Deep in the south of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, villagers for the past 400 years have been producing and consuming a mystical liquor called mescal.

Imagine your favorite tequila, add a deep, rich, earthy complexity and a layer of smoke, and you have a high-quality mescal. While mescal's boldness is unappealing to some at first sip, the spirit's fans say the distinctive flavors are mescal's most engaging characteristic, and represent one of the main reasons why the spirit is spreading like wildfire in U.S. cocktail circles.

Mescal is claimed by many as the first spirit produced in the Americas, and thanks to several small artisan distillers such as Del Maguey and Ilegal Mezcal, it is now available here. In Austin, those brands are available at Twin Liquors Marketplace in the Hancock Center. Del Maguey mescals are also on the menu at Townhouse Austin and La Condesa, and can also be found at Péché and Fonda San Miguel.

Mixologists and consumers have welcomed the arrival of mescal. The spirit has a fresher face in the U.S. than its ubiquitous cousin tequila. Also, the flavors are multifaceted, making it challenging and fun to experiment with in cocktails. The spirit has reached such popularity that several bars across the country prominently featuring mescal have opened this year, including Las Perlas in Los Angeles and Casa Mezcal in New York City. Mayahuel , another New York City mescal bar that opened its doors in 2009, received the "World's Best New Cocktail Bar" award at Tales of the Cocktail 2010 in New Orleans in July.

John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, shared a particularly poignant anecdote with the audience at a mescal seminar at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail Festival in New Orleans.

He described meeting a Oaxacan villager, who upon hearing trite descriptions of the spirit by some American tourists, offered her own description of mescal's unique taste. "The taste is time," she said, reflecting the history and soul of mescal. Oaxacan villagers have been consuming beverages made from agave for ceremonial and social purposes since pre-Columbian times, then began to use modern distilling methods after the arrival of the Spanish. Mescal has become part of the fabric of everyday life.

The word "mescal" comes from the Nahuatl word Mexcalmetl, meaning maguey or agave, which is the foundation for the spirit. The hearts of the maguey are slow-roasted over hot stones in a pit, covered with earth, and left to cook in the ground for three to five days. Then the liquid from the hearts typically undergoes a long fermentation process in wooden vats before being double-distilled and bottled. Blue agave hearts, which are only used to produce tequila, do not usually undergo this natural roasting process before fermentation and distillation; most are cooked in stainless steel ovens, which is one of the reasons why the two spirits taste so drastically different.

While tequila can only be produced with the hearts of the blue agave plant, mescal can be produced from one of up to 30 varieties of agave. So while tequila is technically a type of mescal, not all mescals can be considered a tequila. Blue agave sets the standard for the taste of tequila, whereas for mescal, each type of agave plant changes the flavor of the final product, making each batch slightly different.

So what are you in for when drinking mescal? Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, claims that "mescal is the mother of all tequilas." It is a complex spirit that will stop you in your tracks and force you to take in the moment that each sip hits your tongue. Though a tequila drinker can easily pick out the underlying agave flavors, the earthy, spicy notes of mescal are the ones that stand out the most upon first taste. Discovering mescal (or having mescal discover you, as Cooper insists is the case) is a transformative moment, like when a bourbon drinker first discovers his or her favorite Scotch. The bold complexity puts mescal into a category above and beyond your typical tequila.

Philip Ward of Mayahuel in New York City recommends tasting mescal for the first time in a cocktail.

"Cocktails are the perfect vehicle to introduce people to unknown complex spirits because it rounds out and softens the complexity of flavors while offering a good introduction. You taste it, but it doesn't overwhelm the palate," he said.

In other words, a cocktail will introduce you to mescal's character, without hitting you over the head with smoke and spice, as drinking it straight might. While mixing it with other ingredients might seem like lunacy to villagers in Oaxaca (just as mixing Scotch in cocktails seems absurd to Scotch connoisseurs), Ward considers it the best gateway for those who are new to mescal so that an understanding and appreciation of the spirit can be cultivated over time.

For Central Texans new to the liquor, here's a twist on a much-loved classic, the margarita. Below are the recipes for a Oaxacan Summer and a couple other recipes from prominent mixologists. If you're feeling courageous, sip mescal straight up. No lime. No salt. No worm (which, Cooper said, is a marketing gimmick of lesser quality mescals, not a traditional practice). This way you can evaluate the layers of nuanced flavor in its purest form.

The Oaxacan Summer

1 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal

1 oz. reposado tequila

1 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1 oz. agave nectar

3-4 dashes of Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters

Combine all ingredients and shake. Serve in a chilled margarita glass. Chile powder on the rim is optional.

The Brave

1 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal

1 oz. Hacienda del Sotol Plata

1/2 oz Averna Amaro

1 tsp. Marie Brizard Orange Curacao

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir in a glass without ice and mist Angostura bitters on top. Flame an orange zest above the cocktail and allow the flaming zest to drip into the drink for a garnish.

— From Bobby Heugel , co-owner of Anvil Bar and Refuge, Houston

Tres Coops

1 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal

1/2 oz. Averna Amaro

1/2 oz. St. Germain elderflower liqueur

1/2 oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1/4 oz. fresh egg white

Pinch of freshly ground chile powder.

Combine all ingredients and shake. Strain and serve in a cocktailz glass.

— From Tad Carducci of Tippling Bros. for Mercadito Chicago