12 Mezcal Brands Ranked Worst To Best, According To A Cocktail Connoisseur

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We're diving into tequila's smoky cousin, the deliciously polarizing mezcal. But with this spirit coming in hotter than a fur coat in Oaxaca, which brand is really worth the dinero? We tapped cocktail connoisseur Dan Magro to rank some of the most popular mezcal brands on the market (so you don't have to).

Our favorite agave sipper isn't just a spirit; it's spiritual, conjuring a sacred heritage that goes back to 400 B.C. An umbrella term for any agave-distilled spirit (yep, tequila falls into this category), mezcal is native to Mexico, where it is traditionally enjoyed neat and sipped at leisure. Of course, as it gains momentum in the U.S. market, it's appearing everywhere from cocktails to cooking. Magro has spent years honing his craft and refining his palate, amassing a loyal following on social media as well as through books and collaborations. He's a one-man cocktail party, offering a delightfully approachable take on a booming biz.

When you live for that signature smoke, just about every mezcal is worth a shot. But since we came for the best of the best, we're featuring some of Magro's favorites, counting down to el numero uno. Grab the sal de gusano (aka worm salt); we're going all in. ¡Salud!

12. Contraluz Cristalino Mezcal

The Contraluz brand comes neatly packaged and features a celebrity endorsement from investor and co-owner Maluma — Colombian reggaeton artist slash hopeful mezcalero. A reported first of its transparent kind, its cristalino variety flows clear and boasts floral and citrus notes with a light smoke. It's perfect for spilling on a white shirt by the ocean.

"Never had it, so I have to put this last," Magro admits, having been coerced into offering his take on this celebrity brand. (You're welcome, Dan!) "I think it's interesting, using 'cristalino' for this. This is a term when you take a barrel-aged spirit — which would take on some of that color from the barrel wood and the flavor, too — and you filter it through charcoal to remove the color and some other elements, but you still get a robust flavor." 

Having launched in Mexico back in 2016, it took this brand six years to hit the U.S. market in 2022. Whether this cristalino trend will catch fire remains to be seen. Lucky for us, there are plenty more options ahead.

11. Ilegal Mezcal

Ilegal Mezcal is all about that contraband branding, almost making it feel like its small-batch, Espadín agave elixir might land you in a sexy Mexican prison. Or, maybe just some fun at brunch. (The most widely sourced of the agave varieties, Espadín is one of the many types of mezcal. Pick your poison.)

When it comes to the brand's joven expression — the youngest, un-aged, and most agave-forward of the classifications —  Dan Magro offers what amounts to a baby carrot of a concession. "Not my favorite, but [it's] smokey with some strong citrus notes." This one sounds like a contender for a mixed drink. Which, by the way, is an excellent way to introduce yourself to mezcal if the flavor seems a little intimidating.

Not a fan of smoke? "There's really no way to remove the smoke element from mezcal," Magro jokes. But he offers an entry point for the mez-curious. "Mezcals in cocktails is like a very American kind of new thing," he explains. A self-professed fan of tequila, he shared, "One of my favorite mezcal cocktails is an Oaxacan Old Fashioned. It's 50% tequila and 50% mezcal. You just put a little agave syrup in it, stir it up, make it nice and cold, scrape an orange peel, put it in there ... that was my gateway to a mezcal cocktail."

10. Dos Hombres Mezcal

"This is a celebrity spirit (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul), but it's not the biggest offender like some other brands," Magro admits of Dos Hombres Espadín mezcal. "It's on the smokier side, but for the price point and access, it's decent. I have a bottle on my bar and it's good for cocktails."

This brand features a smooth, almost crackly campfire-like blend of local Oaxacan "zapote" fruit, mango, and apples. But if you're thinking "What the?" about the tasting notes, Magro's got you covered on how to activate your smell-o-vision.

"One of my favorite things to do," he shares, "Is take a little bit [of mezcal] and dump it on your hands, rub it quickly, pull your hands apart, and you smell it. You can actually get a very good aroma. You're trying to understand all of the senses." The best part? It's all about your own personal experience, so there are no wrong answers.

9. Madre Mezcal

If you're a sucker for an artisanal-style label, you won't be mad about the inside of Madre Espadín mezcal, either. "For the price point, it's great," Magro notes. "A little vanilla on the nose and decent smoke. This brand has higher-cost bottles when you get into different styles of mezcals, too, but this is their least expensive."

(Hi. This is your writer, just inserting myself to say this is one of my favorite mezcal brands. If you've spent any time researching mezcal drinkware — or Googling copitas, the standard palm-sized mezcal drinking cups — you might have been wondering the same thing I was. "Are we supposed to only drink mezcal out of those little cups?")

