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Mezcal, Mexico’s Misunderstood Spirit

Bartenders have been instrumental in popularizing mezcal, Mexico’s misunderstood indigenous spirit, which is particularly polarizing. A new bar in New York City, The Cabinet, has chosen to showcase the spirit alongside its more well-known cousin, Tequila, and rye whiskey.

This may seem like an unlikely trio, but these three spirits “are always the first to disappear from our liquor cabinet,” explains proprietor Greg Boehm.

The Cabinet’s mezcal list is notable in that it includes detailed information about not only the spirits’ brand, but also the mezcalero (the person who makes the mezcal), the region where it was made and the variety of agave used to make it.

It’s hard to believe all these flavors can be coaxed from the same variety of agave.

The menu includes a flight of three mezcals called “So You Think You Know Espadín?” It’s a cheeky reference to the espadín agave variety that’s most commonly used, but which can vary widely in flavor depending on where it is grown and how it is distilled. “It’s the most terroir-driven spirit out there,” explains spirits expert Justin Lane Briggs, who helped curate the opening menu for the bar.

This batch of reviews heavily features espadín-based mezcals and showcases the ­variety’s range. Tasting notes skip from chocolate mole and sun-dried tomato richness to spice-dusted tropical fruit to vegetal and grassy to citrusy and bright. It’s hard to believe all these flavors can be coaxed from the same ­variety of agave.

A handful of bottlings loosely referred to as “unregistered mezcal” are also reviewed below. These producers have opted to skip the certification process required by Mexico’s government to use the word “mezcal” on the label. Yet, these agave spirits are mezcal in everything but name and are still very much worth seeking out.

Mezcals to Look for

Del Que Toma el Cardinal Espadin (Mexico; Bowler Imports, New York, NY); $48, 97 points. Considered to be an “unregistered mezcal”—it’s a mezcal in everything but paperwork— this is an intriguing stunner. A powerful, savory agave spirit, it evokes roasting meat, dark chocolate and sun-dried tomato, finishing with hints of orange peel and earthy spice. abv: 50%

Los Nahuales Espadin (Mexico; T. Edward Wines & Spirits, New York, NY); $59, 95 points. The nose and palate on this 100% espadín mezcal reveal orange, mango and papaya dusted with cayenne and cinnamon, tempered with just a hint of vanilla sweetness on the mouthwatering exit. abv: 47%

Mortal Espadin Mezcal (Mexico; Bowler Imports, New York, NY); $35, 95 points. The zesty aroma channels sun-dried tomato, lemon and fresh thyme. The palate echoes these aromas, layering earthy hints of cocoa, clove and chocolate mole. The overall effect is a rounded, complex sip that melds sweet tomato with a refreshing lemon-tinged finish. Best Buy. abv: 44%

Alipús San Juan (Mexico; T. Edward Wines & Spirits, New York, NY); $52, 94 points. This mezcal made from 100% espadín offers an inviting light coconut aroma. A fruity and smoky core of  charred pineapple, burnt orange peel and coconut winds into cinnamon sizzle, hitting all the right notes. Sip or mix into tiki-inspired cocktails. abv: 47.5%

Bozal Tobalá Reserva (Mexico; 3 Badge Beverage, Sonoma, CA); $129, 93 points. The savory aroma suggests tomato water and lemon, with a faint hint of fresh basil. The palate skews less savory and more toward a mellow, almond flavor profile. It’s pleasing nonetheless, with a drying finish that delivers a lemon-pepper tang spiked and a hint of saline. abv: 46.2%

Luminar Mezcal Añejo (Mexico; DWLL, Los Angeles, CA); $50, 93 points. A rare barrel-aged mezcal, this dessert-worthy añejo is rested in oak for one year adding a light gold hue and bold marzipan aroma. The palate is soft and slightly sweet, showing almond and vanilla layered with cinnamon. Repeated sips become increasingly fiery, adding cayenne to the mix. abv: 40%

Mezcal Local Destilado con Pechuga (Mexico; RLD Imports, Houston, TX); $50, 93 points. A mild raspberry aroma leads the nose. The first sips show mild sweetness accented by brisk spearmint and saltwater, leading into a rugged exhale showing menthol and rubbery notes. abv: 42%

Erstwhile Mezcal (Mexico: Erstwhile Mezcal, Brooklyn, NY); $64, 92 points. The distinctly vegetal aroma teases with bell pepper, fresh basil and fresh jalapeño. It’s green and bright on the palate too, opening with a racy streak of zesty bell pepper and dried oregano, finishing fiery with lots of black pepper and cayenne heat, as befits a nearly 100-proof spirit. abv: 49%

Kimo Sabe Añejo (Mexico; DWLL, Los Angeles, CA); $46, 92 points. One of just a few barrel-aged mezcals available in the U.S., look for a bright gold hue and distinct almond aroma. That almond note is echoed on the palate, along with vanilla and sarsaparilla sweetness. The hot and dying finish winds into insistent pepper and cayenne. abv: 41.5%

Se Busca Mezcal (Mexico; Stoli Group USA, New York, NY); $40, 92 points. Look for a mild, melon aroma. The palate mixes sweet and spice: almond and vanilla mingle with cinnamon and cayenne, finishing with a rich, rounded note that suggests dried dates and figs. abv: 40%

Akul Joven (Mexico; MHW Ltd., Manhasset, NY); $40, 91 points. Lime peel creates an enticing aroma, while sweet spices lead the palate, suggesting cinnamon, black pepper and cardamom, giving over to a citrusy midpalate. The finish is fiery and slightly numbing with cayenne heat and the faintest mesquite twang. Sip or mix; consider for an adventurous take on a spiced gimlet or daiquiri. abv: 40%

Bozal Tepeztate (Mexico; 3 Badge Beverage, Sonoma, CA); $80, 91 points. The fruity aroma entwines ripe pineapple and bell pepper. The notably silky palate opens with a pronounced petrol note, which fades to mellower tropical fruit and finishes with plenty of peppery sting. abv: 45%