At its heart, mezcal is simply ‘cooked agave’, milled, fermented and distilled, but the complexities of its production run far deeper. People have been making mezcal for hundreds of years using skills passed down for generations.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that a few brands began setting their sights beyond Mexico. Del Maguey was one of the early pioneers, and interest in mezcal soon grew among international bartenders and spirits producers.
Tequila did give mezcal a helping hand, opening people’s minds to agave-based spirits and allowing agave production to flourish (a plant that takes 12 years to fully mature). But mezcal is not second best to Tequila. It’s a complex and cultural spirit in its own right that is often misunderstood.
The fine print
A Denominaciones de Origen (DO) for mezcal was first established in the 90s, overseen by the CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal). As defined by the CRM, mezcal can be produced in 10 states: Oaxaca, Michoacan, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Durango, Puebla and Sinaloa.
In 2016 the CRM created three different categories: Mezcal, Artesanal and Ancestral.
Mezcal abocado con is where something is added after distillation, such as a worm (see later), fruits or herbs. Mezcal destilado con is a flavoured mezcal where botanicals and protein are hung inside the still during distillation. Mezcal Pechuga (‘breast’ in Spanish) is a good example, where raw chicken and herbs are infused during distillation.
Destilado de agave sits outside of the CRM’s regulations (producers have to pay to become a member and use its terms), and so while it can include mezcal from Mexico, it also includes agave-based spirits from all over the world.
What does Mezcal taste of?
Agave, mostly. But that’s difficult to describe to someone who has never tasted it, like trying to describe an apple. Alejandro Aispuro, distiller and co-founder of Agavache, a consultancy and educational authority on agave spirits, makes a good case.
“Usually you get something fresh, a little bit citric, some lime, passionfruit, a bit of tamarind in some cases, but the most characteristic flavour that should always be there is the cooked agave. It should taste caramel-like, a bit sweet but also fresh and herbal – kind of like honey on an orange when you bite it.”
A smoky character is also common, which comes from the agave being roasted in underground pits. But the biggest misunderstanding is that all mezcal tastes the same.
“If you buy a bottle and you like it, buy more because every batch will be different, the yeast, the agave, everything,” says Aispuro. “Consistency and flavour are harder to get than with other spirits. If someone says, ‘I don’t like mezcal’, I say just try another one.”
What the agave?
Tequila producers have to use blue agave (Tequiliana Weber var Azul) from five states. Unless labelled ‘100% agave’, they can use up to 49% non-agave fermentable sugars. Mezcal producers can use up to 40 agaves, the most common being Angustifolia haw (Espadin), but must use 100% agave. Each agave, much like grapes for wine, creates different flavours. But for Aispuro it starts before that, with the soil.
“If you try different types of agave in mezcal they will taste different. Going deeper espadins from different states will taste different. Mexico has a huge variety of terrains; deserts, valleys, plateaus, mountain ranges, jungles. Does the flavour really just come from the difference of agave or does the soil have something to do with it? I argue that it does and that terroir is a real thing.”
Further layers of flavour are added through wild yeast ferments and distillation methods, which can include clay and copper stills, all of which are crucial to the spirit’s final profile.
Mezcal, Artesanal, Ancestral: What’s the difference?
Bottles labelled as mezcal can be made using autoclaves to cook the agave. Mechanical milling, fermentation in stainless steel tanks and column distillation is also allowed. Column distillation takes the ABV of a spirit very high, so subtleties in flavour can be lost, but it’s quicker to produce larger volumes.
It’s the least labour-intensive method of production, though only 7% of mezcal is made in this way, according to the CRM. The vast majority of mezcal production (92%) is Artesanal.
Here, agave must be cooked in earthen pits or clay ovens. Mechanical milling is permitted, though fermentation must take place in “animal skins, pits or tanks made of stone, earth, tree trunk, masonry basins (concrete or earthen tanks), or wood”. Fermentation must be spontaneous with wild yeast and can take up to 15 days, longer during wet or cold periods.
“Flavours can be created during fermentation that wouldn’t be there otherwise. There are people who have their fields next to lemon trees or strawberries and you taste the mezcal months later and it tastes of lemons.”
Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, or a Filipino-style still made of clay or wood. Very few (1%) commit to the Ancestral method, where the agave is cooked in earthen pits, milling is done only by hand or horse (a very labour-intensive and physical process). Fermentation takes place in the same way as an Artesanal mezcal, but distillation must be over a direct fire in a clay still.
“The flavours are different, not because of the labour, but because it’s distilled in clay,” explains Aispuro. “You could expect petrichor – the smell of wet earth or brick right after the rain, wet forest, humidity. That’s what you should expect from an ancestral mezcal.”
Ancestral mezcal is made in extremely small batches. While most spirits can produce 10s of thousands of litres a day (Artesanal perhaps 10,000 litres a year), Ancestral producers are capable of about 4-5,000 litres a year, probably less, says Aispuro.
How to drink it?
Enjoy mezcal neat, as you would a Scotch or fine spirit. Taste before you add ice or mixers. As for cocktails, try a Mezcalita (Mezcal Margarita), Palomezcal (Paloma), or Mezcal Negroni (switch the gin for Mezcal).
A word on the worm. Gusano Rojo first added a gusano rojo (red worm) to its Mezcal in the 80s as a marketing gimmick. “At some point, people thought it was the difference between mezcal and Tequila, but it’s not,” Aispuro confirms.
Finally, never confuse mezcal with Mescaline. One is a complex agave-based spirit. The other is a hallucinogenic drug found in certain cacti plants native to the United States, Mexico, and South America…