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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Beckett

Tequilas and mezcals you will want to savour, not slam

Blue lights: tequila only qualifies as tequila if it’s made with blue agave from the state of Jalisco.
Blue lights: tequila only qualifies as tequila if it’s made with blue agave from the state of Jalisco. Photograph: Matt Mawson/Getty Images

Few spirits are as misunderstood as mezcal. In fact, despite having written about it before, I realised how little I really knew at a recent tasting at the Mezcaleria at Kol, a Mexican restaurant in London run by a chef who used to work at Noma. (In a nutshell, not all mezcal tastes smoky, and almost no bottles contain a worm these days.) Tequila must run it a close second, though, and is still more associated with slamming than with sipping.

Both are made from agave, of which there are many different varieties, but tequila can be made only from blue agave in the state of Jalisco, while mezcal is made in nine other states, most commonly in and around Oaxaca from other types of agave, predominantly espadin. Some agave spirits are not even classified as either, mostly because of where they’re produced, but can also make great drinking.

It’s hard to think of a spirit whose base distillate has a more distinctive character. Like wine grapes, much depends on where the agave is grown – plants grown near a forest, for example, will have a very different taste from those grown by the sea. In fact, mezcal, which is generally made by small producers using traditional methods and indigenous yeasts, is a bit like natural wine, says mezcal enthusiast Kieran Whaite, co-owner with his wife, Imogen, of the newly opened Condesa in Bristol, which has a back bar full of the stuff: “Visiting palenques [distilleries] around Oaxaca, we saw them using huge millstones pulled by horses and distilling over wood fires.”

To appreciate the distinctive character of agave spirits, it’s best to taste them unaged and unoaked, so look for tequilas described as blanco, rather than anejo or reposado (mezcal, by contrast, is rarely aged). And drink them at room temperature, rather than over ice, unless you’re having them in a cocktail. Cheaper tequilas such as the Marks & Spencer one in today’s pick may not be 100% agave, which makes them much less interesting as a drink on their own, but they’ll still be fine for a margarita. (Also, bear in mind that the prices of spirits change frequently, so check the prices below online before you buy.)

Mezcal is generally more expensive than tequila due to the more time-consuming way it’s made, often from older agave plants, which can take up to 30 years to mature. There can also be as few as 25 or 30 bottles in a batch, says Matthias Ingelmann, the Mezcaleria’s bar manager, who puts on regular tasting flights for enthusiasts. “If they’re into mezcal, they come back every month.”

If you fancy dipping a toe into mezcal, it’s also worth signing up for Sin Gusano’s Mezcal Appreciation Society, a subscription service that provides access to exclusive small batch bottlings and discounts. Truly, you may never slam again.

Five agave spirits to sip rather than slam

M&S Distilled Silver Tequila £19 in store and online at Ocado, 40%. Well-priced own-label tequila made in Guadalajara. A good first-timer’s choice, especially if you want to make a batch of margaritas.

Ocho Potrero Grande Blanco 2023 £23.48 (50cl) Master of Malt, 40%. 100% single-estate agave with real fragrance and that trademark grassy flavour.

Convite Mezcal Espadín Esencial Joven £46 Berry Bros & Rudd, 20%. Made from 100% agave cooked in an underground stone oven. A touch of mezcal smokiness, but not as much as some, and a spicy chilli kick.

La Travesia Destilado de Agave £34.41 Master of Malt, £45 Otomi in Bristol, £46.75 The Whisky Exchange, 42.5%. Not classified as a mezcal, but made from the same type of agave. Delicately smoky, fragrant and almost floral.

Fortaleza Tequila Blanco £55.99 Simply Wines Direct, £59.95 Master of Malt, £62 Otomi in Bristol, £67.50 The Whisky Exchange, 40%. Seriously good tequila, but also worth buying for the beautiful bottle.

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