What is Mezcal? Its History, How It's Made and More
“Para todo mal, mezcal… y para todo bien, ¡también!” When you ask someone from Oaxaca, this is what they will commonly tell you. It's a popular Mexican saying that translates to something like,”For the bad days; mezcal, and for all the good days; mezcal too!” This saying lets you know one thing: people love mezcal.
But, what is mezcal? Is it tequila? Why is there so much mystery surrounding this liquor that's been around for hundreds of years? By the end of this article, you are going to be a mezcal master.
What is Mezcal?
Let's start with the basics. Mezcal is the name of any distilled alcohol from the agave plant. The name comes from the Aztec word “mexcalli”, which means cooked agave.
The question confuses many people because by definition, mezcal is a category of alcohol that can be any agave distillate in nine states of the Mexican Republic.
This means that agave distillates (alcohols) such as sotol, bacanora and the famous tequila are all unique styles of mezcal. Each style has its own flavor based on the agave used (there are more than 200 species of agave), how it is prepared and where it is made. For example, tequila is made strictly from blue agave and baked in pots generally in the State of Jalisco and with certain municipalities in Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato.
While mezcal has different types, it is also its own distillate. Like the other agave liquors mentioned above, mezcal can be made from 30 different subspecies of agave (usually espadín) and cooked in a volcanic rock pit in the states of Oaxaca and Durango, which gives it a very specific smoky flavor.
If you still don't understand how mezcal can be its own category and the drink itself, let's compare it to whiskey and scotch. Scotch is a style of whiskey, but you buy a bottle of scotch or whiskey. Likewise, tequila is a type of mezcal, but you can buy a bottle of tequila or a bottle of mezcal.
The History of Mezcal
The agave plant was sacred long before it was used to distill alcohol. The natives in Mexico used to cook the heart of the plant, known as the pineapple because of its shape, for religious rituals. The legend says that they discovered the agave juices for the first time when a lightning bolt hit a plant directly and caused the juices to come out, and from there on it was known as "the elixir of the Gods".
We don't know for certain when they started distilling agave in Mexico, but the process became popular after the Spanish Conquest in 1519.
Until the Spanish Conquest in 1519, there is no indication that Mexicans drank agave as a distilled liquor (alcohol). But then, the Spaniards arrived.
The Spanish had their own distillation process that differs from the processes of the Indigenous. When they arrived in Mexico for the war of conquest, they brought supplies that included their own alcohol, but with close to 300,000 people, they ran out of drinks pretty quickly.
When you run out of alcohol, what do you do? You clearly make more! And that is exactly what the Spanish did. They experimented with the agave distillation process because they saw that the Indigenous people were doing it. They called it "aguardiente" or "fire water."
Fast-forward to the present and we have over 100 brands of mezcal with probably dozens more not for sale to the public.
And what about the worm? Our mezcal masters tell us that the worm began to appear in certain mezcals from Oaxaca, to differentiate mezcal from tequila in a more noticeable way. However, today the worms are less evident in the bottles as producers do not want the worms to affect the flavor of their mezcal.
How is Mezcal made?
Believe it or not, the mezcal process is almost the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. Technology has changed how many liquors are produced, but these traditional methods are what keeps that smoky flavor in mezcal.
Here is the step by step of how mezcal is made:
- The agave plant is harvested by workers who are called jimadores. The leaves and roots are cut with an ax until only the heart of the plant remains (the pineapple).
- The pineapples are transported to the oven, which is a hole in the ground with hot volcanic stones. Pineapples are placed in this oven, covered with soil and left to cook for a couple of days.
- Once cooked, the pineapples are cut and crushed by the vintners until only the fiber remains, which ends up looking like agave pulp.
- The fiber is introduced into wooden vats where it is fermented for more days.
- After fermentation, the substance obtained is transferred to copper stills where it is distilled to reach the liquid we were expecting.
There are ways to modify the flavor before and during this process, which we will talk about in the next section. However, most mezcal is left untouched so that the natural flavors of the agave plant are the focus of your taste buds.
Types of Mezcal
Mezcal can be categorized by different production methods, flavors, or simply by the agave used to create it. Each category has its own classification of types of mezcal.
Categorizing them by types of production, mezcal can be called ancestral, artisanal or neither. This is what these types mean:
- Ancestral Mezcal is considered the most traditional. To be called ancestral, the agave must be cooked in volcanic stone "ovens" and fermented and distilled without the use of metals or machinery. Each step of this process is manual, making it the most difficult, longest and most valuable since it has the purest flavor.
- Artisanal Mezcal is still considered traditional, but with a little more help from new processes. Agave can be cooked in volcanic stone “ovens”, but can be distilled in copper pot stills if needed. This type of mezcal still preserves tradition and flavor, but the help of machinery is used to speed up production for commercial distribution.
- If it is agave, it is cooked in an autoclave and the fermentation and distillation is done using stainless steel machinery, it can not be called any of the previous titles since it is not traditional in the eyes of the producers and its flavor has been modified too much by the materials used for the production.
Regardless of the production method, the liquor that is produced can also be classified by its flavor, some of which are not even called mezcal because they have created their own reputation as a distinct agave liquor. Legality also plays a part in naming, which you'll learn in a moment. Here are the most popular:
- Tequila. Whether you knew it or not, tequila technically qualifies as a type of mezcal. At the end of the day, it's made from blue agave. However, it is not referred to as mezcal due to government regulations. There are laws that dictate that any state where alcohol is manufactured with blue agave must be called tequila. There are similar regulations for the others.
- Pechuga. Referring to chicken, duck or turkey breast. During the distillation process, some mezcaleros hang raw meat breasts over the still to introduce flavor into the alcohol. There's a lot of debate about whether you can actually taste the difference from meat, but hey it is an interesting novelty.
- Reposado or Añejo. You are probably familiar with gold tequila, that one is añejo or aged. The word simply means that it is mature, so this mezcal is left to rest in barrels for a predefined time. If you think that the golden color has something to do with the taste, we are sorry to tell you that you are wrong. The barrel is what changes the color of the alcohol, not the age. Some producers filter the color so they can have transparent añejos, better known as crystalline.
- Gin. The flavor of gin is attributed more to the fruits and herbs used in the distillation process than to the process itself. You can use those same fruits and herbs in the distilling process of other spirits to make hybrids. In other words, if a master mezcalero chooses to use these ingredients when making their mezcal, the result is a mezcal gin!
Finally, the types of mezcal are based on the type of agave that is used. The most common are the following:
- Espadín (80-90% of mezcal is made with this agave)
- Tobalá (the most famous wild agave)