Mezcal is easily misunderstood. Combining the salty, savory aspects of tequila with the smokiness of a fine Scotch, it surprises your palate at first—then leaves you wanting another sip, and another. While its reputation—many drinkers came to know it as the spirit with the worm resting in the bottom of the bottle— hasn’t necessarily done mezcal any favors, those who look past that marketing gimmick will find a multitude of styles and a rich taste that invites exploring.
“Mezcal is still made by small family-owned farms in Mexico,” says Larry Pacheco, a bartender at Temazcal in Lynnfield, sibling of the hip Mexican restaurant in Boston’s Seaport District. “They use pre-industrialized methods like cooking in underground ovens, fermenting without chemicals, and distilling in clay pots.”
All mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant—a spiky succulent that grows in the deserts of Mexico. Tequila is a specific type of mezcal that by law can be made only from blue agave, which grows in only certain regions of Mexico. But more broadly, mezcal can be made from many different agave plants, from regions around the country.
When first trying mezcal, many people are surprised by the smoky qualities, expecting it to taste like tequila. But mezcal is made by roasting the agave hearts, while tequila makers steam the hearts before mashing and fermenting.
“Our guests are becoming more sophisticated and want to branch out from tequila,” says Temazcal’s Pacheco. In addition to offering some 20 different kinds of mezcal for sipping, ranging in price from $10 to $40, Temazcal has been experimenting with substituting the spirit in a number of classic cocktails, like the Negroni.
Interest is so strong that the restaurant has added a “Mezcal Mule” to its cocktail list. A spin on the classic Moscow Mule—a combination of vodka, lime, and ginger beer—their take swaps out vodka for mezcal and adds a touch of passion fruit juice.
Like tequila, mezcal is categorized by age—Joven is unaged and clear in color, Reposado is aged a minimum of two months, giving it a golden hue, and Anejo is aged for a minimum of a year, giving it a darker golden color.
For the mezcal novice, Pacheco suggests Del Maguey Vida Mezcal. “It’s slightly lower proof and easy to sip,” he says, adding that Mezcal can range from 38 to 55 proof.
Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, like most mezcals, doesn’t come with a worm, but Temazcal offers some that do, and even Scorpion Mezcal—with, you guessed it, a tiny eight-legged arachnid in the bottom of the bottle. If you’re lucky enough to order the last shot in the bottle, you can get that little side of protein—something a recent customer swallowed with gusto. But Pacheco recommends an ice cube or lime instead.
500 Market St., Lynnfield