To that, Magro suggests freeing ourselves from preconceived notions, offering, "Go to f***ing Oaxaca, drink out of a copita, like, live your best damn life. But also, if you live in Topeka, Kansas, walk down to, like, Bill's Liquor, and if they have mezcal, try it, drink it out of your 'lil mason jar, and see how you feel." While those smaller cups are traditional, these days, mezcal culture is busting out of the box.

8. Montelobos Mezcal

For those of us ready to dip a toe into the deep end of the agave pool, your journey begins with Montelobos Espadín mezcal. As Magro tells it, this brand is "good for starting out and easy to find."

Milled by mules and distilled in copper on a ranch in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, this organic agave harvest culminates in a mezcal that's grassy, richly earthy, and vegetal. It tastes smoky and a little wild, like smoldering embers floating in the breeze — just like mezcal should. Maybe that easy drinkability comes from the notes of honey.

Still, if you're just starting out, you might want to lean on a thematic snack pairing to mellow out the mezcal. For that, check out our guide to the regional cuisines of Mexico. (If you were thinking dippy and cheesy, we see you! Whip up our creamy vegan cashew queso — don't forget the tortilla chips — for the happiest of happy hours.)

7. Del Maguey Mezcal

Leveling up as we count it down, Del Maguey's Vida collection features an Espadín agave-forward lineup that might be right up your alley. Magro calls it "good to test the waters, too, and not too pricey." He adds, "The brand makes a wide variety of different mezcals to try, but the Vida is floral and peppery on the nose." This one's a great pick for anyone identifying as Dora la Exploradora when it comes to taste-testing mezcal.

Of the three varieties in the Vida lineup, Vida Clásico was born for the newly converted mezcal drinker. It's buttery smooth, with an herbal flavor profile that leans grassy and sweet. Vida Puebla also bills itself as entry-level but with an almost piney sort of palo santo feel, which makes sense since it's made at the base of the Popocatépetl volcano in central Mexico.

For those wanting to dive deeper into the Del Maguey lineup, Vida de Muertos celebrates Día de Los Muertos in a bottle. Pop this one open any time of year for a fruity, herbal flavor that packs that smooth poblano pepper heat.

6. Derrumbes Mezcal

Derrumbes brand's San Luis Potosí mezcal strikes a happy chord with Magro. "[It's] not too intense of a smoke point, [with a] funky nose! Fun!" Honestly, we love smoky stuff, but he really had us at "funky."

This little cutie joven is made of a less common agave variety — salmiana crassispina — instead of the usual Espadín agave. It's a wild species that's found in the high desert of San Luis Potosí in northeastern Mexico. Cooked using locally foraged dried leaves and agave stems, this mezcal takes on the herbal sweetness of the terrain, with apparent florals that offer a flavor profile that's unique to the market, while staying true to its state of origin. Aka, pure funk.

This mezcal may be young at heart, but it still spends no less than 60 days in a glass container in order to mature (a little). This maturado en vidrio process gives a joven mezcal its smooth mouth feel, without losing any of its alcohol content.

5. Bozal Mezcal

Set yourself up for a triple header with Bozal Ensamble mezcal. Featuring a trio of Espadín, Mexicano, and wild barril agave species — all of which require 7-10 years to harvest — Bozal earns Magro's praise as "craft, artisan, and handmade. Intense flavor with earth tones and savory notes in the smoke."

With all those agave varieties in the mix, this one pings all over your palate like someone playing a symphonic flavor xylophone in your mouth. It's got fruit! It's got vanilla and spice! Barril agave brings the surprise lime zest, Mexicano agave lands the mineral component, and Espadín agave rounds out the smoky vibe, offering easy sipping all day.

Bozal is also bottled in an elegant, ceramic vessel, designed to call back to the humble terracotta copitas of days gone by. Taste a modern take on cherished history with this ensamble blend, a harvest style that recalls a time when local mezcal was simply made from the closest wild agave plants anyone could find.

4. Mezcal Vago

Pinkies out, amigos. Mezcal Vago was crafted for those of certain taste. (Great taste.) From a brand that's serious about putting its mezcaleros (craft distillers) front and center, Magro chooses his top pick: "Love their Espadín by Joel Barriga. Wild notes, a little vanilla, not too pricey."

If you're wondering who Joel Barriga is, he's the guy who made the stuff inside the bottle. His family's been distilling mezcal for three generations, and he works his ranch in Oaxaca, tending to Espadín agave plants like the national treasures they are. Then, he harvests, roasts, ferments, and distills his way to a mezcal that drinks like liquid gold.

