An Introduction to Mezcal
In recent years we have seen a drastic increase in the popularity of Mezcal outside of Mexico. It has become a common spirit to find in liquor stores and bars. However there’s a lot of misconceptions that Mezcal is the same as tequila. While this is partially true, this is not the full truth. Mezcal is like tequila’s older brother, it’s been around longer, and has even more expressions. There are many key differences which we will delve into later in this post.
How is mezcal different from tequila?
To many people’s surprise, Tequila is actually a type of Mezcal. Originally when distillation was introduced to Mexico all agave spirits were mezcal, it was only with time that tequila got its recognition, and became its own style separate from other mezcals. Mezcal and Tequila are both made from the Agave plant. However, tequila is made from only one type of Agave plant (Blue Agave) Mezcal can be made with a variety of Agave types. There are over 200 species of agave in Mexico and roughly 50 that are currently being used in the production of Mezcal. Due to the variety of Agave plants used in Mezcal, each type can vary depending on the area it was made. With the rise in popularity of mezcal in 1994 the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal created its own Denomination of Origin (DOM) for mezcal similar to tequila. This means that mezcal can only be made in 9 of the 31 mexican states; Durango, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Puebla, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, and finally the majority of exported mezcal is from the state of Oaxaca. Agave spirits are found throughout Mexico under different names as well, but for now we’ll focus just on Mezcal.
How is Mezcal Made?
Mezcal starts with the Agave plant in the fields and wilds of Mexico. The farmers must know the proper time to harvest the Agave plant because if they wait too long and the plant flowers, it is unusable for Mezcal and the plant also begins to die. All species of agave take a very long time to mature, from the relatively quick 7 years, to as much as 70 years. For this reason agave spirits vary so much because of how much time it takes for the plant to grow, conditions like soil, climate and altitude end up playing a large part in the final product. Agave spirits are also the only spirit in the world where the crop used to make the liquor takes more than a single year to grow before it’s usable.
Harvesting the Agave is no easy task. The farmers must first uproot the agave plants, which if they are found in the wild can often be on cliff faces or in other hard to reach locations. Next they use a blade called a coa or machetes to cut away the outer leaves of the plant to reveal the core or “piña”. One single batch of Mezcal can require upwards of 100 Agave hearts depending on the size of the plant and species being harvested. Similar to tequila, the agave hearts must now be cooked in order to convert the starches into sugars. To do this, traditionally they dig a large pit and light a fire inside. They place rocks into the fire to get roaring hot and then cover the rocks with the piñas. The agave hearts are then slow-roasted anywhere from 3-7 days. This gives Mezcal its classic smokey flavor profile. More modern techniques such as brick ovens and autoclaves have also been adopted with the surge of popularity of mezcal.
The roasted agave plant now gets smashed into a pulp usually using volcanic rocks called tahonas which are pulled in circular pit either by machine or horse or donkey, the resulting juice is then fermented in a number of different ways, including open fermentation in clay pots, wooden barrels, or even animal skins and open tree trunks. The length of the ferment is up to the specific mezcalero’s (Mezcal makers) taste, judgment, and experience. Once fermented, water is added and it is allowed to ferment again. Once this fermentation process has been completed, the liquid is then distilled. There are varying ways in which the mezcal will be distilled including using clay pots, or copper stills. You can learn the distillation process by normally checking the back of the bottle. If it says “en barro or “distilled in clay” that means it was distilled in clay pots.
Now, this is only a brief summary of how Mezcal is made. The methods in which Mezcal is created varies greatly by region, farm, and individual. So we encourage you to do your research on your favourite Mezcals and learn how their specific farm creates their product.
Espadín is a variety of Agave that most Mezcal comes from. This plant grows quickly and produces a high yield per plant, making it ideal for large scale Mezcal production. This type of Agave can also be cultivated by farmers which makes it much more reliable and sustainable for producers. Mezcal made from Espadín is incredibly variable which is another reason for its popularity, It’s all up to the distillers preference and experience and the region the agaves are from. Espadin is the perfect entry point for getting into mezcals! Oh and it’s always delicious.
A lot of mezcals are made from wild agave species as well. As agave is a succulent some species will grow in places that are challenging to reach, and don’t respond well to cultivation. The perfect example of this is a species known as Tobala. In the end wild mezcals tend to be a more expensive product, because of the time put into the harvesting and the distances gone to reach the plants. These mezcals are always interesting and will vary greatly depending on the species of agave being used.
Ensemble Mezcals are blends of many types of agave. These differ from single-variety Mezcals in which the whole bottle is made from one variety of Agave plant.
Joven, Reposado & Añejo
Similar to tequila, these terms are indicative of whether a Mezcal has been aged in oak after the distilling process. However the vast majority of mezcals are left unaged due to the length of time the mezcaleros wait even for the plant to grow before they make mezcal. Here is a cheat sheet:
- Joven: (Young) Clear & unaged – Think Blanco tequila
- Reposda: (Rested) This has been aged for a minimum of 2 months in an oak barrel
- Añejo: (Aged) Aged for a minimum of one year
Mezcal is a complex spirit that takes decades to fully understand the complexities and differing varieties.
Our recommendation would be to try many different kinds and see what you like! Let this article be a guide to your choices but don’t be afraid to experiment. Next time you’re in, ask the bartender for a Mezcal flight in order to experience the vast differences in each kind.