Salt & Wind Travel

Before Tequila There Was Mezcal: Get To Know One Of Mexico’s Original Agave Spirits

In the world of Mexican alcoholic liquor, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is having a moment.  

But did you know it’s been around for centuries? That’s also to say it predates the more well-known tequila, though technically tequila is a version of mezcal we’ll cover that.  

So if you’ve ever been curious about what all the hype around mezcal is about we’ve got the scoop on this classic boozy Mexican spirit. To get you up to speed asap on the dynamic world of mezcal including the difference between mezcal and tequila, how mezcal is made, and how to drink it first let’s get to know its multi-cultural history that dates back to Mesoamerica.

History of Mezcal

The word mezcal comes from the words “metl” (agave) and “ixcalli” (cooked) in Nahuatl, an Aztec language. Agave is a type of succulent and it’s also known as maguey.

Mezcal’s fuzzy origin story often weaves a thread between pulque, an alcoholic beverage the Olmecs, then later the Aztecs made by fermenting agave hearts, and a distillation technique the Spanish likely learned from Indigenous Filipinos and brought to Mexico in the 1500s. 

In the 18th century, the Spanish crown banned all alcohol production in the Mexican colony to bolster its domestic products, which also resulted in a halt in wine production in regions like Valle de Guadalupe in the state of Baja California. Production resumed a decade later in the 1750s, when a member of the Cuervo family (yes, that’s Jose Cuervo of tequila ubiquity) was granted permission to make mezcal near a town called Tequila, in the state of Jalisco.

Today mezcal has become so popular north of the border that the U.S. market drinks more of it than Mexico.

Men Harvesting Agave Pinas In A Field

How Mezcal Is Made 

Making mezcal involves roasting, preparing for fermentation, fermentation, and finally distillation. 

Once agave plants are harvested from the earth and their spiny leaves hacked away to reveal their piña, or heart, mezcal producers bring them to the palenque (distillery, which is often family-fun) and roasted over fire-heated lava rocks in earthen pits in the ground—similar to how barbacoa is made. 

Roasted piñas are then pulverized before fermentation. Traditionally piñas are crushed via tahona, or a large stone wheel pulled by a donkey or horse. After fermentation, the liquid is distilled in copper stills, though some mezcales are distilled in clay vessels. 

This choice as well as: how long roasting and fermentation should last, and how many times liquid is distilled (Mexican law requires two distillations, but some mezcales are triple distilled) is up to the mezcalero or mezcalera, or mezcal maker. Most top notch mezcales are bottled at full strength to preserve agave’s nuanced characteristics rather than diluted with water, the way many whiskies and brandies are made.

Now as demand for mezcal grows some mezcales use modern methods like mechanical shredders or industrial ovens to cook the piñas. We’re partial to mezcal artesanal, which is made in the traditional method, like Real Minero and Doña Vega.

Mezcal Traditional Production Tahona Wheel

How Mezcal Tastes

Despite mezcal’s common ‘smoky’ descriptor, its flavor personality is more than its smokiness—it can also have an earthy and minerally vibe to delicately floral and sweet notes. Depending on where and how agave is grown (such as soil type and elevation) and made means each batch of mezcal will taste different.

The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal

To be clear, all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals can be labeled tequila.

If Jalisco is synonymous with tequila then the state of Oaxaca is the heart of mezcal production. Oaxaca produces 60 percent of Mexico’s mezcal, and currently other Mexican states including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán,, Puebla,, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas can legally produce mezcal. 

Mezcal is made from more types of agave than tequila. Espadín is most commonly used and is comparatively more sustainable since it can also be cultivated. Espadín agave takes nearly a decade to mature, while other varieties like Tobalá which grows at high elevation and Tepeztate can take up to 15 and 25 years, respectively. 

Glass Of Mezcal With Orange Slice

How To Drink Mezcal 

The best way to appreciate mezcal is to sip it neat. Traditionally, sipping mezcal from a jicara (or small gourd) is usually accompanied by an orange slice and sal de gusano. Sal de gusano is a blend of salt, chiles, and ground larva from the maguey plant.

Before mezcal became uber-trendy the spirit was mostly made for the family and shared with neighbors and friends at celebrations, like birthdays, baptisms, and weddings.

How to Buy Mezcal

And whether you’re roaming the spirits aisle IRL or online, a few tips for choosing a quality bottle of mezcal include inspecting the label for signs of transparency such as the variety of agave used and its abv strength. 

Generally, the higher proof—80 or more—the better though Mexican law states mezcal can be between 72-110 proof.  And since mezcal is best enjoyed fresh, bottles in categories like joven (meaning young, unaged) offer the best expression of the agave as aging (reposado, añejo) may make it more difficult to decipher the spirit’s nuances.

And if you’re wondering about that worm in the bottle, truthfully it has nothing to do with the quality of mezcal, and in fact, industry experts say it was likely a gimmick used to differentiate themselves from the competition on shelves.

Now that you know the basics of mezcal transport yourself straight to Mexico with each sip at home (either neat or in one of our cocktail recipes like this charred mango ancho mezcal margarita). 

Or travel to Oaxaca with us IRL and see—and of course taste—the process firsthand on our small group trips.

Get Ready To Travel To Mexico

Thinking of traveling to Mexico soon? Our travel planning services are here to help you have the ideal vacation. After discussing your preferences during a short consultation, we’ll plan your perfect itinerary. Whether you’re looking for custom travel planning or a small group trip, the Salt & Wind team is here to help. Contact us today to learn more!


Photo Credit: Opening photo by Edgar Xolot; agave pinas being harvested by Jose de Jesus Churion Del; tahona wheel by Kelli Hayden

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