Is it really that good, or is it just the cool new thing?
Short answer: it’s really that good.
The vast majority of tequila production has, over the decades, become a thoroughly industrial process, with the big dominating producers cutting every corner available in service of making a low-quality spirit that can net their corporation the most amount of money.
To be clear, there are brilliant tequilas being made today by dedicated and passionate individuals all over Mexico, but those aren’t the ones people have heard of. The ones people have heard of are the ones in the supermarket, on which you had that terrible experience in college that still makes you hesitate to drink tequila to this day. As we like to say: there’s no such thing as a bad tequila experience, only an experience with bad tequila.
Enter mezcal, which thus far is relatively untouched by the hungry capitalistic maw. Mezcal yields are measured in hundreds of bottles, not millions of cases. They’re distilling out of clay pots and tree trunks south of the border. In tequila there are only two or three brands that still crush all their agaves with the traditional volcanic stone, while in mezcal that’s the norm. A small minority of quality minded tequila producers still slow-cook their agaves to render the sugars, while literally every single mezcal producer still does.
That’s why mezcal is so exciting. We cocktail enthusiasts want more flavor, not less, and mezcal has a complexity and a dynamic nature that no other spirit can touch. There’s no cheats, no shortcuts, no bottom line nonsense. It’s generations of tradition, hand harvested, packed on burros and walked down mountains to ferment and distill, and completely isolated from marketing budgets and board meetings. It’s been made the same way for hundreds of years and it tastes like the land from which it comes. Artisanal mezcal still has its soul completely intact, and you can taste every single wisp of it in the glass. That’s why you don’t meet mezcal fans so much as mezcal zealots. It’s because we fall in love with it.
FYI: The worm in the bottle was actually never a worm at all, but the larva of a moth that likes to live in agave plants. It is not tradition, but rather added early on as a gimmick. Few distillers continue to do so.