Latest mezcals to market: we taste the smoke bombs and the refined minimalists

29 May 2018

With new brands and expressions arriving on a seemingly weekly basis, the UK’s mezcal scene is more exciting than ever. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of agave-hungry bartenders for a whistlestop tour of Oaxaca’s finest

How it worked: Mezcals were eligible for this tasting if they first became available in the UK within the last 12 months, with a limit of one expression per brand. These were tasted blind by a panel of bartenders, who were only aware of each mezcal’s price. Tasters scored each out of 20, taking a variety of factors into account, including value for money, and resulting in an overall percentage score.
Prices are all RRP for 70cl, unless otherwise specified.

Mezcal has come a long way in the UK since it first began to capture hearts and minds over here. The number of brands has grown steadily, as has the number in their ranges. And with more agave varieties than ever to choose from, both wild and cultivated, there’s a mezcal for every palate, every occasion, and every wallet.

The picture built up during this tasting was a fascinating one of an offering that faithfully reflects the complexity that mezcal is capable of. And there were some surprises too in the form of innovative products, singular wild agaves, and even a shift in overall style.

The panel
Alan Cartolano, Hawksmoor; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Carlos Londoño, Cafe Pacifico; Humberto Martins, Wahaca; Dino Pala, Ella Canta; Michele Reina, Sheraton Grand Park Lane; Nicola Rossini, Ella Canta; Will Sleeman, Super Lyan

90 – Del Maguey Wild
Jabali (Jabali)
The only mezcal in this line up to be produced entirely from wild, non-Espadin agave, this mezcal stood out for all the right reasons. In their praise of this rare spirit – Jabali is seldom used to produce mezcal as it’s notoriously difficult to work with – tasters were unanimous, and undeterred by its price. This is an incredibly complex spirit, with tasters finding aromas of fresh-cut grass and perfume, peaches and pineapple, an almost-savoury tree bark note, and even some serrano ham and blue cheese.

The palate was honeyed and rich, ‘almost as if it had been fat-washed in butter,’ as one taster put it, yet also juicy, with attractive agave flavours joining barbecue aromas and a fragrant smokiness, as well as a forest-floor earthiness, and a wintery chestnut note too.

‘Fresh and full of life,’ said one taster. ‘An expensive mezcal, but totally worth it,’ concluded another.
45% abv, £115.50, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

81 – Dangerous Don
(Espadin & NaomQuie Coffee)
A unique offering, this mezcal destilado con café proved to be one of our panel’s favourites, both surprising and delighting them. Dangerous Don includes NaomQuie Coffee in its distillation of Espadin agave, with excellent results.

Unsurprisingly, tasters identified distinct roasted coffee notes on the nose, ‘like an arabica eau-de-vie’, but this was joined by fruity notes of cherry and orange too. On the palate, the coffee note moved more towards dark chocolate, and was supported by no shortage of agave notes, together with hibiscus, mandarin, rose water and vanilla.

‘Unique and unexpected – every bar should stock this,’ commented one taster. In addition to the obvious Espresso Martini, panellists thought this would work in an Old Fashioned, or neat as a digestif.
48% abv, £56.99, Proof Drinks,
020 7737 7995

81 – El Jolgorio
El Jolgorio is a range that consists of nine very different mezcals, using an array of different agave varieties. Tasters had nothing but praise for this one, finding great depth and complexity here.
The nose started off gently, with some unripe banana skin and melon, along with some fresh citrus. This was joined by chilli and tamarind, as well as what one taster identified as tepache, a fermented pineapple drink common to Mexico, as well as some floral notes.

A silky, creamy palate followed, along with more spice, white pepper in particular, and some interesting citrus notes of orange and mandarin too. Immensely versatile, and ‘dangerously drinkable’, one taster wanted to see this in a Martini, while another felt this was one to pair with dessert.
47.6% abv, £70, Indie Brands,
01474 327056

80 – Gem & Bolt
(Espadin & Damiana)
What sets Gem & Bolt apart, aside from its striking, minimalist white bottle, is its inclusion of damiana, a traditional Mexican herb with reported health benefits, aphrodisiac and otherwise.

Whether it was the damiana or the traditional production methods in Oaxaca, our panellists were convinced. The relatively sweet nose included notes of honey, vanilla and piloncillo – an unrefined cane sugar typical of Mexico – not to mention dark chocolate and some cinnamon spice, lifted by some fresh, sweet citrus, like lime.

