Mezcal is bold, smoky and the new popular kid at school. It’s rising to the top as people seize the nostalgia of drinking handcrafted alcohol that is believed to have been a gift from the gods.
But there is still a lot of confusion around the different types of mezcal and what all the labels mean. Not all mezcal is handcrafted. Not all mezcal has a strong smoky flavor. Today, you can also find aged mezcal.
We sort through all the different kinds, types and categories of mezcal so you know what you’re buying next time.
Types of Mezcal Quality
The Mexican government defines the types and aging categories for mezcal, similar to tequila. Mezcal is split into two types, whether it is:
- 100 percent agave, or
- contains a minimum of 80% agave, with the rest made up other sugars.
This makes the general quality of mezcal higher than tequila, the latter only requiring 51% percent of agave sugar by law. But similar to tequila, the best mezcal is always made with 100% agave.
Mezcal Types Based on Production
With international and commercial pressure on mezcal production, techniques had to change to meet demand. Today, not all brands use handcrafted techniques.
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) created different classifications of mezcal based on the way it is produced.
Today, you might see your mezcal bottled labelled as:
- Mezcal – this refers to industrial mezcal which uses mostly modern techniques, such as roasting diffusers and stainless steel fermentation vat.s
- Mezcal Artesanal – this type of mezcal mixes traditional and modern techniques during production. It should primarily use handcrafted techniques, like a tahona, with some modern elements, like steel or copper stills.
- Mezcal Ancestral – this mezcal only uses traditional production techniques without any modern interventions. This includes earth-roasting agaves, clay pot distillations, and fermentation in hollowed tree trunks. There are not many commercial brands that are set up for this rudimentary production, so this mezcal is harder to find, especially abroad.
There are also different times to smoke the agaves, from around 20 hours up to 50+ hours. This can greatly change the flavor profile.
Levels of Mezcal Aging Types
Aging time dictates the next three levels of mezcal:
- Abacado, Joven or Blanco: a clear, un-aged mezcal, usually bottled immediately after distillation or within two months.
- Dorado (golden): a caramel-coloring is added so it appears the same as an aged mezcal (but you won’t be fooled!).
- Reposado or madurado: aged in wooden barrels for two to 11 months.
- Añejo: aged for a minimum of one year in wooden barrels
Mezcaleros argue that the best type of mezcal is young or joven, which retain more of the initial characteristics and flavors of the agave.
Common Types of Mezcal Agave
Mezcal flavor is varied because it changes with: the agave species used, the altitude where the agave grows, fruits or herbs added during fermentation, and the distillation processes.
Common agave used to make mezcal include:
- Espadín: the most common agave used, accounting for around 80–90% of mezcal.
- Tobalá: a rare and wild agave that makes one of the most sought-after and smooth mezcals.
- Tobaziche: also harvested from the wild, making savory and herbaceous mezcal.
- Tepeztate: taking up to 30 years to reach maturity, the only way to respect it is to drink it neat.
- Arroqueño: look for floral, vegetal, spicy and bitter chocolate notes.
- Jabali: a rare agave that is difficult to work with, making this mezcal harder to find. The flavor is complex and sometimes with caramel notes.
You can find mezcal subtypes such as pechuga, blanco, minero (from Santa Catarina Mina), cedrón, creme (creamy mezcal).
‘Pechuga’ mezcal, for example, is created from distilling mezcal with chicken, duck or turkey breast, with cloves, cinnamon and other spices, and fruits like apple, plums, pineapple and red bananas. The majority of mezcal, however, is untouched to focus solely on the unique smoky agave flavors.
All of these factors create many different types of mezcal flavors. For example, espadin agave tends to hold the smoky flavor more. On the other hand, wild agaves like tobala and jabali have delicate, mineral flavors; you won’t often taste as strong smoke flavors in these mezcals.