It seems most countries have a national drink – these are the kind of bottles that are bought on holiday and go dusty in the cupboard only to be pulled out for drinking games at parties years later. One of the most iconic national drinks of all time is of course Tequila.

Tequila, as we all know, has a bad reputation as being that party drink, that led to that night, and many have avoided exploring this infamous spirit unless forced to by a friend who is swaying on the spot with a party hat on his head screaming, “SHOT!”. However, if this is the case, Tequila’s rustic cousin Mezcal should pique your interest. “What is a Mezcal?” I hear you ask. Well take a seat and I will tell you a story.

It is customary for civilisations to have a god or goddess of booze – the Greeks had Dionysus, the Zulus had Mbaba Mwana Waresa and we have Prince Harry.  The Aztecs nominated their god of fertility, Tezcatzontecatl, to take up this position of immense responsibility.

The Aztecs were a god-fearing bunch so they set about making an alcoholic drink from the fermented juices of the agave plant (called Pulque) to drink in honour of the amazingly fertile Tezcatzontecatl. Such was their devotion to Tezcatzontecatl they even gave prisoners of war, who were due to be sacrificed, a cup of Pulque in what can only be described as a bizarre act of hospitality.

Tezcatzontecatl – God of Pulque.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, in what would become Latin America, they were horrified to discover that Pulque was only about 3%abv the strength of a light beer. The Spanish were more used to the high-strength brandies of Europe and decided the only way forward was to distil this drink so they could enjoy high-strength spirits whilst they ravaged South America for gold and treasure. This crude spirit is what would eventually become known as Mezcal, and years later would line the bars of clubs the world over.

Now, technically Tequila is a Mezcal, but not all Mezcals are Tequilas. Tequila has to be made from the Blue Agave plant, whilst Mezcals can use any of eight different types of agave. For the horticulturalist who isn’t familiar with the plants of Central and South America, agave is a type of plant with large fleshy leaves that taper towards a sharp point – although they look like cacti they are in fact more closely related to lilies. However, it is actually the stem of the agave which is needed for making Mezcals. The flower is cut off the stalk which redirects growth back down the stem and causes it to swell  – the swollen stem or ‘pina’ can then be harvested to make alcoholic drinks.

The other major difference between Tequila and Mezcals is that Tequila is made from the stem of the agave plant which has been baked in a steam or pressure cooker to convert the starch into fermentable sugar. Mezcals are of course allowed to do the same; however, more often than not they bake the agave over charcoal, underground. The result is a smokier style of drink with a herbal character.

Like Tequila, Mezcals can be aged in oak barrels for a number of months to impart flavour and colour. Un-aged Mezcals are labelled Silver or Blanco, followed by Reposados which are ‘rested’ for a number of months in oak casks or vats. Finally, there are Añejo (old) Mezcals which have been matured in oak for a year or more. Mezcals tend not to be aged for as long as Scotch (not to say they can’t be) for the simple reason that Mexico is very hot and the spirit essentially ages faster. Also, a Silver Mezcal has a lot more character than a Scotch new make spirit, and can display a great depth of flavour without any ageing at all.

Agave looks like a cactus but is closer to a lily.

So, that is the story of Mezcal, but to appreciate any national drink you need to try it. We got our hands on a selection of intriguing Mezcals from artisan Mexican producers who are trying to rival top Tequilas for quality. I gave them a go to see what they actually taste like…

Pickled larva.

N.B. These Mezcals do not have a worm pickling in the bottle for the simple reason that it serves no purpose. It is thought that the worm was once used as evidence that the spirit was high in alcohol, ergo a weaker spirit would have failed to pickle the worm. Incidentally it’s not even a worm; it’s actually the larva of a moth that lives on the agave plant.

Sombra – 45% abv – £74.14

Sombra is a Silver Mezcal made from Espadin Agave and hails from the Rio Hormiga Colorada Valley. This Mezcal is a smoky style with a citric fruitiness cutting through the earthy agave.

Nose: Smouldering bark, citrus pith followed by wood smoke and lemon juice.

Palate: Big rich smoke chased by sugar water, orange skins and sea salt.

Finish: The smoke diminishes and makes way for light tropical fruits and a little mixed spice in a lingering finish.

Mano Negra Espadin – 50.9% abv – £82.71

Mano Negra is a spicy Mezcal made from the Espadin Agave. Mano Negra translates as ‘Black Hand’, their aim is to source Mezcals from small producers across Mexico and bottle them for the general market.

Nose: Sugar cane, barbecue coals, spiced rum notes of cardamom and clove leading to mint and rising smoke.

Palate: A creamy mouth-feel with smoke curling around the mouth with notes of rye and caster sugar.

Finish: A herbaceous finish with a tinge of smoking green wood.

Enmascarado 54 – 54.5% abv – £95.49

This Silver Mezcal was made by master craftsman Don Guillermo Abad Hernandez and has been bottled at a high strength of 54.5% abv, yet despite this the delicate nature of this Mezcal shines through.

Nose: Beach bonfire smoke rises out of the glass at first before sherbet lemon and candy-floss form a sweet base layer.

Palate: Sweet and syrupy with the smokiness taking a back seat for lemon and lime to shine.

Finish: The finish is reminiscent of a tropical beach bonfire, lapping waves with smouldering palm trees.

Los Siete Misterios Espadin – 46.5% abv – £94.71

The Los Siete Misterios Espadin won Silver at the Spirits of Mexico awards 2011. This Mezcal tastes remarkably like a sherried whisky and is a great cross-over drink for those wishing to branch into the world of Mezcals.

Nose: This Mezcal almost has the aroma of a malt whisky with notes of toffee, mince pies and a touch of smoke.

Palate: This Mezcal has a powerful mouth-feel with mounds of dried fruit complemented by sweet spice, demerara sugar and oak smoke.

Finish: Warm wood smoke, sugar syrup and mixed spice.

Mezcals are the up-and-coming thing, if you’re interested in Tequila’s smoky cousin or like your food and drink smoked, try a dram and let us know what you think.