--Scientific American Supplement, January 2, 1897, “Beverages of Mexico” by Isabel N. Catlin
Almost 120 years ago, this article in a major periodical presented a very dismal view of mezcal, though it actually was better than its view on tequila, which was that: “Tequila is even worse, and is said to incite murder, riot and revolution.” The main subject of the article was actually pulque, a fermented beverage made from the sap of the agave plant, noting: “The average Mexican does not quench his thirst with soda water or beer. He drinks pulque.” Mezcal and tequila only received brief mentions and they were not positive. The article also states: “Mescal is distilled by the crudest of methods. Hand stills are very common throughout the country, and the natives get gloriously drunk on home production and at very little expense." I’m sure this article didn’t garner mezcal any new fans.
“Mezcal is one of the world’s great spirits: complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place.”
--The New York Times, August 16, 2010, “Mezcal, Tequila’s Smoky, Spicy Cousin” by Eric Asimov
How opinions in the U.S. concerning mezcal have changed in a little over one hundred years. There obviously has been a great evolution of the quality of mezcal during the last century. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message and there are still plenty of people who fail to understand the myriad wonders of mezcal. Tequila gets the vast amount of media attention, fueled in part because several huge corporations own tequila brands and can afford massive publicity pushes, so there are fewer positive articles in the media concerning mezcal. However, that is slowly changing and there are starting to be more and more news articles promoting mezcal.
At its simplest, mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the agave plant, which is more commonly called maguey in Mexico. Thus, mezcal is an expansive term, encompassing such agave distillates as tequila, sotol, bacanora, racilla and others. You might not have realized that tequila is really a type of mezcal. The term mezcal likely derives from the indigenous language Nahuatl, a combination of the words metl (which means “agave”) and ixcalli (which means “cooked”). As a legal term, mezcal has a number of regulations which differentiate which bottles can legally be labeled as mezcal. For example, though mezcal is produced in 31 Mexican states, it is officially recognized in only 9 of them, including Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Puebla and Michoacán.
Interestingly, Mezcal didn't receive its Appellation of Origin until 1995 but its official regulation and certification only occurred in 2005. If it doesn't qualify by the regulations as a mezcal then it must be sold as an "agave distillate." There are three categories of mezcal: Joven (unaged), Reposado (aged two months to less than one year in oak) and Anejo (aged for a minimum of one year in oak in containers limited in capacity to 200 liters). Unlike tequila, there is no Extra Anejo category. Mezcal exports constitute only about .07% of tequila exports.
“Mezcal is real and has nearly 500 years of history. It is hand-crafted and artisanally produced…. It has deep cultural significance in Mexico, from births, to weddings, to funerals, and is deeply woven into the fabric of community life.”
--Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal: A Complete Guide From Agave To Zapotec by John McEvoy
--Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal: A Complete Guide From Agave To Zapotec by John McEvoy
There are still myths about mezcal that need to be shattered, misunderstandings that need to be corrected. For example, some people mistakenly believe that mezcal is connected to the drug mescaline and thus can have a hallucinogenic aspect. There is absolutely no truth to this myth and mezcal and mescaline have no connection beyond a similarity in their spelling. Jon Taffer, the host of Bar Rescue, recently gave an interview to the Huffington Post where he perpetuated that myth, showing his own ignorance in this matter. He certainly should have known better and the error was quickly deleted once savvy readers pointed out the mistake.
In addition, there are some negative views of mezcal based in part on some people’s prior experiences with cheap mezcal containing a "worm," though many of these people also mistakenly believe they were drinking tequila. It is only mezcal, and almost always cheap mezcal, which may contain the larvae of the agave snout weevil or the agave moth. Forget about the worm, forget about cheap mezcal. There is a wide world of small batch, artisanal mezcal which will impress you with its complex and alluring tastes. It is time that mezcal takes center stage and shines on at least an equal base with tequila.
Despite the quality and versatility of mezcal, many Mexican and other restaurants carry few, if any mezcals, and rarely showcase it in cocktails. You might find a restaurant with 100 tequilas but maybe 2-4 mezcals, if even that. I've been told before by a few restaurant owners that mezcal doesn't sell so they won't carry mezcal or feature it in cocktails. Mezcal though would sell if they helped to promote it and just didn't assume it wouldn't be accepted by their customers. Fortunately, there are some Mexican restaurants and other places which believe in mezcal as much as they believe in tequila, helping to spread a passion for mezcal.
“Mezcal hits every magic word—artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family. It automatically became cool when knowing what you eat became cool. Tequila got to the point where it’s like Tyson chicken—that’s Cuervo. Now I want to know my chicken’s name. That’s mezcal.”
