Artisanal Mezcal Part IV: Levels of Quality

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Essentially, there are three tiers of quality in mezcal production:

Generic Mezcal: This is the base level of quality, ubiquitous in the streets and markets of Mexico (as well as on the bottom shelves of liquor stores throughout the US); none of these products are made in true artisanal fashion and most are comprised of large percentages of sugar and water in the mash; in the case of Oaxacan mezcal, the infamous worm (gusano), a marketing gimmick from the 1940s, can still be found in many of these bottlings.

Commercial Mezcal: over 90% of the Mezcal in Mexico is made by the Seagrams corporation under various labels; much of this is also impure, but of marginally higher quality than generic Mezcal. Similarly, most major brands of tequila (Jose Cuervo and the like) are produced in large factories and contain some percentage of agave syrup or sugar.

Artisanal: Described Above; Del Maguey is the standard-bearer for artisanal mezcal in the United States; other terroir-driven styles are curated by the Mezcaloteca (lit. “library of Mezcal”) in Oaxaca. Notably, premium tequilas such as Patron & Don Julio do not qualify for this category -- while they may use 100% blue agave, they are produced in large industrial factories to guarantee consistency and smoothness (cf. “sipping tequila”) over rusticity and idiosyncrasy.