This new brand of mezcal hails from San Juan del Rio in Oaxaca. It’s a blanco made in a decidedly traditional style. To wit:
This traditional mezcal is made from Espadín agave plants grown on the hills surrounding San Juan del Rio, which are harvested at their optimum maturity by Jimadores, and roasted for 5 days in conical stone ovens over sustainable Holm Oak logs. Next, the agave hearts are ground on a horse drawn Egyptian mill, which creates an extract that naturally ferments in open pine containers for up to 13 days. Finally, the liquid is slowly distilled twice in copper pot stills, a process which removes impurities, refines the character of the mezcal, and produces a soft, smooth flavor with a slightly smoked, citric aroma.
Amaras (“you will love”) is a bit more smoked than that description would indicate, but it does indeed have a citrusy, barbecue-like aroma that pushes right along as the palate gets a grip. Notes of pineapple, honeycomb, and melon make for some interesting appetizers before the smoky body really begins to dig in. It isn’t overbearing or particularly harsh, but it does offer a sizable amount of campfire flavors. Notes of Mexican chocolate build on the finish if you give it time, adding a layer of complexity to an otherwise fairly straightforward but extremely well-made mezcal.
82 proof. Reviewed: Lot #1 (2014), bottle 147/3300.
A- / $50 / mezcalamores.com
Del Maguey’s Pechuga Mezcal is legendary in the mezcal world, and justifiably so. For those not in the know, in Spanish, a pechuga is a poultry breast, commonly a chicken breast. Why would you call your mezcal Pechuga? Because it has a chicken breast in it.
How’s that? Del Maguey mezcel is distilled three times, and during the third distillation of Pechuga, a whole chicken breast (bones and all) is suspended in the air within the still. As the distillation progresses (a 24-hour process), the vapors interact with the chicken meat in a strange and incredibly compelling way. How anyone came up with this idea is beyond me, but the proof is in the bottle — Pechuga is easily my favorite of Del Maguey’s increasingly vast lineup of single village mezcals.
What then is Iberico? If you’re up on your gourmet foodstuffs, you’ll recognize the name Jamon Iberico, a ham made of free-range, acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs from Spain. Using your deduction skills you’ve probably figured out what Iberico Mezcal is by now: In lieu of a chicken breast, it’s made with an Iberico ham hanging in the still. A collaboration between Cooper and chef Jose Andres, it’s an equally bizarre and decidedly non-kosher approach to spirits production.
So, how’s it taste?
As with all mezcals, the nose is smoky, but here that pungent aroma takes on a curious scent of cigar smoke with fleeting undertones of mint chocolate. The body is beautiful. Racy with notes of cracked black pepper, the spicy body is tempered by a melange of flavors that include orange peel, grapefruit, nougat, and vanilla. That smokiness rushes back up on the finish, along with notes of camphor and incense. Complex with a load of flavors, yet extremely easy to sip on for hours, Iberico is nearly the same masterwork that Pechuga is — even though it doesn’t exactly remind you of Iberico ham at all.
Maybe I just need to enjoy a glass or two alongside some pata negra and see if that makes a difference…
100% agave espadin from Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca. 98 proof.
A / $250 / mezcal.com
El Silencio is a new brand of premium mezcal, produced in small batches in Oaxaca from, per the distillery notes, a “blend of 100% wild agave using 10- to 12-year-old plants.” It’s then double distilled and bottled, sans aging. The name is indeed a reference to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
The nose is bright and big: lemon odds with hefty smoke character. No wallflower like some more muted spirits, this is a mezcal that makes its presence known from the start. The body is even more powerful, offering more of that citrus character and touches of cinnamon and vanilla. But again the raw smokiness is palpable. It tastes the way you smell after coming back from a night-long campfire on the beach, all wet smoke and salty air clinging to you. The finish strains under its own weight, singing the throat
Beyond that, complexities are tough to find. The smoke character pushes them all aside. That’s not a bad thing — there are plenty of drinkers out there who enjoy this level of intensity (and I do as well from time to time)… but it does come at the cost of nuance.
80 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #0640.
B / $79 / mezcalelsilencio.com
Los Amantes, “the lovers,” is a Oaxacan mezcal made via traditional methods, using an underground pit to smoke 100% Tobala and Espadin agave pinas for three days, then triple distilling the juice pressed from them.
This Joven mezcal has a faint color. Although joven mezcals can be lightly aged for up to 2 months in oak barrels, Los Amantes’ distiller says it isn’t aged at all, which surprised me. Los Amantes also makes a longer-aged Reposado, which we didn’t try.
Los Amantes Joven is excellent stuff. Here you’ll find a lightly smoky but quite approachable nose — even mezcal novices should have little trouble tucking into it. On the tongue, you’ll find plenty of delights awaiting. First is a light chocolate character, just a touch that works nicely with the rich agave core. The smoke is there, but it is balanced with sweetness, barbecue-style, coming on a bit stronger in the moderate and comforting finish. The body on this mezcal is light and lively, with citrus notes that provide mouth-cleaning acidity (a must to keep that smokiness from clinging to your palate for too long). It’s a solid spirit where everything comes together surprisingly nicely, easy to drink but inviting serious reflection.
