All You Need To Know...
Mezcal is a spirit distilled in Mexico from an alcoholic wash produced from the agave plant, a succulent of the genus Agavaceae which looks a bit like a cactus but is in fact of the same botanical family as the Yucca plant. Sounds familiar? Well, yes - tequila is a form of mezcal, but only in the same way as Cognac is a form of Brandy. The two terms are not interchangeable: although all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila.
This feature will explore the world of mezcal outside the tequila-producing regions, with its distinctive character and individuality representing the true spirit of Mexico. Although both tequila and mezcal have similar base ingredients and share common origins and history, their paths have diverged and today they’re distinct from each other thanks to some small but significant differences.
Ilegal Joven Mezcal
Excellent small-batch 'Joven' (young) mezcal, double-distilled from the Espadín agave£33.95
Ven a Mi Reposado Mezcal
One of the best new wave mezcals, traditionally distilled, carefully aged and beautifully presented£75.95
Siete Misterios Arroqueno Mezcal
A smoky, herby mezcal produced using the little-seen Arroqueno agave and bottled at full strength£84.95
The name mezcal derives from the pre-Hispanic language Nahautl's words 'metl' (agave) and 'ixcalli' (cooked or baked) and can refer to any Mexican spirit made from the 'maguey' plant, which is a Mexican name for agave. Where tequila can only be made with the blue Weber agave, mezcal has 28 permitted varieties of agave. Many species of agave used for Mezcal production are not cultivated agriculturally and are gathered from the wild by producers in the local area.
There are two types of mezcal: the 100% Agave Mezcal and the Mezcal that is made with only 80% agave sugars, which is known as mixto. Obviously, 100% Agave Mezcal is the real thing and is likely to be of a higher quality; if the Mezcal does not say 100% on the bottle, it is a mixto.
Enmascarado 54.5 Mezcal
Exotic fruit, citrus and smoky notes on this phenomenal high-strength Espadín mezcal£74.45
Alipus San Andres Mezcal
Fantastic quality Espadín, winner of Tequila.net's 'Best of the Best' award for 'Joven' (young) mezcals in 2012£52.45
Del Maguey Minero Mezcal
'Minero' mezcal is from the small village of Santa Catarina Minas, a legendary mezcal production site£68.55
A Brief History
Until recently distillation technology was widely believed to have arrived in Mexico with the Spanish conquistadors who first landed in 1519; however, there is now some evidence that distillation was already known in Mexico in the pre-Hispanic era, from Filipino merchant seamen.
At any rate, there is no doubt that once the Spanish arrived they very quickly spread the technology and began distilling the local alcoholic agave drink, pulque. Pulque is a sweet, beer-like concoction made by fermenting the juice of the agave plant. It was regarded as sacred in Aztec culture and the maguey plant even had its own goddess, called Mayahuel.
Pulque did not distil very well, but soon it was discovered that cooking the agave first before extracting the juices made the mash sweeter and the subsequent distillate more palatable.
As the techniques of distilling spread through the country, indigenous Mexicans devised crude baked clay pots in which to distil their cooked agave juice. These early proto-mezcals were called 'Vino Mezcal'.
After the Mexican Revolution in 1810, the citizenry were free and the practice of distillation by farmers and villagers became more widespread. In a parallel with the history of single malt whisky, these early stills were frequently illicit, being operated deep in forests to evade tax.
Siete Misterios Barril Mezcal
A dense, complex joven (young) mezcal made with the rare Barril agave variety£75.95
Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas Mezcal
A single village mezcal bottled at 46%, with a light, aromatic nose and a deep palate showing citrus and smoke£66.25
Alipus San Baltazar Mezcal
Boutique joven mezcal from the pueblo of San Baltazar Guelvila, bottled at a healthy 48.1%£52.45
Towards the end of the 19th century, two almost simultaneous developments led to the vino mezcal from the northern state of Jalisco becoming dominant. Firstly, around 1875, Jalisco's producers switched from roasting their agaves in earthen firepits and began baking them in stone ovens instead. This innovation meant that their spirit no longer had the distinctive, challenging, smoky flavour of the mezcals from the other regions.
With the arrival of the railway in Jalisco's capital, Guadalajara, in 1888, suddenly the route to market was opened up for Jalisco's vino mezcal producers, who were centred around the township of Santiago de Tequila, less than forty miles from Guadalajara.
