste the different flavors of the mezcal and smell the different aromas that arise from it.
How To Drink Mezcal With Orange?
An orange wheel is sprinkled with worm salt and added as a garnish to the mezcal. Mezcal is best consumed from a traditional clay cup or Jicarita. The wide bowl of the cup allows a greater appreciation of the aromas of the drink.