I also love the antique bottle with oversized cork stopper. Whatever you think of the mezcal, the presentation is a conversation piece, too.
A- / $50 / losamantes.com
Don Amado makes a line of regular, 80-proof mezcals (blanco, reposado, and anejo — none of which we tasted but which are pictured nonetheless), but this is Rustico, a higher-proof mezcal bottled at a big 94 proof. (The same distillery also makes Mina Real, which we recently reviewed.) These are Oaxaca mezcals, double-distilled in ceramic stills and triple filtered before bottling, but the overall production method for Don Amado (unlike Mina Real), is fairly traditional. Here’s how it shakes out.
The nose hints at smoke, but the overproof alcohol level balances that out by adding quite a bit of fire, at least at first blush. On the body, that heat isn’t anywhere nearly that overpowering. Rather, it’s a very pretty silver mezcal, not particularly smoky but rather well-balanced among light ember notes, citrus, apple wood, and a bit of marshmallow cream on the back end. The finish is moderate but cleansing, leaving you with neither a mouthful of smokiness nor a sickly sweet mess. Very inviting and easy to sip, don’t let the older-than-old-school label fool you: This is one of the finer mezcals available on the U.S. market today.
The name is also a bit of a mystery. The overall effect of this spirit is not particularly rustico but rather refinado. Really worthwhile.
94 proof. Reviewed: Lot #10.
A- / $44 / haas-brothers.com
Oaxaca-based Mina Real is 100% agave mezcal that is made with a hybrid modern and historical technique. Per the company: it is “made from agave that has been steam-roasted in low pressure brick kilns in order to highlight the plants’ bright highland flavor and floral bouquet without the layers of smoke traditionally found with wood-roasted mezcal agave.”
And yet Mina Real is still smoky. The nose offers an aroma of barbeque pits, sweetened up with a touch of honey. On the tongue, this sweetness is even stronger than you’d expect, with a mouth-coating viscosity that layers your tongue and throat with jammy liquid. It’s got a deep flavor of blood oranges, strawberries, and some green pepper/green bean notes — all laced with lightly smoky touches. I’m not sure it comes together the way the distillery may have hoped, but it’s definitely a mezcal for newcomers who aren’t thrilled by smoke to try — though that uncharacteristic sugariness may be ultimately misleading.
A reposado bottling (pictured) also exists, but we have not seen it for review.
B- / $30 / haas-brothers.com
Sombra is Oaxaca-area mezcal (from the village of San Juan Del Rio, specifically), made from organic espadin agave grown at 8000 feet.
An unaged mezcal, Sombra offers immediate and heavy smoke on the nose, more barbecue than forest fire. There’s a strong undercurrent of sweetness as well — almost a tangy apple, or perhaps applewood smoke, at least.
At 90 proof, the extra alcohol is immediately evident on the body, creating an instant level of fire that goes along with the smoke. There’s ample fruit: Again, apples, but also cherries and some banana, particularly on the finish, which offers very ripe banana, caramel, and popcorn notes. These are some interesting flavors in a mezcal, but it doesn’t all come together perfectly, never quite melding the savory and the sweet in a way that truly great mezcals manage to do.
Still, a quite drinkable little potion.
B / $34 / sombraoaxaca.com
A beverage with a name like Wild Shot doesn’t exactly wear subtlety on its sleeve, and this unaged mezcal — complete with, or rather extremely proud of, the worm at the bottom of the bottle — doesn’t really hold back. Country musician Toby Keith is the man behind this celebrezcal, and you can click the official link below if you’d like to see the man with a gusano between his teeth.
Made from 100% green agave, Wild Shot pours clean and offers a rich and straightforward smokiness on the nose, far more savory than sweet. On the body it’s more of the same — mesquite fire smoke, with a sweeter finish that offers some caramel and just a hint of citrus fruit. Very simple and straightforward, it’s a fine mezcal that novices will undoubtedly enjoy, but which lacks the depth that true mezcal fans will want.
But hey, at least you get to eat the worm.
B / $43 / wildshot.com
We last encountered Zignum’s mezcal earlier this year in its reposado incarnation. Now the brand is back, this time with an anejo version.
Made from green agave and aged more than a year, this is mezcal with much of the smokiness aged right out of it. You’ll find lots of exotic, tropical, and caramel notes on the nose — and no smokiness to speak of — enough to make you think this is standard tequila, not mezcal at all.
Crafted in Oaxaca from 100% agave espadin, this lightly overproof, unaged mezcal is a classic example of the spirit from head to toe.
The nose of Montelobos is intensely smoky, with a barbecue-like sweetness underpinning the char. On the tongue, it follows through on this promise. A rush of fresh barbecue smoke, followed by intense vegetation — not just agave but green beans, asparagus, and artichokes. Sounds nasty, sure, but it works, much like a plate of grilled vegetables on the campfire… with a sausage on the side.
The finish is mouth-filling and long, fire, brimstone, and deep savory notes. Solid mezcal start to finish, with an extra little kick due to a touch higher alcohol content.
B+ / $50 / montelobos.com