Paloma cocktail at El Grito in Miami

Cinco de Mayo and margaritas go hand and hand in the U.S. While margaritas are delicious, there’s actually a whole world of Mexican spirits to explore.

One Mexican liquor that’s gaining notoriety is mezcal. Mezcal was created when the Spanish landed in Mexico, but is often thought of as just a smoky version of tequila. Like tequila, mezcal is made with the piña (heart) of the agave. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made with a number of varieties of agave and can be made in 11 different Mexican states, rather than just the five states tequila is limited to. The hearts are roasted in pits with lava stones that give mezcal its smoky flavor before being mashed and distilled. “It’s very unregulated in terms of how it’s made and produced, so mezcal’s sort of a mysterious kind of spirit,” explains Vajra Stratigos, director of food and beverage for Atlanta-based Fifth Group Restaurants. “As a result, there’s many different styles and spheres of influence.”

Montelobos mezcal joven

Montelobos

As our culture remains obsessed with all things craft, mezcal’s popularity increases. Drinkers who are interested in sipping, rather than taking shots, should try the Montelobos mezcal joven (young). It’s un-aged, but still earthy and rich with smokiness. Those with palates already accustomed to strong smoky notes can try the Ilegal reposado. It’s roasted in clay ovens before being distilled and aged in American oak barrels for four months. However aged you take your mezcal, drink it neat so that the flavors open up.

Ilegal mezcal reposado

Ilegal

Mexican distilleries are also getting into the whiskey game. Using Oaxacan white, yellow, and black corn, Sierra Norte has been crafting whiskey since 2016. Each variety of corn is used for its own whiskey. The standout of the bunch is the white corn whiskey with notes of apple and vanilla. It packs a bit of a bite and makes a delightful cocktail. Another Mexican whiskey to be on the lookout for is Pierde Almas. The brainchild of Jonathan Barbieri, an American artist who resettled in Mexico in the ‘80s, the brand already established itself as a maker of mezcal. In 2016 he delved into producing whiskey with ancestral corn, something the he feels is important to preserve in the face of expanding genetically modified corn. The corn is sourced from small farms and produces a floral, light whiskey. There are barrels being aged, though, so keep an eye out.

Sierra Norte Mexican corn whiskey

Sierra Norte

Other regional forms of spirits exist, too, though you may have to go to Mexico if you want to sip them. Tepache is made by fermenting pineapple rinds with brown sugar, which produces a low-ABV drink. In Central Mexico you can find pulque, a milk-colored drink made from fermented agave sap. It’s sweet and viscous, blending nicely with tart pineapple juice.

You can’t go wrong with classic tequila, but there’s something to be said about exploring unfamiliar territory. Of mezcal, Stratigos says, “It’s really and truly one of the only formative spirits in the world today in that there are rules and processes still being defined.”

Header image courtesy of El Grito Miami.

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