While you're bound to find mezcal at a handful of bars and restaurants, try one of these spots if you're wanting a primer.
Mezcal is certainly having its moment in the greater United States.
But here in Tucson we’ve been enjoying the versatile Mexican agave spirit for some time. A number of bars feature at least a handful of Mezcal, some dozens, and one, Exo Bar, claims to offer one of the best mezcal collections in the country. Listed below, you’ll find our picks for the best mezcal bars in Tucson.
403 N. Sixth Ave.
Exo Bar is a dedicated mezcal bar currently stocking 133 different labels. Owner Doug Smith conceived it as a mezcaleria when it opened in fall 2017.
“My introduction to artisanal mezcal,” said Smith, “was during a patron saint fiesta in a village in Guerrero more than 20 years ago. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the spirit in all its dimensions.”
Smith leads a mezcal tasting at Exo every Thursday night at 7 p.m. (Beginning May 1, mezcal tastings will take place both Wednesday and Thursday.) While the tasting averages 25 attendees every week, Smith says it’s still a challenge to get more people to appreciate mezcal.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard something like, ‘Oh, mezcal? No, it’s too smoky for me.'” Smith continued. “And also how many times we’ve enlightened people about how much more there is to it, and that smoke is actually rarely the predominant note on the palate. So it’s quite clear that familiarity and interest have been growing steadily.
Smith’s recommendations for newbies
For those new to mezcal,” he says, “and especially those skeptical of it, we recommend an approachable espadín, like Nahuales, Alipus San Luis del Rio, Rey Campero, Nuestra Soledad or San Baltazar Guelavila. These are well-balanced espadíns on the more affordable end of the price scale. None has a pronounced flavor note that might put off the inexperienced, but rather nice fruit and spice notes, nice sweetness, and their smoke is integrated into the whole profile in a gentle, appealing way. Now, that said, I of course don’t believe we carry any mezcal that is unappealing. It’s just that some mezcals are a little wilder than others.”
Reforma Modern Mexican
4340 N. Campbell Ave.
Reforma has carried a strong list of mezcals ever since opening in 2014.
“We have around 50 different mezcals on our list right now including Del Maguey, Vago, Illegal, Alipay’s, Nuestra Soledad, Los Nahuales, and Scorpion Mezcal,” said owner Grant Kreuger. “We carry not just mezcal made from the espadín agave, but various other species of agave which often have interesting and different flavor notes other than just the traditional smoke. We also have a number of aged mezcals which are quite uncommon.”
Kreuger’s recommendations for newbies
“We recommend trying mezcal in the traditional serving method, sipping with a slice of orange and worm salt, which is a spicy and savory concoction of Oaxacan sea salt, costeño chiles, and the dried pulverized bodies of the red maguey worm. It’s a real delicacy and nobody else in town seems to serve it like that.”
50 E. Broadway Blvd.
Number three on our best mezcal bars list, is Penca, a central Mexican restaurant and bar which carries over 30 mezcals. Particularly impressive are the several tasting flights, one of which lets you taste a mezcal alongside a tequila, a bacanora (the Sonoran version of mezcal), and a sotol (the spirit made from the desert spoon plant).
Penca will also put together a flight of mezcals made from wild or semi-cultivated agave, or a flight of mezcals from outside the main mezcal-making region of Oaxaca. Or you can throw yourself at the mercy of the bartender, chat to them about what you like, and they’ll put together your own flight of premium mezcals.
100 S. Avenida del Convento
Agustin Kitchen stocks nine mezcals, along with a bacanora from Sonora, and two sotols, the other main Mexican spirit.
“More people ask for and know about mezcal these days,” said Agustin bartender Jesse Schaefer. “I always recommend starting with an espadín. It’s the sustainable workhorse species of mezcal, with relatively quick turnaround on a plant and high sugar content. Before one jumps into wild agave species and rare bottlings, I think it’s a good idea to have a baseline familiarity with espadín.”
The Best of the Rest
Other bars worth checking out for their mezcal selection include:
- PY Steakhouse & Tequila Factory at Casino del Sol, 5655 W. Valencia Rd.
- Charro Steak, 188 E. Broadway Blvd.
Agave Heritage Festival
Lastly, don’t forget the annual Agave Heritage Festival, which has been going on since 2008. For 2019, the extended event takes place April 23-May 5. For more information about the festival, visit Agave Heritage Festival Returns With Agave Tastings, Dinners & More.