All You Need to Know...
Mezcal is a spirit distilled in Mexico from an alcoholic liquid produced from the agave plant, a succulent of the botanical sub-family Agavoideae (formerly known as Agavaceae). It looks a bit like a cactus, but is in fact of the same botanical family as the Yucca plant. Sound familiar? Tequila is made in a very similar way using very similar ingredients, but it shouldn’t definitely not be confused with mezcal.
This section explores the world of mezcal, with its distinctive character and individuality representing the spirit of Mexico. Although both tequila and mezcal have similar 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.
The name mezcal derives from the pre-Hispanic language Nahuatl's words metl (agave) and ixcalli (cooked or baked) and used to refer to any Mexican spirit made from maguey, a Mexican name for agave. Where Tequila can only be made with one type of agave – blue Weber – mezcal can use almost any variety. Many species of agave used for Mezcal production are not cultivated agriculturally and are gathered from the wild by producers in the local area.
Unlike Tequila, if it’s says Mezcal on the bottle, then you know that it’s all agave – no added sugars, just 100% agave in the mix.
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, brought to the region by 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 tasty.
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 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.
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 fire pits to 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 pot 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 pot stills.
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. Almost any variety of agave can be used for the production of mezcal, but the vast majority is made with espadín – Agave Angustifolia.
Since 1994, agave spirits can only be called Mezcal if they are produced in the regions of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. There are more than 600 registered mezcal production facilities in Mexico; around 90% of these are in the principal Mezcal-producing state, Oaxaca.
Different styles of mezcal are made in different ways, but the rough process is as follows:
Mature agave plants are harvested and the leaves are removed to expose the piña (heart) of the plant. The piñas are cut up and and cooked to convert the plant's sugars into a fermentable form. The cooked piñas are then crushed to release the plant’s sugary juice which is fermented to create a lightly alcoholic liquid called mosto. The mosto is distilled and the resulting spirit is mezcal.
Mezcal regulation has changed a lot over the past few decades, with rules laid down in the 1990s overhauled in 2017 to give a framework for three different categories of spirit based on how they are made.
The first category is the least regulated. The agave can be cooked in traditional fire pits as well as autoclaves and brick ovens. Mezcal's classically smoky flavour comes from cooking in pits, and it is still the most common way of making the spirit, although the regulations do now give more flexibility. Almost any means can be used to crush the agave, almost any type of vessel can be used for fermentation, and both pot and continuous stills may be used.
This second category imposes a few more rules to create a more old-fashioned mezcal. Only fire pits and ovens can be used to cook the piña, and modern juice extraction machines are forbidden. Fermentation must be done in wood or more old-fashioned vessels – including stone/soil pits, masonry and clay pots, animal skins and hollowed out tree trunks, but no metal vats. Artisanal Mezcal must be distilled in directly heated pot stills, although the pot itself must be copper or clay, and the head can also be made of stainless steel.
The strictest category enforces rules to create the most traditional mezcals. The agave must be cooked in fire pits and crushed with mallets or a large stone wheel called a tahona. The rules on fermentation are the same as for Artisanal Mezcal, but it must be distilled in a clay pot still with either a clay or wooden head.
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. However, mezcal’s popularity outside of Mexico continues to grow, with the USA showing especially high-growth.
While mezcal was traditionally drunk unaged or lightly rested, and most mezcals are still bottled without spending any time in wood, it is increasingly common to find aged versions from larger brands.
As with Tequila, Mexico's regulations are quite strict about what you can call mezcal of different ages:
- Blanco or Joven – unaged
- Reposado – aged in wooden containers for between 2 and 12 months
- Añejo – aged in wooden containers for more than 12 months. The label must say how long it has been aged in wood.
While Mezcal must be distilled from an alcoholic liquid that has been derived solely from agave, it can have other flavours added during and after distillation.
- Abocado con… – literally ‘flavoured with…’, these mezcals have added ingredients to add extra elements of flavour. Whether it be fruit, coffee or even a gusano ‘worm’, these still need to be made from 100% agave, but have an extra dimension of flavour thanks to the what’s added post distillation.
- Destilado con… – literally ‘distilled with…’. There’s a long tradition of adding things to the still when distilling mezcal, with fruit and nuts being fairly typical. However, there’s one type of this style that is most famous: pechuga – distilled with chicken or turkey in the still. They can be pricey, but they can also be excellent – rich and flavoursome, with a touch of something savoury.
Drinking traditions have changed over recent decades, but consuming mezcal in Mexico is usually done in more traditional ways. You will usually find mezcal served neat, maybe with slices of fruit as an accompaniment. That said, Mexico is a hotbed of invention, and the bar scene is growing rapidly.
Mezcal’s strong and often unique flavours have inspired bartenders around the world to create a huge range of cocktails, from the classic – mezcal Old Fashioneds and Daiquiris – to the ultra-modern – a frozen mezcal, passion fruit and lime cocktail with Thai chillis, anyone? However, when looking for a great place to start, we love a Mezcal Negroni.
The classic Italian aperitif with a Mexican twist. Choose your mezcal wisely – something with smoke and not too much sweetness should work well – and this might become your new favourite drink:
- 1 part mezcal
- 1 part Campari
- 1 part sweet vermouth
Stir all the ingredients together in a glass with ice and garnish with a slice of orange.