The Chicago Tribune described it as "Mexico's oldest smoky spirit," NY Daily News called it "the forefather of tequila," and Serious Eats called it tequila's "older, mysterious and poorly understood brother." It's definitely garnered a complex reputation over the years, but mezcal is making a major comeback on the cocktail scene. 

In fact, this liquor is popping up at bars all over the world. from Mexico City to Melbourne to Manhattan. According to AFP, production of mezcal surged by a staggering 143 percent in 2013 from the previous year, while exports increased by 12 percent. In recent years, the spirit has experienced not only an upscaling, but also an upgrading, with new high-end releases, such as single village bottlings, hitting the shelves.

Now, mezcal is truly coming into its own and steadily increasing in popularity. Sip for yourself and you'll see why - but first, delve into this guide on the noteworthy liquor.

The roots of mezcal run deep. Serious Eats explained that the agave plant has been cultivated for centuries, not only as a sweetener, but also for making alcoholic drinks. 

According to the source, when the Spanish came to Mexico, they discovered agave, which conveniently had juice that was easily to distill. With their knowledge of the distillation process, they produced the first mezcals around the 1500s. The beverage quickly took off in Mexico and was eventually brought back to Spain.

Now, the majority of well-known mezcals hail from the souther state of Oaxaca, though it is produced in other states as well, the Beverage Testing Institute reported. 

Tequila vs. mezcal
It's easy to get these spirits confused, but there are many elements that set tequila and mezcal apart. The first thing to know is that all tequilas are mezcals. The Chicago Tribune explained that both drinks are made from agaves, which are a form of cacti. However, mezcal can be produced from more than 30 varieties of agave, while at least 51 percent of tequila is required to contain blue agave.

Another area that differs is how the liquor is made. For mezcal, the agave is roasted, while tequila is made by steaming the plant. Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina, a co-founder of the company Mezcal Tosba, told the Tribune that it's this roasting process that gives mezcal the smoky flavor it's known for. 

Tequila production is also on a much larger industrial scale, while mezcal is made in a more artisanal manner. In fact, the news outlet revealed that according to Mexican government data, for every bottle of mezcal that's made, 200 bottles of tequila are produced.

Another distinguishing factor is that tequila and mezcal are produced in different Mexican states, though Mezcal PhD noted that there is some regional overlap.

Tasting tips
Navigating the wide selection of mezcals can be overwhelming.

Lucas Ranzuglia, the bar manager at the trendy San Francisco Mexican restaurant La Urbana, told Condé Nast Traveler that it's best to sort mezcals according to their style. He advised looking at the agave species used to make the mezcal. An espadin variety, for example, has a higher sugar content, so this kind of mezcal typically has more fruity and floral notes. On the other hand, he explained that tobalà is slightly less approachable and more complex in flavor, which has subtle mineral undertones.

Ranzuglia also noted that mezcal ranges from 38 to 55 proof, but he recommended starting with one that's 45 proof or less, as they're smoother and have less burn. If you're an experienced tequila drinker, he advised that it's fine to opt for a 48 or higher proof - which will offer bolder tastes and aromas.

"In Mexico, they have an expression that mezcal is meant to be kissed - you're supposed to sip it very slowly, allowing a connection with it," Ranzuglia explained to Condé Nast Traveler. "They insist it should be something you share and drink with somebody else, not something you rush through."