It used to be that mezcal was thought of as a poor man’s tequila. No more. Great mezcal is now being imported into the United States.

Compared with tequila, mezcal is complex and full-bodied with varying notes of citrus, vanilla, honey, and pear. “It’s like the difference between regular salsa and chipotle salsa,” says David Dorsey, global brand director of tequila at spirits giant Brown-Forman.

The details: All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Both beverages are made from distilled agave (or maguey) plants, but good tequila uses blue agave exclusively. The two spirits also are produced differently. To make tequila, the agave is steam-cooked; mezcal making begins with roasting the heart of the agave piña in an earthen pit for three to five days. The smoky juices from the crushed plant are then fermented and distilled.

Many regions produce mezcal, but it’s in Oaxaca that the plants thrive in the dry, sandy soil. “Mezcal is typically produced by families who have passed the business down through generations and just make enough to sell locally and to tourists,” says Joshua Knapp, who is forming a co-op among small producers to export more mezcal to the United States.

The best available here right now is Del Maguey, which produces “single-village mezcal,” working with individual farmers in Oaxaca to produce small-batch booze that reflects the agave variety as well as its terroir. “It’s a bootstrap business,” says founder Ron Cooper, whose offerings include the rare Pechuga, which requires distilling the mezcal with wild apples and plums under a skinless chicken breast said to mystically balance the fruit flavors. Prices range from $70 a bottle for Del Maguey’s toasty Chichicapa to $200 for the novel Pechuga, at

How to drink it:

Sip it, don’t shoot it. “Those who know it order it in a snifter,” says Maria Chicas, general manager of Oyamel restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. “For those who are curious we offer it with sangrita as a chaser.”

Put it in a cocktail. Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago makes margaritas with mezcal in place of tequila. Shaken with ice and served up, mezcal makes a south-of-the-border martini.

Drizzle it over dessert. Del Maguey’s Cooper likes it dripped over fruit and pastry.

Cook with it. At Oyamel, chef José Andrés adds a splash of mezcal to wild-mushroom broth. Texas chef Grady Spears livens up his hollandaise sauce with a couple of tablespoons of mezcal. Others glaze fish with mezcal and sugar water, or sear a steak with a shot of mezcal in the pan.

Never, ever with a worm.

Photograph by Kevin Twomey

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