When you throw back a shot of tequila, what exactly are you putting into your body? Any guesses? While many high-end brands use 100 percent agave to create their spirits, regulations state that, in order for a liquor to be called tequila, it needs only be composed of 51 percent agave. What’s the other 49 percent? A “tequila helper” made from other types of sugar, most often cane sugar. The kicker: Tequila brands aren’t required to list out their sugar sources.
So how do you add some south-of-the-border vibes to a night out when you want to avoid shrug-emoji ingredients lists? One option is mezcal—a majorly trending Mexican liquor that’s made from agave, like tequila, but is ultra-pure in terms of ingredients and craftsmanship.
“Mezcal is becoming the spirit of choice among those who are health conscious,” says AdrinAdrina, co-founder of craft mezcal brand Gem&Bolt. “It’s the cleanest spirit on the market due to its traditional production process and the fact that mezcal must contain 100 percent agave by law.”
Not to mention it’s got a complex taste that definitely won’t bring back bad memories of spring break. “Mezcal has tones of earth, ash, smoke, wood, dirt, rock, and farm animal,” says Ray Wicks, mixologist at Wabi Venice in Los Angeles. (Okay, I know that doesn’t make it sound super appealing, but it really is tasty.) Wicks’ colleague behind the bar, Conner Mitchell, adds, “Basically, when you drink mezcal, you feel like you’re being grounded on the inside. It’s an incredible intoxicant.”
No wonder it’s now a fixture on so many cocktail menus—and healthy home bar carts, too.
Here are the wellness benefits of mezcal—and how to drink it for a healthy buzz.
An old-school spirit with modern appeal
Comparing mezcal and other spirits is kind of like a face-off between farm-to-table fare and processed food. While most liquors today are industrially produced, the majority of mezcal sold in the US is still crafted by hand, the old-school way.
“Mezcal is [often] made by roasting agave hearts in a large pit, crushing the roasted hearts with a tahona stone to release the juices, and then fermenting the juices and fibers in wooden containers and distilling in a copper still,” explains AdrinAdrina. “It’s an alchemical and beautiful craft. One of our favorite parts is the use of natural yeasts from the local ecosystem to help the fermentation process.”
“Mezcal is [often] made by roasting agave hearts in a large pit, crushing the roasted hearts, and then fermenting the juices.” —AdrinAdrina, Gem&Bolt co-founder
Of course, each brand puts its own spin on the finished product. Gem&Bolt distills its mezcals with damiana, an indigenous Mexican herb that’s said to have mood-elevating properties. “Damiana is an age-old tonic, traditionally used by the Maya, Aztec, Zapotec, and other cultures across the world,” says Gem&Bolt co-founder Elliott Coon. “It blends beautifully with agave itself, which is naturally stimulating and uplifting.”
Another new arrival, Yola Mezcal, utilizes glass barrels for the aging process to dial down the smokiness. The brand, which counts Lykke Li as a co-founder, has an all-female bottling squad at its Oaxaca HQ.
But even though mezcal may be cleaner than other spirits, it’s important to remember that it’s still hard alcohol. “It’s got the reputation of being healthier, but it’s not a health food,” says chef, certified nutritionist, and The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Drinking author Ariane Resnick. “When I have a drink with mezcal, I always enjoy it, but I never want a second one. Due to the smoky woodiness, I feel like it’s somewhat dehydrating.” So think sips, not shots.
What to look for when ordering mezcal
As mezcal grows in popularity, it’s only a matter of time before makers start to give it the factory treatment. But it should still be easy to seek out a craft mezcal if that’s what you’re after—according to Coon, a new law requires each company to label their bottles as being artisanal, ancient, or industrial, as determined by a regulatory body.
“You’ll get the best experience—and the least chance of a hangover—if you’re choosing low-sugar mixers and fresh ingredients.” —Ariane Resnick, certified nutritionist
The other thing to consider is what else is in your mezcal cocktail. “If you start with quality alcohol, you want to be adding whole-food mixers, not pre-mixed, store-bought ones,” Resnick says. “You’ll get the best experience—and the least chance of a hangover—if you’re choosing low-sugar mixers and fresh ingredients.”
Resnick’s a fan of adding fresh grapefruit juice or peach kombucha to her mezcal, while the Yola crew likes theirs with green juice or cucumber and mint. At Wabi Venice, mezcal’s found in cocktails with mango and dragonfruit. That standard margarita sounds pretty boring right about now, doesn’t it?
Originally published May 4, 2017; updated July 4, 2018.
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