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Like Tequila, mezcal is an agave-based spirit from Mexico. The two main differences are that Tequila comes from a specific place and can only be made with one kind of agave, blue weber. In contrast, mezcal can be made all over the country and makes use of over 30 different kinds of agave. Some of the most notable varieties include tobala, espadin and cupreata. Rather like grape varieties, each has its own distinctive flavour profile. Mezcal can be made from a blend or a single variety. There’s another difference and that is one of scale. Tequila is dominated by big brands who use industrial techniques to make a consistent product, though there are more artisan brands. In contrast, mezcal is usually made on a much smaller scale using more rudimentary equipment and there aren’t really any famous brands with huge marketing budgets.

Mezcal regulation
Until the 1990s mezcal was very loosely regulated but a Denominaciones de Origen (DO) for mezcal was first established in the 1990s, overseen by the CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal). As defined by the CRM, mezcal can be produced in ten states: Oaxaca, Michoacan, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Durango, Puebla, and Sinaloa
As with Tequila, mezcal starts with agave. An agave plant can take anywhere from six to twelve years to mature and can grow up to 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall. Harvesting the agave is a skilled and labour intensive process. When the plant is ripe, has enough convertible sugars in it, the jimador (farmer) removes the agave leaves with a sharp curved tool called a coa. These fibrous leaves are discarded, the part he’s after is the heart of the plant, called the piña, because it looks like a pineapple. These can weigh up to about 100kg (220lb) but usually come in at 30kg. They are made up of complex carbohydrates which are not fermentable so the next stage is to convert them into sugar.
To access those sugars, the piñas need to be cooked. Some will use a steam oven as they do in Tequila whereas others use traditional techniques like cooking them in a firepit full of hot stones. In fact, at every stage of the mezcal making process, there are different ways of doing things. To try to clear things up, in 2016 the CRM came up with three grades of mezcal, Mezcal (plain and simple), Artesanal and Ancestral depending on the techniques used.

Labelling mezcal
Bottles labelled simply as mezcal can be made using steam ovens similar to those used in Tequila to cook the agave. The cooked agave can be milled mechanically to release the juices and fermented in stainless steel with cultured yeasts. For distillation, column stills are allowed to produce a high ABV spirit. Despite this being the most efficient method, only about 7% of mezcal is made this way.
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, according to the regulations, “animal skins, pits or tanks made of stone, earth, tree trunk, masonry basins (concrete or earthen tanks), or wood”. Only wild yeasts are permitted meaning that fermentations can take up to 15 days. For distillation only traditional stills made from copper, clay or wood are allowed.
Very few (1%) commit to the Ancestral method, where the agave is cooked in earthen pits, and then crushed using a stone wheel pulled by horse or human power called a tahona. Fermentation takes place in the same way as an Artesanal mezcal, but distillation must be over a direct fire in a clay still. Ancestral mezcal is made in extremely small quantities usually less than about 5,000 litres a year.

How does mezcal taste?
Due to the very different techniques used and the huge number of producers, it is very different to generalise about the flavour of mezcal. Some will taste smoky from the way the agave is cooked, and some will have big strange flavours from fermentation or rudimentary distillation techniques but you will also find spirits that are smooth and gorgeously pure. In Mexico most mezcal is drunk neat but any cocktail in which you would use Tequila, you could use mezcal instead.
As with Tequila there are also aged examples which are usually matured in ex-bourbon casks. A reposado must spend between two months and a year in wood, whereas an añejo is aged for one to three years, and an extra añejo for longer.
Finally there’s a very special kind of mezcal called pechuga. Originally this would have been made for special occasions such as weddings and involves redistilling mezcal with some form of protein in it such as chicken or rabbit with herbs, fruit and spices. Nowadays you also get vegetarian versions which use nuts instead of meat. The result is a richly-flavoured botanical spirit with an incredibly unctuous texture.

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