If you’ve never heard of mezcal, it's time you should as this agave spirit has been sweeping through the United States and garnering fans from all over the nation. Despite having been around for many years, mezcal has only started to undergo a reputation transformation in the last decade. No longer the unpopular liquor that gathers dust on the back shelves, it is now being recognized for the premium artisanal product it is.
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.
The history of mezcal begins with its origins in pre-Hispanic Mexico where the ancient indigenous people of Mexico produced an agave distillate as early as AD 500. However, it was in a geographically isolated area and remained largely unknown outside of its region until Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1521.
The word mezcal comes from “metl” and “ixcalli” (to make fire) in Nahuatl—the language of the Aztecs. As with many other things that have been traditionally enjoyed by Mexico’s indigenous peoples for centuries, mezcal has come to represent more than just a distilled spirit; it represents a lifestyle.
In 1997, mezcal was granted Denomination of Origin, a status that greatly restricts commercial and legal use of the word. Therefore, all certified mezcal today is made in North America, to be more specific, Mexico. Although maguey grows in most states in Mexico, only nine states are allowed to legally produce mezcal. These states include Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Guerrero, Durango, Puebla, Guanajuato, and Michoacan.
The agave is considered sacred by many indigenous cultures as they found sustenance and shelter from the plant. Sustenance wise, the flowers are edible while the stalks provided aguamiel (honey water). Yielding both sap and fiber, the agave leaves can be used for clothes and building materials. Meanwhile, the heart of the agave is the key ingredient of agave spirits.
As briefly mentioned above, mezcal can be made from a wide variety of different agave species. Comparatively, mezcal’s popular cousin, tequila, can only be made from the blue weber agave or simply known as blue agave. Some of the most popular agave species used for mezcal production are:
Also known as Espadin, it accounts for about 90% of mezcal production. Since it is less fibrous than other varieties, it breaks down more readily after the cooking process. Due to its higher inulin content, it is an effective variety for alcohol production. Maguey espadin is also the only cultivated agave species and takes the shortest time to reach maturity.
Tobalá is a species that can be found in southern Mexico. This incredibly rare variety cannot reproduce like other varieties. Instead it relies on birds and bats to help spread its seed. Maguey tobalá takes between 10 to 15 years to mature and has a low inulin content.
Tepeztate takes as long as 25 years before sprouting striking yellow flowers. Mostly found in south Mexico especially Oaxaca and Guerrero, the production of mezcal using this agave species results in spicy and intensely flavored mezcal.
Traditionally crafted by small scale producers, mezcal is made using methods passed down from generation to generation. Some families retain techniques that have been used 200 years ago, another important difference with tequila that is mostly produced industrially today.
The harvesting process starts by extracting the piña or heart of the agave. This is done by cutting off the roots and leaves of the maguey plant. Once the piñas are ready, they are cooked in an earthen pit. Depending on the producer, the earthen pit may contain specific type of woods, rocks, herbs, and other materials used to give the cooked agave a distinctive and intense smoky flavor.
After being cooked in the earthen pit for several days, the piñas are retrieved, crushed, and mashed. Traditionally, this is done using a tahona, a stone wheel that is turned by a horse or a donkey. The resulting liquid is then left to ferment in large vats or barrels for 4 to 10 days. Some mezcaleros leave it to ferment naturally while others may employ the help of wild yeast, another factor that contributes to the differing flavors of mezcal.
After fermentation, the liquid is collected and distilled in copper or clay pots, a process that adds flavor notes to the final product. Mezcal is distilled twice. The first distillation is known as ordinario and results in a mezcal that is about 75 proof or 37.5% ABV. A second distillation process is required to raise the alcohol percentage.
At the end of the distillation process, the unaged mezcal can now be bottled and sold. Some of it may be kept and left to age in oak barrels for a specific length of time. The aging process can be used to classify mezcal into the following:
In 2017, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) decided to delineate three classes of mezcal based on the different production and tools of the trade. After months of discussion, here are the differences:
|Spirit Name||Cooking of piñas||Milling or crushing||Fermentation||Distillation|
|Just plain mezcal, this category refers to mezcal that has been produced using an industrial or semi-industrial process. Its preparation must comply with at least the following|
|Mezcal||In earthen pits, brick ovens, or an autoclave.||Using a tahona, mechanical mill, or diffuser.||In wooden containers, stainless steel tanks, or masonry basins.||Using stills made of stainless steel or copper.|
|This class of mezcal must be made with some traditional methods such as|
|Mezcal Artisanal / Artesanal||In earthen pits or brick ovens.||Using a tahona or mechanical mill.||In animal skins, stone pits, tree trunks, wood, or masonry basins.||Over a fire in stills made of wood, clay, copper, or stainless steel.|
|The rules are much stricter for mezcal ancestral as it retains most of the traditional methods and must fulfill the following conditions|
|Mezcal Ancestral||In earthen pits.||Using a tahona, hand mallet, Egyptian or Chilean mill.||In animal skins, stone tanks, tree trunks, wood,or masonry basins.||Over a direct fire in a still made of clay or wood.|
Mezcal is a highly complex agave spirit that can have sweet fruity flavors with smoky and earthy notes. The flavor of the agave itself should be present. Ultimately, the taste of mezcal varies greatly depending on the type of agave and how it is made. Artisanal mezcal can have a wide range of flavors with subtle nuances.
The presence of mezcal in the United States can be largely attributed to Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey, a mezcal producer. His visit to Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca in the 1970s to create art sparked the dream to start his own mezcal company.
During his time in Oaxaca, he followed rumors of amazing mezcals and attempted to bring back mezcal samples across the border. Unfortunately, only one liter was allowed by U.S customs. He then exported artisanal spirits made by family palenqueros who produced mezcal using ancient practices. Soon, Del Maguey became the first producer to credit the village the mezcal was made.
While Oaxaca remains the main producer and heart of mezcal, many mezcal lovers are turning their eyes towards San Luis Potosí as many believe is where the best mezcal today is made. Known for its waterfalls and colonial architecture, San Luis Potosí is said to be one of the original producers of mezcal during Spanish rule.
In fact, it was once briefly Mexico’s capital and is one of the keepers of the oldest distillation processes even before Oaxaca was in the picture. In San Luis Potosí, the traditional producers are still using Mongolian style Capacha clay stills that date way back.
However, in the early 20th century, the mezcal industry in the area took a huge hit after the Mexican Revolution. In recent years, mezcal from San Luis Potosí are constantly winning awards which consequently put them on the map. The mezcals in this area are loved for its terroir as the region sits in the high desert where the soil has incredible mineral content and very little rainfall.