The palate was complex and satisfying. Liquorice and a piney, menthol note made an appearance too, all backed by some distinct, medium smokiness. The combination was well worth the price, our tasters thought, and substantial enough to enjoy neat.
44% abv, £59.99, Indie Brands, 01474 327056

79 – Creyente
Creyente is produced entirely from Espadin sourced from two distinct parts of Oaxaca, one mountainous and one characterised by its rich soil. The result is a complex, concentrated spirit, which is particularly remarkable considering its relatively low abv.

The powerful nose opened with grassy, green notes, as well as some green pepper, with a generous dash of white pepper that carried right through to the palate and on to the finish. A leathery smokiness was prevalent, but well balanced. The palate proved to be creamy, yet spicy too, backed by some ripe, fruity, agave notes. This was joined by chile de árbol – a small, potent chilli pepper – and a savoury note too.

More than one taster commented on Creyente’s mixability. ‘This could easily be used as a substitute for tequila in drinks – that gentle smokiness would shine through,’ said one.
40% abv, £50, Proximo, 020 7489 6410

78 – Derrumbes Zacatecas
(Azul Tequilana)
Blue agave might be better known for its role in tequila, but here it takes on a whole new character, produced using the traditional roasting pits commonly associated with mezcal. The result is a revelation, and unique, with tasters identifying guanabana, rocket and chillies, as well as toasted rice, black beans and yeasty bread.

The palate followed with spicy notes of clove, cinnamon and liquorice, as well as chocolate and tobacco, and an orange-blossom note. Perhaps most importantly, tasters also spoke of the distinctive cooked-agave notes throughout. Worth seeking out to experience something different in mezcal and, as more than one panellist pointed out, a bargain at that price.
48.8% abv, £45, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

77 – Santo de Piedra
House of Agua Piedra Mezcal & Co, the company behind Santo de Piedra, focuses not only on making quality mezcal, but also on sustainability and social responsibility, using recycled glass for its distinctive bottles and running social projects in Oaxaca.

The mezcal itself proved to be a winner with our panel. Tasters thought this elegant and balanced spirit made for an excellent introduction to the mezcal category, with sweetness and abundant fruit, and only a subtle smokiness. Undeniably Espadin, according to more than one taster, this has an abundance of citrus, like mandarin and grapefruit, as well as some green apple and cherry notes, accentuated by a touch of chilli. Some thought it would do good service after dessert, while one taster saw this in a Mezcal Martini.
40% abv, £66, Highball Brands, 020 7637 7443

76 – El Camino del Pensador
(Espadin & Madrecuishe)
Brand new Pensador Mezcal is made from a blend of Espadin and Madrecuishe, which are combined from the earliest stages of production, with the latter included for its minerality.

Our panel praised the mezcal for this, finding that minerality on both nose and palate. This was joined by green apple, ripe banana, cooked agave and green pepper, as well as rich vanilla and toffee, and all wrapped up in smoky, tobacco-like notes. Overall, a classic, benchmark mezcal, approachable in spite of its high abv, and filled with character. One for sipping neat.
48% abv, £42/50cl, Meanwhile Drinks, 07950 017 630

74 – Corte Vetusto Mesquite Smoked Mezcal
One in a trio of mesquite-smoked mezcals, Corte Vetusto’s Espadin variant undergoes both its distillations in small copper pot stills, unlike its two stablemates that undergo a second distillation in a clay still. Tasters liked this spirit’s classic mezcal character, from some peppery, spicy, citrus notes on the nose, to a creaminess on the palate, all underlined by some noticeable smokiness. Solid and characterful.
45% abv, £59.75,
New Generation McKinley, 020 7928 7300

73 – Mezcal Amores Verde
Momento (Espadin)
Verde Momento is an accessible, contemporary mezcal from the makers of Mezcal Amores, available with a range of different, colourful labels. Tasters praised its very approachable flavour profile, with tropical fruit and some light smokiness, not to mention its price. Panellists identified floral notes, some minerality, chilli and hibiscus. One taster thought it’d be a good summertime mezcal, and a good option for a Mezcarita.
42% abv, £40, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009