Unlike tequila — which is strictly made with Blue Weber Agave in one of five designated Mexican states — mezcal can be crafted with more than 20 different agave varieties almost anywhere in the country. Because of that, the information on each label is key to the bottle's family tree, including everything from the type of still, to the species of agave, the exact location, the tools, the animals, the water — you get it.

3. Neta Espadín Capón

As things heat up with the top three brands on our list, don't be surprised if your wallet starts feeling a little flaco (skinny). "They are on the pricier side for sure," Magro says of the Neta line, which tips the scales over the hundo mark, "But they are high quality and great for sipping!"

Magro specifically points to the Neta Espadín Capón as his favorite, adding, "Their bottle names list the mezcalero (the person who distills mezcal), which is cool." The Espadín Capón features a mezcal that sources only agave plants that have produced a tall, flowering stalk, or quiote, which is chopped off just before harvest, to boost the flavor of the main plant, or piña. But you don't need to worry about that. Because Neta mezcaleros Ramón García Sánchez, Hermógenes Vásquez, and more already did it for you.

Tapping the talents of local artisans, farmers, and purveyors in Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, Neta bottles stellar mezcal. But the proud lineage of family craftsmanship seems to be the unbeatable secret to the sauce.

2. 5 Sentidos

You know it when you cinco it. Coming in at No. 2, the 5 Sentidos brand features an Espadín Capón that came to play. "[It's] on the higher end price-wise but milled by hand with wooden mallets and fermented with open-air yeasts and tepeguaje tree bark," Magro explains. "No modern machinery is involved in this."

How do you mezcal sans machine? You hire the best master mescaleros you can find. The brand boasts a clear mission of never aging, blending, or manipulating the agave, aiming to preserve its true essence. This is an ultra-limited, XXS-batch craft mezcal brand. So, what does it taste like? "It's sweet on the nose and a bit on the palate," Magro assures, "With a tiny bit of funk and warm spice." (Sounds like we're bringing out the nice copitas for this.)

Sample a nano batch that has yet to hit the U.S. market with a visit to the Cinco Sentidos tasting room in the Barrio de Jalatlaco in Oaxaca City. While you're there, you can also enjoy local Oaxacan cuisine with the reservation-only tasting menu at the renowned restaurant that helped launch the brand, El Distilado.

1. Mezcal Mal Bien

At long last, we're popping open our No. 1: Mezcal Mal Bien Espadín Ramos. Magro points to its "great quality and price" calling it "equally good to sip, or in cocktails." Looks like we have a new favorite, for the low, low cost of $NotAsMuchAsWeThought! (Is this a dream? This bottle clocks in at under $100 — and usually somewhere around $60. We're mezcal millionaires.)

Crafted by third- and fourth-generation mezcaleros Victor Ramos and his son, Emanuel, this batch is cooked over encino, guamuche, and mesquite woods. (Is it just us, or does this wood sound delicious already?) You'll taste notes of charred pineapple and sweet citrus, with a hint of salt on the tongue. With batches changing year to year, if you can't find Ramos, look for a Mal Bien Espadín from any of the brand's mezcaleros (they all feature the same lime green tape-like label).

Of course, we had to ask Magro about his ultimate mezcal cocktail scenario. "I talk about this in my book that, like, setting the environment for a cocktail is so important. I just need sun, open-minded good people, and just to be able to f*** around with the mezcal and put it in cocktails, because that's a little anti-traditional. I'm the remix." Describing how it's customary to enjoy neat mezcal on an empty stomach (or after dinner, a la digestif), he confessed, "I could have a mezcal cocktail with dinner, so maybe I'm a hypocrite."

Here's why you can trust our expert

Bottom line: Magro is 100% fun, wrapped in a citrus twist, and sprinkled with 100 proof prowess, having mixed up a lifetime's worth of cocktails in his years on the scene. Plus, he's all about making those top-shelf tastes accessible to anyone. "I'm such a citrus s***," he demures. "I love citrus in everything. I think agave and citrus go so well together."

Full disclosure: This writer and Magro go way back, having spent many an evening (or, um, daytime) in Los Angeles, floating on the bubbles of something fizzy. We met up for this interview at the mezcal bar Las Perlas in West Hollywood, California, where we enjoyed a spicy mezcal margarita ... or two. "My prediction is that mezcal is the new whiskey snob," he mused, as we clinked our snooty glasses.

When he isn't busy crafting party-popping potions on Instagram, Magro is hosting his podcast "Cocktail Clairvoyant," where industry friends join in to kick up their heels and throw one back. Wanna hang out with Magro at home? Grab his book "Suck It Up: Extraordinary Cocktails for Everyday People" for the secret to shaking up your new favorite sipper.