The popularity of this easy-drinking, non-smoky mezcal quickly soared. By the early 1900s, Vino Mezcal de Tequila had become simply Mezcal de Tequila, and production was becoming industrialised with the arrival of modern alembic stills. The quality of tequila improved again, leading to yet another surge in popularity. Soon 'Mezcal de Tequila' had become simply 'Tequila'.
The other mezcals from the southern Mexican states, principally Oaxaca, did not have the advantage of the railroad to transport their goods, and their producers had stuck to the traditional, small-scale methods of production. Even today, the vast majority of mezcal producers are tiny operations in villages dotted across Oaxaca, still roasting their agave in earthen pits and many still distilling in clay potstills.
In terms of agave spirits, tequila is totally dominant and is likely to remain so. But for those who wish to taste a truly authentic, old-fashioned Mexican agave spirit, mezcal is a must-try.
How It's Made
Mezcal is produced by distilling the fermented juice of cooked agaves. There are 28 permitted varieties of agave that are approved for the production of mezcal, but around 90% of all mezcal is made with the Espadín agave (Agave Angustifolia).
Since 1994, agave spirits can only be called Mezcal if they are produced in the regions of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. There are over 600 registered mezcal production facilities in Mexico; around 90% of these are in the principal Mezcal-producing state, Oaxaca.
Enmascarado 45.2 Mezcal
Named for Mexico's famous masked wrestlers, Enmascarado is traditional mezcal in contemporary packaging£55.95
Los Danzantes Reposado Mezcal
A modern oak aged reposado mezcal from restaurateurs-turned-distillers Los Danzantes£60.45
Marco Negra Tobala Mezcal
A copper pot-distilled unaged mezcal made with the rare, slow-growing wild Tobala agave£76.45
The traditional mezcal production process is as follows. Whether cultivated or wild, the mature agaves are harvested and the leaves are removed to expose the piña (heart) of the plant. The piñas are cut up and slow roasted on fireproof bricks for about three days in earthen pits that have been preheated by burning charcoal.
This cooking process converts the plant's starches to sugars and imparts mezcal's distinctive strong smokiness. The cooked piñas are then crushed in a circular pit by a large revolving ‘tahona’ stone, often drawn by a horse or donkey.
This process releases the sugary juice from the piñas, and crushes them into a fibrous pulp which is then collected and fermented with the juice in open top vessels, usually made of oak, to create a lightly alcoholic pulque-like wash called 'mosto'. As the agaves have been cooked, this mosto is not the same as pulque.
Fermentation is carried out by airborne wild yeasts and takes anything from three days to over a week. The resulting mosto is then distilled, either in copper alembics, clay pots or some combination of the two. Generally all mezcal for export is double distilled, although some mezcal for domestic consumption may only be distilled once.
Since 1994, mezcal production has been protected by the Norma Official Mexicanan (NOM) standard, Mexico's equivalent of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system. The NOM is policed by a panel of experts and producers known as the “Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal A.C.” (COMERCAM).
All mezcal must be certified by COMERCAM in order to be legally sold. The NOM, and COMERCAM's protection of it, have been controversial, and are accused by some producers of stifling diversity and harming traditional practices.
The Mezcal Worm
This tradition was started in the 1940s or 50s, but today the addition of the 'gusano' is generally frowned upon as a marketing stunt by serious mezcal aficionados. Lots of perfectly good mezcals still adhere to the tradition nonetheless. The worm itself, of course, is not a worm at all: it's generally an edible larva of the Hypopta agavis moth which grows and feeds on agave as a caterpillar and has been part of the Oaxacan diet for centuries; or a larva of the agave snout weevil, Scyphophorus acupunctatus.
Although there are over 600 mezcal production facilities in the seven permitted states, almost all of them are small or tiny operations; there are only a handful of large-scale producers. Of these, the mass-produced, gusano-containing Monte Alban is the most widely available in Europe.
