In the United States, as more people discover the mystery of mezcal, its popularity is on the rise. Despite this, its popularity is still dwarfed by its tequila, its infinitely more popular cousin. Both tequila and mezcal are distilled agave spirits made from the agave plant, a succulent of the lily family. Tequila is essentially a type of mezcal, just like how bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey. While both tequila and mezcal are made from agave, that is where their similarities end as they have many differences.
Mezcal is a spirit made and distilled from the heart of agave plants. This agave spirit can be made from a wide variety of different agaves, a highly important factor that contributes to the complexity and depth of this beverage. Out of about 200 agave species, mezcal can be made from about 30 different types of magueys, many of which can be found in Oaxaca, Mexico. As a result, mezcal has very diverse flavor profiles and history.
It all begins with agave. The agave plant has been around for thousands of years. Backed by a rich history, it is a critical source of food and pride for the Mexicans. This plant is well adapted to the mountainous and rocky environment with spiky leaves that protects its sweet pina from predators. Performing the bulk of its photosynthesis in the evenings, the pores open to drink from the rainwater caught by its thick leaves.
By law, tequila can only be made from one type of agave, the blue agave or blue weber agave.
Mezcal can technically be made from any of the 252 agave species. However, only 30 to 50 different types of agaves are utilized. Some of the common varieties used for mezcal are tobala, arroqueno, tepeztate, and tobaziche.
Out of the 252 species of agave, espadin agave (Agave angustifolia) is the commonest type of agave used in the production of mezcal. According to the regulatory body for mezcal, about 74% of all mezcal production uses espadin as it takes the shortest time frame to mature, ranging from 8 to 12 years to reach maturity. This species of agave also adjusts well to most climates in Mexico and grows in a variety of wild and farm environments. Offering the highest sugar content compared to other agave varieties, espadin gives the highest yield compared to other agaves.
Currently, the most famous of all agave spirits is tequila which started off as “Vino de Mezcal de Tequila”. A town in the middle of Jalisco, the producers were so confident of the quality of their mezcal that the name of the spirit became tequila. While it can come from five different states, Jalisco is home to about 99% of all tequila and remains the center of its production. The other four states involved are Michoacan, Guanojuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas
Mezcal’s origins span across nine Mexican states: Oaxaca, Guanojuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Michoacan, Zacatecas, Durango, and Puebla. Currently, about 85% or more of mezcal is made in Oaxaca. Its name comes from the Nahuatl words “Metl” and “Ixcalli” which means “cooked agave”.
In the past, mezcal was also known as vino de mezcal, or mezcal wine. Although unclear, it is believed that the distilling techniques were taught by Spanish conquerors some 400 years ago. The Mexican ancestors thought of “maguey” as sacred and considered mezcal to be from the gods, making it a drink that was consumed during cultural and religious events.
After the agave is harvested, the leaves are removed, leaving behind the agave’s heart or pina. These are then cooked in an autoclave, a large and stainless-steel oven. This cooking process softens the fibers and transforms the starches in it to become sugar.
Once the cooked pina is crushed, it is fermented with the help of commercial yeasts and distilled two to three times in copper pots. Next, it is aged inside oak barrels and comes in three varieties depending on the length of aging. Blanco is aged for 0 to 2 months, reposado for 2 to 12 months, and anejo for 1 to 3 years.
After harvesting the pina of the plant, it is cooked in an underground earthen pit that is lined with charcoal, wood, banana leaves, and volcanic rock. After the pinas are dropped into the pit, a fire is lit, and the cooking process underground begins, a process that gives them a smoky and caramelized flavor.
Although traditionally roasted, there are some modern-day producers who steam the pinas to decrease the smokiness of the mezcal. Once the cooked plant is pulverized, it is left to naturally ferment and distilled in clay pots. Mezcal is also aged in oak barrels and can be grouped based on their aging process with joven aged for 0 to 2 months, reposado for 2 to 12 months, and anejo for at least one year. Mezcal anejo is much smoother compared to reposado and blanco labels.