--The New Yorker, April 4, 2016, "Mezcal Sunrise" by Dana Goodyear (Quoting Bricia Lopez)
For millennia, the indigenous people of the Mexican region have used the agave plant for many different purposes, from roasting the piña for food to the creation of instruments and tools, from needles to rope. The production of mezcal though likely didn't originate until the 16th century when Spaniard conquistadors introduced distillation. Some Spaniards, traveling along the Manila-Acapulco trade route, were accompanied by Filipinos, who distilled coconut brandy in the Mexican region. The indigenous people started copying these crude stills, leading to the production of mezcal.
It all begins with the agave plant, a perennial succulent which grows in a wide range of arid and semi-arid climates. The agave is part of the same botanical order as asparagus and it is also known as the “century plant”, though that is inaccurate as they don’t bloom once a century, but more commonly within 8-10 years. The agave is monocarpic, meaning that it blooms only once and then will die. It is this a single use plant, unlike wine vines which can be harvested continually for many years. Over 200 types of agave exist, most of them native to Mexico, and they come in a myriad of shapes and sizes, though they usually have long, sturdy leaves with a margin of sharp spines.
Despite the existence of all those different agave plants, tequila can only be produced from a single type of agave, the Blue Weber. What a restriction! On the other hand, mezcal can be produced from at least 30, and maybe as much as 50, different varieties. Imagine if you could only produce wines from a single grape. Would you be able to produce as much diversity in your flavor profiles as someone else who could use over 30 different grapes to make their wines? Mezcal possesses a clear and significant advantage in this respect.
The most commonly used agave to produce mezcal is Espadin, which is also used as an added component to balance out other agaves with stronger flavors. Espadin is easy to cultivate, matures in about 8-10 years, and its piña can yield about ten bottles of mezcal. Tepeztate, which has a strong, herbal aroma, takes about 25 years to mature while Tobalá, often called the "King of Mezcals, takes 15 years to mature and its piña only yields about two bottles of mezcal. Besides single variety mezcals, you can also find blends, known as ensembles. So many varieties and combinations to appreciate.
"Tequila is to wake the living. Mezcal is to wake the dead."
The flavors in Mezcal derive from a myriad of multiple factors that start in the field, meaning that mezcal is a spirit that can possess terroir, a sense of place. Are you using wild or cultivated agave? Which variety of agave is being used? What is planted near those agave? What is the composition of the soil? What are the climatic influences? What is the altitude of the plants? So many different questions to consider.
The harvesting of the agave is another important aspect which will contribute to the tastes of the mezcal. The key element of the agave of the piña, which vary greatly in size and shape, from a smaller, ten pound piña to one that is several hundred pounds. How ripe is the piña when it is harvested? Has it just barely reached maturity or do you wait longer? How much of the green is left on the piña when it is harvested? Again, there are so many different questions to consider.
The harvested piñas will then be roasted in hornos, a type of oven that can be a cone-shaped pit. On the other hand, the piñas for making tequila are commonly steamed, not roasted. The roasting process can contribute to a smoky flavor in the mezcal. The entire roasting process is also fertile ground for affecting the flavor of the mezcal. What is the shape of the hornos? Are the piñas subject to direct flame or indirect heat from stones? How long are the piñas roasted? How many piñas are cooked at the same time? And much more.
After the roasting is completed, the piñas must be crushed to extract the juice. Some producers use a large mallet to crush the piñas, a strenuous and laborious process. It is more common to see the tahona process, where a huge grinding stone, called a tahona, is pulled in a circle, often by a donkey or horse. For tequila, they commonly use machines to mill the piñas and that can lead to a more bitter taste as the fibers also get shredded. The tahona though is more gentle and leads to a rounder, smoother taste.
Fermentation is next, an open top process that commonly uses wild yeasts. But do you ferment just the juice and water, or do you use the entire mash? How close is the fermentation barrels to the ovens? The smoke of the ovens will give more smoky notes to the fermenting juice. Distillation is then conducted, which brings more questions. Do you use a clay pot still or copper? How many time do you distill it? Do you add any other ingredients during the distillation process?
The wondrous complexity of mezcal.
In Aztec mythology, the Centzon Totochtin are 400 rabbit gods of drunkenness and their mother was Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave plant. She is also considered to be the creator of pulque and it is said she has 400 breasts, each which oozes pulque and suckles the rabbit gods. The number 400 is symbolic, meant to represent the numerous levels and types of intoxication, with 400 being the highest level of drunkenness. And those 400 rabbits certainly want people to drink more mezcal.
Mezcal is a fascinating spirit, often produced in a more traditional and artisan manner, and has the potential to produce diverse and complex flavors. Tequila may get far more publicity but mezcal is worthy of much more attention and I urge you to delve into the world of mezcal and I bet you enjoy what you find. I call on restaurants and bars to help promote mezcal too, not to relegate it to the back shelves, thinking no one will drink it.
What are some of your favorite Mezcals?