The magic of mezcal & agave spirits

By Alexander Barlow

4 minute read

Jon Darby can still remember the day when life took a sharp left.

It was November 2016, in the chill, Pacific beach village of Mazunte in the south of Oaxaca, Mexico. At a small, unsplash-y palenque (distillery), he sipped on his first copita of mezcal and was, he recalls, blown away. 

“Up until that point, I thought that Scotch whisky was the most sophisticated drink in the world. But when you taste a fresh agave spirit, straight from the still, and it’s incredibly complex and full of flavour, you realise all that flavour is contained in the plant. Most other spirits taste incredibly boring after distillation: whisky has to be aged in a barrel for years; gin has external flavours added, like juniper. But understanding that the flavour of mezcal comes from pre-, and not post-, distillation factors, means that it’s a far more terroir-based drink than almost anything else out there.” Darby was hooked. 

Later that afternoon, he quit his London finance job from a hammock. Less than six months later, he opened Sin Gusano, a mezcal-only pop-up bar in Dalston, London. Meaning ‘no worm’ – “a reference to a widely outdated view that mezcal was just shit tequila with a worm in it” – the company now imports and bottles very small batches of mezcal that Darby sources personally from across Mexico, often by simply door-knocking on remote, rural distillers. So far, he’s released 18 distillates from 12 producers. So what’s he looking for, exactly? 

What should good mezcal taste like?

Mezcal Tobala 1 Journal July 21 Gente Di Mezcal
Top: A mezcal store in Oaxaca, aka "the home of mezcal"; photography by Getty Images. Above: "Different species of agave plant [such as the Tobalá variety pictured] are endemic to different regions and climates... the flavour possibilities are almost endless," says Darby; photography courtesy of Gente de Mezcal

What should good mezcal taste like?

It’s a doubly hard category to peg, it turns out. And, anyway, to expect typicity, even in the broadest sense, kind of misses the point. 

“Everything depends on the region it’s made. Agave spirits are highly localised. Different species of plant are endemic to different regions and climates, and different cultures have different traditions and historic flavour preferences. When you consider that Oaxaca state (the so-called “home of mezcal”) not only contains more plant species than the whole of Europe, but is also the most indigenous part of Mexico, you realise that the flavour possibilities are almost endless. 

“But if I was drinking a Karwinski from Miahuatlán in southern Oaxaca, I’d be looking for a woody, mineral salinity. If I was in San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán in the north, where they ferment in clay pots, I’d expect a much deeper earthiness…”

You get a strong sense he could go on.

“At the small-batch level, agave spirits are tightly linked to the people and culture of a community. To study mezcal is really to go down an anthropological rabbit hole,” he says. “A very delicious one.”

What's driving the agave spirits boom?

Mezcal Production In Oaxaca
“At the small-batch level, agave spirits are tightly linked to the people and culture of a community," says Darby; photography by Getty Images

What's driving the agave spirits boom?

Of course, mezcal represents only a small segment of a much broader category of agave spirits. Even so, pandemic or no, right now, they’re booming. Tequila, it turns out, is driving a quite sudden surge in growth: according to an article in Forbes, tequila sales were up 46% in 2020. As with other categories, celebrity endorsements can take at least some of the credit (think, George Clooney’s Casamigos; Rita Ora’s Próspero; the list goes on). 

Still, it’s not the whole story. 

“The tequila category is going through what the whiskey category went through a decade ago,” says Mike Dolan, co-founder of Mijenta Tequila, in the same report. “Consumers are looking for more refined versions with a smoother taste, rooted in authentic stories.” 

Co-founder of UK importer Collective Spirits, Tom Stockly, agrees. “We’ve seen huge growth in premium and super-premium tequila in the past few years.” Why? Increasingly discerning drinkers who, he reckons, are interested in more than just flavour profile. “We’re getting more questions about a brand’s production processes, environmental imprint, additive policies. And, increasingly, people are willing to pay more for a higher quality spirit from distillers that don’t cut corners.” 

While his company imports other agave spirits such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla, mezcal has seen what he terms “an explosion” in popularity in recent years. Cocktail culture has helped, apparently, as has the cachet of being the less-commercial, independent or, as he sees it, the “rebellious younger brother or sister to tequila.” 

But Erika Martínez Leon, co-founder of sustainable, eco-minded brand Gente de Mezcal, reckons it’s more than that. As she highlights, agave spirits like mezcal are deeply rooted in tradition, with an authenticity that aligns with current priorities of savvy drinkers. Unlike other categories, with these spirits, it’s impossible to fake – a ripe agave plant can take anything from eight (espadin) to 30 years (tepeztate) to mature. “You can’t just appear and start making mezcal,” she says. “It’s an art. And it relies on generations of family, or village, tradition and skill.”

Mezcal Journal July 21 Sin Gusano
"Mezcal can teach us all about how to pull ourselves back from the brink of a mass consumerist void; to slow down and appreciate the little details. I really think that if everyone saw agave spirits in that light, the world would be a better place,” says Darby; photography courtesy of Sin Gusano

That mezcal cuts through the gloss of the multi-billion dollar, celeb-infiltrated spirits industry – each claiming to be the best – is a big part of its allure, agrees Darby. His Mezcal Appreciation Society tasting events teach that there is no “best”; they’re all different, find one you like, and enjoy. “The deeper you go into where these incredible spirits come from and why they taste the way they do, the more interesting they get.”

They’re not just another drink, he stresses. “Mezcal has always seemed a product at odds with the modern consumer-driven world. I left behind a career in finance because I was attracted to the attributes of mezcal that I believe have something to teach us all about how to pull ourselves back from the brink of a mass consumerist void; to slow down and appreciate the little details. I really think that if everyone saw agave spirits in that light, the world would be a better place.”

5 mezcals you need to know

Blue Agave Mezcalero Margarita Guelo Gomez Sa1038 00228 16x9
Azul La Estancia produced by Sin Gusano

5 mezcals you need to know

  1.  Sin Gusano

Founded in 2016, the London-based project sources small, limited-release batches of rare mezcal from distillers across Mexico, bottling and distributing them in the UK. The whole operation is carbon neutral and runs a profit-share scheme that supports environmental projects in Oaxaca.

  1. Gente de Mezcal

Another brand with strong sustainability bona fides, Gente de Mezcal sources its spirit direct from distillers and imports via sailboat, supporting its carbon-neutral claims. Produced by fifth-gen mezcalero Aureliano Hernández in San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca, the unaged, single-agave Tobala expression is its most widely acclaimed bottling.  

  1. Picaflor

Distilled in San Luis Del Rio, Oaxaca, the single-agave, 100% espadin bottling is a smooth, subtle blanco that would make an affordable but still dependably delicious entry point into the category. With higher ABV, it’s Wild expression, a blend of espadin and madrecuishe agave, is the more discerning palate pleaser.  

  1. Agave de Cortés

Established in 1840 and now owned-operated by the sixth generation of the Cortés family, this Oaxaca-based distiller does three expressions from the 100% espadin blanco to butter-y, complex Anejo 1 Anos. All three are fantastic value at this quality.

  1. El Destilado

An independent, London-based bottlers co-founded by wine mover-shaker Michael Sager of Sager + Wilde that specialises in limited-release, hard-to-source mezcal direct from distillers across Oaxaca. As with Sin Gusano, this is seriously rarefied stuff; once it’s gone, it’s gone.  

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