Generally, tequila blanco (unaged) has a strong agave flavor with hints of pepper, citrus, and spice. Tequila reposado aged between 2 to 12 months in oak barrels is smoother with notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak. Tequila anejo rested between 1 to 4 years is rich with tones of cinnamon and vanilla, the most suitable for drinking straight and less for cocktails. Tequila is 40% ABV.
Due to its preparation underground, mezcal has a range of smokiness that can be light to heavy. Besides its smoky flavor, it can have rich, sweet, fruity, earthy tones. Its smokiness makes it go a long way and can be sipped neat or used in cocktails. The longer it is aged, the smoother and more refined it is.
When discussing mezcal flavor, it is important to touch on the terroir in mezcal as it brings out all the different flavors brought about by various factors such as the time it takes for agave to mature, the number of climate cycles it goes through, the type of trees it is cooked with, the type of yeast it is fermented with, and more. Some experts believe that mezcal expresses terroir better than wine does as agave goes through multiple growing seasons while wine only has one, allowing it the opportunity to absorb more of the characteristics of the region. Mezcal ranges from 35% to 55% ABV.
The production of mezcal is regulated by the mezcal regulatory council, or Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM). The CRM classifies the type of mezcal based on the equipment and process used as labor intensive processes are much more time consuming and expensive. Therefore, mezcaleros who use complex processes can price their spirits higher. Based on their criteria, mezcal can be further categorized into the following categories.
The most popular variant produced by most large distilleries, mezcal is produced using advanced equipment such as autoclaves, diffusers, stainless steel tanks, and more. All these equipment allow mezcal to be produced in large quantities. Less advanced equipment such as earthen pits and masonry basins are also allowed.
Mezcal artisanal are produced by distilleries using less advanced processes. These producers use clay ovens and open pits for roasting the pinas, a tahona (giant stone wheel drawn by a mule or donkey) to break down the cooked agave, and hollowed tree trunks or concrete tanks for the fermentation process. Distillation can be done using copper, clay, or steel pots that sit directly on fire.
To produce mezcal ancestral, the agave hearts must be cooked in earthen pits while the cooked maguey must be milled with a tahona, Egyptian mill, or hand mallet. For fermentation, the process must take place in animal skins or vessels made of clay, wooden, or concrete. Once ready, it is distilled using clay pots over an open fire.
Tequila or mezcal wine is North America’s first distilled drink. With roots reaching back into preHispanic times, its development from traditional beverage to modern spirit is turbulent but obscure to outsiders. Mexico’s war with the United States in the 1840s exposed American soldiers to tequila. However, the first export of tequila to the U.S. is believed to be in 1873 when Don Cenobio Sauza sold three barrels to El Paso del Norte.
As the railroads expanded In the 1880s, this led to the spread of tequila. As its popularity grew steadily and around 1893, a product from Jalisco known as mezcal of Tequila simply became known as tequila. In the late 1920s, Prohibition in the USA boosted the popularity of tequila as it was smuggled across the border. During World War 2, it again rose in fame as spirits from Europe became scarce.
Decades later in the 1980s, the increasing number of American tourists to Mexico led to the discovery of premium tequila brands moving it from a party drink to high society, aided by the release of Chinaco, the first premium tequila sold in the US in 1983. While tequila had a headstart in the United States by more than a century, mezcal’s story begins in the 1990s. It began with Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey who spent three months in Oaxaca to create art. During that time, he followed rumors of amazing mezcals made by farmers who were only accessible through dirt roads far away. He loaded up his truck with mezcal samples and attempted to cross the border. Unfortunately, U.S. customs only allowed one liter across the border.
He then started to export artisanal spirits made by family palenqueros in villages where most have been producing mezcal for generations using ancient practices. His company soon became the first producer to credit the village the mezcal was made, creating the single-village designation. Their mezcal comes in simple green bottles and is often thought of as being the purest available. As other mezcal producers entered the market, bartenders helped spread the word about mezcal through tasting events and cocktails.