Let's get the worm out of the way. That curled specimen at the bottom of some mezcal bottles -- those marked con gusano -- is in fact the larvae of a moth that clings to the agave plant; it's harvested, purposefully, along with the leaves themselves. Depending on who's talking, the worm is an aphrodisiac or a dare, a marketing gimmick or a mark of tradition -- but any way you slice it, it's perfectly pickled, and will do no more harm than the liquor itself.
Once seen as tequila's rough-and-tumble brother (both spirits are derived from fermented agave juice, though the specifics of tequila production are controlled by law), mezcal has started to emerge from the shallows. Tequila shrines from coast to coast, including LA's Las Perlas (run by cocktail king Cedd Moses) and NYC's Cabrito, have stocked the shelves with smoky, slate-y specimens, handmade with care -- and without worms -- in Oaxaca.
Mezcals for your top shelfSombra Mezcal
A finalist in the 2010 Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York, Sombra mezcal -- a micro-batch, organically-farmed spirit from Oaxaca -- scored 95 points ("Extraordinary; ultimate recommendation") for its clean, spicy flavor profile with hints of citrus in the smoke.
Del Maguey Tobala Mezcal
Tobala took 94 points ("Excellent, Highly Recommended") in the spirits challenge, and is prized by mezcal fanatics for its rarity (it's distilled from a wild mountain maguey plant) and its complex notes of fruit and smokey cinnamon.
Los Amantes Mezcal Reposado
Straight from the hills of Oaxaca, this Los Amantes mezcal is aged in new California oak, and bears notes of smoke reminiscent of single malt scotch.