The past few years have been good to tequila. Mixologists have managed to elevate its reputation from the booze of Cancun debauchery to something suitable for both cocktails and sipping straight. The trend is best exemplified in New York by Philip Ward's stunning work with agave-based spirits at the Mexican cantina Mayahuel; at midtown's Zengo, meanwhile, a "tequila library" showcases bottles with near-religious reverence; and many of the city's increasingly prominent Mexican restaurants, from stalwarts like Sueos to newcomers like Hecho en Dumbo, are offering their own impressive collections. But even as tequila—a type of unsmoked mescal distilled from the blue agave plant—has seen its popularity and culinary cachet grow, the larger family of mescals has remained under-explored.
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This isn't entirely surprising: With an aroma that's closer to an intensely peaty Islay Scotch than, say, a caramel-scented bourbon, mescal can be a challenge to appreciate—the stinky cheese of the spirit world. Whether young and clear or browned from aging in wood barrels, it has agave's unique vegetal smell enveloped in a powerful smokiness, the result of the plant's lengthy roasting process (traditionally done in earthen pits for as long as 30 days) before it's fermented and distilled.
Yet there's never been a better time to get to know mescal, given how bartenders like Ward are creating pitch-perfect drinks that showcase the offbeat liquor; plus, an increasing number of artisanal products are entering the market, including new small-batch bottles from the Los Amantes label, available at the recently opened Casa Mezcal.
Enjoying the drink, however, may be easier than understanding it. Mescal is strongly influenced by its terroir, but complicated variations in the climate where agave grows make absolute truths about styles unlikely. "Where you grow the agaves, the type of agaves you grow, how you handle them and how they're processed will absolutely affect what's going on in the glass," says Steve Olson, a wine and spirits expert who's especially passionate about the aloe-like succulent in the lily family—not a cactus, a common misconception. "But with mescal, [some of those factors] may not be reflected in the finished product."
We can tell you this: The first step in appreciating mescal is forgetting those worm-filled bottles, a now-outlawed gimmick used to sell the basest swill. Instead, seek top-shelf brands like Del Maguey and Sombra, whose mescals are balanced and complex—intense, sure, but utterly charming. As you sip, nuanced layers emerge: Behind that obvious campfire scent lies meatiness, green vegetation, a stony minerality, hot spice, bright acidity, ocean salt, and citrus fruit like lime, orange and grapefruit. What about the salt-and-lime combo that many people insist on taking shots with? According to Olson, the function of those accoutrements is to make subpar booze taste like the real deal. Good mescal's inherent acid and saline qualities also make it amazingly food-friendly, something Phil Ward loves about the spirit. "It plays to spicy and savory elements," he says.
Given the chance, mescal's earthy quirkiness has the power to enchant, with a depth that tequila doesn't offer. Before you imbibe, remember this: When you and your friends toast, first say stigibeu (pronounced "stee-gee-BAY-oo"), which means, roughly, "to the collective life force"; then say, bakeen: "Drink!". Well, what are you waiting for?