73 – Mezcal Koch El de Oaxaca
The Koch El Mezcal range consists of mezcals from different Oaxacan regions, using an array of agave varieties. The Espadin variant proved to be a classic expression, with smoky grilled pineapple and cooked agave to start, joined by some serious spice, which continued onto the palate. That spiciness was joined by a creamy texture, not to mention a herbal note, like thyme, and some appealing minerality throughout. All of this, our tasters noted, came at a great price. ‘A definite after-dinner option, and an alternative to peaty Islay scotch,’ one taster said.
47.2% abv, £45.99, Spirit Cartel, 020 7609 4711

69 – Nuestra Soledad Ejutla
La Compañía, in Oaxaca’s Ejutla district, is the home of this spirit, which is part of the Nuestra Soledad range of single-village mezcals, created by the producers of El Jolgorio. Its agave plants are roasted in pit ovens using both oak and mesquite. The result, according to our panellists, was a robust spirit that demonstrated some substantial spice notes, like coriander, cardamom and jalapeño, together with a vanilla note.

The palate, while lighter than expected, was interesting nevertheless, with green olive, balsamic vinegar and red grape. Undeterred by the near-absence of any smoky character, tasters thought this a good, entry level mezcal, with good mixing potential.
41% abv, £40, Indie Brands, 01474 327056

64 – Mezcal Amores
Mezcal Amores keeps things natural and traditional when producing its range of mezcals, and its Espadin is no exception. While it had a few critics on our panel, it had its fair share of praise too, and achieved this at a very reasonable price. Tasters thought this light and delicate at first, with some fresh, grassy notes, alongside a floral element. The palate was more substantial, with some fruity creaminess initially, as well as a balsamic note, giving way to a dry, chalky finish.
41% abv, £44, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009

Many thanks to the team at Ella Canta for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.

It’s a real endorsement of a category when the lowest average score in the tasting is 64% – as well as proof, if any were needed, that bartenders really like mezcal. With a top score of 90% though, there were a range of quality, price, and price-to-quality ratios available here.

If you think that mezcal equals smoke, this tasting could make you reconsider. Rather than one-dimensional smoke bombs, these complex and nuanced spirits showed that there’s more to mezcal than fire and brimstone.

The two entrants that made use of additional components, damiana and coffee, were well received. There’s clearly some potential here.

With prices starting at £40, these certainly aren’t cheap, but tasters found good value at all price points. By and large, these mezcals justified their expense, and our panellists were confident that there was a market for them.

Panel comments:
Alan Cartolano, Hawksmoor
‘Some of the mezcals in this flight could be used like pot-still vodkas, while others with cherry and cooked-agave flavours would work as after-dinner drinks.’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘It’s interesting to see the evolution of the style of mezcal that’s making it to the UK. This flight in particular showed the diversity of styles that Espadin is capable of producing, and also that there’s a lot more to mezcal than just smoke. There was something here for every occasion, from well-priced mixing mezcals to complex and rare spirits best served neat.’

Carlos Londoño, Cafe Pacifico
‘The bar has been raised really high in this market. In general, I think food is a great way to promote mezcal. It works with everything from Japanese to Indian food, and doesn’t need to be served alongside, but can be used for macerations, sous vide, dehydrations and more.’

Humberto Martins, Wahaca
‘I think people expect smokiness from mezcal, and the first ones in the UK were like that, but my favourites here aren’t particularly punchy and smoky. There are some that are better suited to mixing, but it’s important to consider balance – you need medium smoke for cocktails, for example.’

Dino Pala, Ella Canta
‘We use a lot of mezcals in our drinks, but when I see that a guest has some knowledge, I’d probably go for a neat serve. There’s a lot of storytelling in mezcal that helps us to sell these.’

Michele Reina, Sheraton Grand Park Lane
‘There was a great range. Apart from a couple, they each deserved at least an hour’s worth of attention. Some were extremely exciting, while others were just good expressions of Espadin and Oaxaca. You can use mezcals in cocktails in tiny amounts to add some three-dimensionality, and I really like the idea of a Mezcal Martini, maybe 2:1 with bianco vermouth.’

Nicola Rossini, Ella Canta
‘What we do at Ella Canta is a waiter proposes a mezcal at the end of the meal, and we have a mezcal tray that has a choice of different price points. People respond really well to that. They’re really curious. As the category is relatively new, it’s important for bartenders to educate people – about different agaves, for example.’

Will Sleeman, Super Lyan
‘People definitely ask for mezcal at the bar, and when it comes to the higher-priced examples, the more educated customers know where the money goes. I think most people are after smoke bombs, although we really saw a wide spectrum of styles here today. I think the more diverse the range the better.’

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