Since the introduction of the NOM in 1994, there have been official standards and classifications for Mezcal:
San Cosme Mezcal
A quality unaged joven mezcal made in Oaxaca, Mexico's main mezcal-producing state£36.95
Mina Real Reposado Mezcal
A modern reposado mezcal, whose agave is roasted in brick ovens and distilled in small clay stills£42.95
Los Danzantes Añejo Mezcal
Barrel-aged mezcal from Los Danzantes, a Oaxaca-based group of restaurateurs-turned-distillers£70.45
There is now widespread acceptance of the 'Extra Añejo' category for spirits aged for over three years. However, many traditional Mezcal purists reject the ageing of mezcal as a new-fangled trend and claim that it hides the most subtle flavours of the agave.
In the last few years several premium mezcal brands have made their way over to Europe. The best of these are sourced from very traditional producers and then bottled in contemporary packaging for the European market. The companies behind these new brands are committed to the very highest quality mezcal, produced from 100% agave using the most traditional, authentic methods.
One of the pioneers of this new wave of agave spirits was artist Ron Cooper's Del Maguey range of Single Village Tequilas. Cooper was well ahead of the curve, founding his company in 1995; his award-winning mezcals are mostly named for their villages of origin (eg San Luis Del Rio) and really broke the mould when they first appeared.
Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
A single village mezcal bottled at 46%, with a light, aromatic nose and a deep palate showing citrus and smoke£68.45
Del Maguey San Luis Del Rio Mezcal
This 47% joven mezcal is produced in the village of San Luis Del Rio and comes in a hand-woven sleeve£68.45
Del Maguey Pechuga Mezcal
Pechuga is made with a chicken breast suspended in a basket of fruit inside the still during distillation£168
The most remarkable of the Del Maguey range is the 'Pechuga' mezcal, during the production of which a basket of chicken, fruit and spices is suspended within the still, adding amazing sweet and savoury flavours to the spirit.
Another more recent arrival to the UK market is the Real Minero brand, focused exclusively on mezcals made around the region of Santa Catarina Minas in Oaxaca. Real Minero's mezcals are made with either a single agave species, such as Espadín, or a blend of more than one type, such as their remarkable ‘Espadín, Largo, Tripón, Barril’ bottling. All of Real Minero's mezcals are distilled in earthenware potstills.
A feature of both the Del Maguey and Real Minero mezcals is that, almost without exception, they are bottled at their natural strength, which is usually between 45-55%. This is also the case with other artisanally-produced ranges such as Siete Misterios, Enmascarado, Marca Negra and Alipús, whose mission is to give the ultra-traditional, handmade spirits of Mexico's past a new home and a contemporary identity in the present.
Real Minero Espadín Mezcal
Superb joven mezcal made only with the Espadín agave, distilled in traditional earthenware pots£66.95
Real Minero Espadín Largo Tripon Barril Mezcal
Another fantastic mezcal from Real Minero, this time made with four different agave varieties£94.95
Real Minero Tobala Mezcal
Top of the range from Real Minero, made with the rare, slow-maturing Tobala agave£120
In contrast to these highly traditional spirits there are also some western-influenced mezcals beginning to appear, frequently being produced by or for bars and restaurants. The most successful of these ranges are Los Danzantes and Ilegal Mezcal. Los Danzantes mezcals are produced by a group of restaurateurs who founded their own mezcal distillery in Oaxaca's Santiago Matatlan, the unofficial world capital of mezcal, in the late 1990s. Their mezcals are a mix of traditional production methods and modern practices, being bottled at slightly under full strength at around 42-43% and with some products aged in oak barrels.
Ilegal Mezcal, meanwhile, was originally produced for Café No Sé in Antigua Guatemala after the owners and staff were finally allowed to import it properly, following a long and interesting period in which they frequently fell on the wrong side of the law while bringing their mezcals across the border from Oaxaca.
Ilegal Reposado Mezcal
A high quality small-batch mezcal, double-distilled from the Espadín agave and rested in oak£41.45
Los Danzantes Joven Mezcal
A traditional mezcal in modern packaging, made in a new distillery in Santiago Matatlan£55.45
Ilegal Joven Mezcal
An unaged mezcal from Ilegal, originally produced for the Café no Sé in Guatemala and thankfully now making its way out into the wider world.£33.95
Ilegal is now available in the UK and, like the Los Danzantes, the spirit is manufactured in the traditional way before being reduced to 40% for European palates and bottled in eye-catching contemporary packaging. You can read more about the Ilegal Mezcal range on The Whisky Exchange Blog.