What Does Mezcal Taste Like?
by Greg Rutkowski
Although the industry seems to finally be gravitating away from this, the popular misconception about mezcal still seems to be that it tastes smokey.
As you go farther down the mezcal rabbit hole, however, you’ll soon realize that there is not just one taste, but an infinite number of nuanced tastes and smells.
To put all mezcal into a box and call it smokey is incorrect, so let’s put that kind of talk to rest. It has already bastardized what ought to be, a world class spirit. The mezcal journey never ends and that is what makes it so great.
This topic is explored in depth in the book Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market by Alvin Starkman, and we will touch on the main points here.
This is an article that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, as the previous article was inaccurate and did not capture the true essence of the answer more people are seeking.
Defining What Is “Mezcal Taste”
Before we begin, let’s define what we are talking about so that we’re all on the same page.
It is important to note that tasting mezcal or any other spirit is a combination of what happens in your mouth and in your nose, as smells contribute more to taste than the chemical reaction that occurs on your tongue.
We also want to note that we are only talking about tasting notes, not the scent and mouthfeel.
The Philosophical Approach To Describing Mezcal Taste
A few things to ponder before we get started…
On the topic of infinity:
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu said in the Tao Te Ching that;
“Five colors blind the eye.
Five notes deafen the ear.
Five flavors make the palate go stale.”
Lao Tsu knows just a little bit about infinity.
The five tastes of the palate—sweet, sour, bitter, piquant and umami—open the door to an infinite number of flavor combinations (if you let them), all of which can be applied to mezcal as well.
On the topic of understanding:
When an ancient Greek philosopher was asked by his student “what is honey?”, the philosopher responded by saying that it is impossible for the student to truly know and understand honey without tasting it for himself. This also applies to mezcal, but on a much grander scale.
After tasting hundreds of types of mezcal, I can assure you that this question is impossible to answer in a simple sentence, paragraph or even an entire blog post.
At this moment in time, there are thousands of mezcaleros producing agave spirits all over Mexico, and each of these mezcaleros produces many different types of distillations as well.
For you to walk away from this article thinking you have a concrete idea of what mezcal actually tastes like means that I have not done my job.
The Variables That Go Into The Smells And Flavors Of Mezcal
According to the book Mezcal: Un Espirituoso Artesanal De Clase Mundial by Domingo Garcia, there are seven main factors to consider when evaluating mezcal. Together they create a “synergy of aromas” that make up the smell and taste of mezcal:
- Agave Species (primary factor)
- Agave Cooking Method (secondary factor)
- Early Stage Fermentation (secondary factor)
- Milling Process (secondary factor)
- Fermentation Process (secondary factor)
- Distillation Process (tertiary factor)
- Maturation Process (quaternary factor)
Within each of these seven categories are an infinite number of variables that the maestro mezcalero can manipulate to impact the smell and flavor (intentional or not).
I would also like to add a few other main factors as well.
- Terroir Of The Agave
- Terroir Of The Palenque
- The Hand Of The Mezalero
During a tasting, an agave spirits pro will be able to discern which smells and tastes come from which part of the process.
It is my desire to go into each one of these factors in detail, but it is best to break them down in future articles, as they are each major topic in and of themselves.
For the sake of this article, let’s keep it simple.
Distinguishing Alcohol Feelings And Tastes
Alcohol delivers both tastes and feelings to your mouth and it is important to recognize what is a taste and what is a feeling.
When we say that something has strong alcohol, we are referring to the feeling that the alcohol gives us on our tongue and in our mouth. A strong taste, on the other hand, is referring to an actual flavor or note that you may perceive.
Keep in mind that the stronger the mezcal is in alcohol by volume (ABV), the stronger and more complex tastes that you may perceive, assuming that the spirit was well-made.
When water is added and the alcohol is diluted, it typically decreases the mouth feel and the taste. When someone says that an alcohol is “smooth” they are referring to a mouth feeling. Often, but not always, this indicates that the drink could be lower proof.
So when an amateur says that a spirit is smooth, beware that it may be watered down.
Mezcal Tasting Wheel
A few of the great minds of mezcal came together and decided to create a comprehensive mezcal tasting wheel.
As you can see from the photo, hundreds of tastes are listed as true mezcal notes.
This wheel is a great guide for evaluating a mezcal like you would a wine, and also to show you how mezcal flavors can be broken down in a sophisticated manner.
Subjectivity In Mezcal Tasting Notes
Have you ever picked up a bottle of mezcal and read the tasting notes on the side? Or maybe a friend, a liquor store owner, a bartender, or the internet provided you with some?
The truth is that mezcal tasting notes are extremely subjective.
Your mood, the glass you use, how you store the mezcal, the process you use to taste it, your skill level, what cologne you are wearing, what cologne your friends are wearing, and many other variables can all impact what you perceive in a mezcal.
Because of this, you can try the same exact mezcal several times and each time it can taste wildly different.
When selecting a mezcal, always bear this in mind.
A Truly Good Mezcal Stacks Up On Tastes And Smell
When we did many organoleptic elevations with mezcal in our classes at the Agave Spirits Institute, I realized something very profound.
Many mezcals had highly complex profiles on the nose, but when I went to taste them, they underperformed.
Typically you may be able to confirm a few tastes that you have smelled, but oftentimes the tastes are not as complex as the smells.
A truly great mezcal has highly complex notes on the nose and equally complex flavors on the tongue.
This, however, is something that I consider rare, and something I would advise you to be on the lookout for during your mezcal tasting journey.
This article has been updated from a previous author and rewritten for accuracy on 12/19/22 by Greg Rutkowski, President of Mezcal For Life.
Greg Rutkowski, President of Mezcal For Life
Greg is a certified Agave Spirits Advisor and Mezcal Sommelier through the Agave Spirits Institute. He contributes to a number of agave spirits projects inside Mexico including Raicilla tours and also his agave spirits distillery in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.