Mezcal is gaining a cult following as people succumb to its unique, smoky flavor and the sentiment of drinking a handcrafted spirit.
But although it has similar roots to tequila, there are some slight differences in how it is drunk… and just so we’re all on the same page, neither is drunk as a shot with lemon and lime. Only, of course, if it’s salt made from crushed gusanos (larvae), which is what many people confuse as the ‘tequila worm.’
Below we share the best ways to drink mezcal.
Mistakes When Drinking Mezcal
- Drinking mezcal chilled or with ice: mezcal contains lots of natural congeners, which give much of its flavor. Chilling mezcal dulls these flavors. It is recommended to store your mezcal on a shelf and drink it at room temperature.
- Drinking mezcal from a shot glass: mezcal differs from tequila, and so does the glass. It is best drunk in a glass with a wide mouth to reduce alcohol vapors and allow you to draw out the flavors. Traditionally, mezcal is drunk from a jicara (bowls from dried plants), clay pots, or short and wide shot glasses with a cross on the bottom.
- Taking a big shot: drinking mezcal is more like a small kiss or just wetting your lips. The flavor profile is complex, so you want to draw the liquid over your tongue rather than gulp it down.
- Start slow if you’re new to straight spirits: if you’re not ready for the full flavor of mezcal, start with a cocktail and look out for smoky back flavors to identify the mezcal taste. In many cases, mezcal is interchangeable with tequila, so next time you order a margarita, switch it out for mezcal instead. Mezcal can generally be swapped out for any strong traditional spirit. There are also some tried-and-tested favorites that you can easily find, such as: Meczal Mule Mezcal Old Fashioned, Mezcal Negroni.
Mezcal is made from distilled agave, which gets its smoky flavor from cooking the agave cores underground for several days. However, it is a misconception that all mezcals have a strong smoky flavor.
The flavor depends on which agave is used, and how long it is cooked for. For example, the common agave used in mezcal, espadin, has a greater capacity to absorb smoky flavors than some other agaves used. Strong smoky mezcals are the best for cocktails, although they are also enjoyable for sipping, too.
Other agaves, such as the wild Tobala and Jabali, are rarer and grow for up to 25 years. The flavors are delicate, raw and mineral, and can only be appreciated by sipping straight or neat.
The terrain can also greatly change the flavor even if a mezcal uses the same type of agave; a tobala agave grown in the highlands will taste very different to one in the lowlands.
Many argue that the only way to truly appreciate each mezcal is to drink it neat and sip it slowly.
How to Drink Mezcal Like a Mexican Local
Mezcal is not traditionally mixed with anything, but it is common to sip it alongside food or something to nibble on. This is usually thin slices of orange, but jicama, carrot or grapefruit also work. The snack is sprinkled with a mixed salt called sal de gusano (“worm salt”).
Despite the translation, this tasty salt is actually ground-up larvae that live in the agave plants. Even if it makes you squirm, the smoky, slightly chili flavor is an excellent complement to mezcal. For food pairings, cheese, meats, and rich sauces (like mole) are great friends.
What you will rarely find is a worm – which is also larvae, not a worm – at the bottom of the bottle. This is mostly considered a marketing ploy and not something premium producers do.
Choosing Your Mezcal Glass
Traditional mezcal glasses are usually short and stout with a wide opening, different from the slim and tall glasses used for tequila.
The most traditional mezcal cups are made from dried jicara, a fruit (also known as calabash) or clay. Although, you will see some cups made using the traditional black clay from Oaxaca, we don’t recommend this. Most black clay is naturally finished and shouldn’t be in contact with water.
In Oaxaca, it is also traditional to ‘drink over the cross.’ When you tip these wide shot glasses to your mouth, you can see a cross staring back at you from the bottom of the glass. This supposedly has roots in the country’s Catholic background and is inspired by church candles.
Drinking Local Mezcal in Mexico
Mezcal can easily reach 60-80% alcohol, with hits of vegetal, spicy, and aromatic flavors for diehard mezcal fans.
Most mezcal that gets exported is distilled with water to soften the proof for American or European markets. But this can also tame the wilder flavor, so trying traditional mezcal straight from the barrel is an experience.
Thanks to specialized mezcalerias, today it is possible to try ultra-traditional spirits from small producers that might otherwise never get bottled or sold. In Oaxaca, a few places include Mezcaloteca, In Situ, La Porfiria, Los Amantes, and Pitiona.
Mezcal is quickly becoming the star ingredient in innovative craft cocktails. Mezcal imports are on the rise, and the smoky liquid is being embraced by mixologist communities and bars across the globe.
Likewise, in Mexico, experimental mezcal cocktails are popping up on menus in fine restaurants and boisterous cantinas alike.
Of course, mezcal cocktails are not new; it has always been easy to swap tequila and mezcal in a margarita or Paloma. But now you can also see mezcal in other classic cocktails.
There are some limitations to which flavors can be used in mezcal cocktails – they should be bold or sweet to balance the strong mezcal flavors. Making mezcal cocktails can be challenging trying to balance the strong flavors, but once you get the experimentation right, mezcal makes great cocktails.
Strong flavors that work best with mezcal include:
- Blood orange
- Lime or lemon
- Prickly pear juice
- Hibiscus flower (jamaica)
- Tamarindo (add some peanuts and chili)
- Avocado and habanero chili
Because of the variety of styles and flavors of mezcal, it can stand in for different spirits: bartenders are substituting smokier mezcals for Scotch in drinks such as the Penicillin, and mineral-heavy mezcal in place of gin for a Negroni.
Some mezcal cocktails to start with:
- Mezal mule
- Mezcal margarita
- Mezcal manhattan
- Mezcal Paloma (with grapefruit)
- Mezcal sour
- Mezcal bloody mary
- Mezcal old fashioned
- Mezcal negroni
How to Drink Mezcal with a Worm
Straight up, we recommend you don’t drink any mezcal with a worm. Mostly because no premium brand would do that.
You won’t find many authentic producers that add a worm during the bottling stage – which, as we touched on above, is actually a caterpillar-like larva of a moth that infests the agaves. Although, for mezcal, a ‘gusano’ isn’t prohibited by law, unlike for tequila.
The source of the worm trend is conflicting. No one is certain whether it started from a marketing ploy; was used as a sign of alcoholic proof that mezcal was fit to drink; or to impart flavor.
Instead, stick to the worm salt. And if you’re desperate to further impress your friends, gusanos are a delicacy in Mexico. Try them fried on a taco.
Some pink mezcal is also colored from the cochineal bug, which similarly feasts on the agave plant.