Belly up to your favorite trendy bar and you’ve probably seen inventive cocktails serving mezcal. Maybe you’ve even tried it too, but have you ever asked yourself, “what is Mezcal”?
As far as Mexican spirits go, most people immediately think of tequila, which makes sense. The U.S. particularly loves tequila, as it boasts the largest market for it globally, with Mexico a close second. But mezcal is the under-the-radar spirit that’s been trending all over the place lately.
Tequila’s edgier cousin has been around for centuries and we’re here to tell you all about it. Curious to learn more about this spirit? We’ve got your basics covered -- from mezcal’s deep ties to Mexican culture to the scoop on mezcal versus tequila, and how to make mezcal -- so you can navigate the mezcal bars like a pro the next time you travel to Mexico:
What Exactly Is Mezcal?
First thing’s first, let’s define what exactly is mezcal. The most important thing to know is that any spirit distilled from the agave plant is considered a mezcal. In other words, the term mezcal is the mother term under which other spirits like tequila, sotol, bacanora, and raicilla reside.
Side note: we’re talking only distilled agave spirits so the alcohol made from fermented agave known as pulque is not mezcal because it never gets distilled.
Speaking of mezcal’s origins, in addition to introducing wheat and domesticated animals, Spanish conquistadors also brought distillation (which they actually learned from native Filipinos in the 16th century) when they arrived in Mexico, which was eventually used to make agave spirits.
The Difference Between Mezcal And Tequila
One of the most popular Google searches on mezcal is what the difference are when it comes to mezcal versus tequila. Before we dive into the specifics, it’s first helpful to remember that all tequilas are technically mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.
Like wine, tequila has a denomination of origin thing going on, meaning agave distilled in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Guanajuato are allowed to call themselves tequila. On the other hand, mezcal isn’t legally defined by geography yet so when we talk about mezcal, we are mostly referring to the artisanal spirit made in the state of Oaxaca.
How Mezcal Is Made
Now that you’re up to speed on the what mezcal is and the different types of agave used to make tequila and mezcal, let’s talk about the agave’s journey to becoming mezcal, or how mezcal is made.
Mezcal begins with harvesting maguey, or agave. Mezcaleros and mezcaleras use machetes to get to the heart of the agave plant. After its leaves are hacked away, the remaining hearts are separated in pieces––the hearts looks like oversized, unripened pineapples, and is referred to as the piña.
Next, the agave gets roasted in an underground pit with rocks for several days before it is milled on a tahona by literal horsepower. Side note: the underground roasting technique is another way mezcal is different from tequila, because tequila agaves aren’t cooked in the earth but steamed in above-ground ovens. Once the horse has circled the large, stone mill enough times to transform the agave to pulp, the material is placed in copper or clay vats (aka stills) to ferment.
To determine mezcal’s alcohol content (or ABV) the traditional way, mezcaleros use a low-tech yet super practical method. They use a cane stalk to blow bubbles into the mezcal to see what happens. Quickly dissipating bubbles mean a higher ABV. Overall, mezcal is a pretty boozy spirit and ranges from 40 to 50% ABV.
Another difference between mezcal and tequila boils down to the ratio of agave each spirit contains. A true mezcal is made with 100% agave, while tequila requires 50% agave content.
Types of Mezcal
A thing to know about mezcal is that most of it is made from Espadín agave because it grows quickly––relatively speaking, that is. You see, agave can take decades to mature. With that in mind, the Espadín varietal grows quickest and is the most widely available, but it still takes around 7 years to reach maturity.
There are over 200 varieties of agave, though most of them grow wild in the countryside, like the rare Tobalá variety.
What you should know is that when it comes to mezcal versus tequila, the long maturation process is one of the main reasons why the former tends to be pricier.
How To Drink Mezcal
Smoky is a common word to describe mezcal, and more nuanced palates would add descriptors like roasted bell pepper, leather, and chipotle. Mezcal can also be floral, spicy and fruity, it really depends on the type of agave and how it’s distilled.
In Oaxaca, the boozy spirit is often sipped at room temperature from a wine glass, a veladora or squat ridged glass, or, most traditionally, in a jicara or natural bark bowl with a bit of orange and sal de gusano, or salt made with worms that live in the agave plant. And in keeping with traditions, sipping is the best way to appreciate all of the mezcal’s flavors.
However, mezcal is no stranger to the crafted cocktail as bars and restaurants often serve it in a Margarita cocktail or Old Fashioned cocktail, for example. Over at Salt & Wind, we love mezcal cocktails bumped up a notch with fresh, tropical fruit like guava and mango.
The Mezcal Terms To Know
To really get to know mezcal, it’ll help to brush up on these mezcal-specific terms:
- Maguey - the Taino word for agave
- Espadín - the most cultivated variety of agave (most other varieties of agave grow wild and free)
- Maestro Mezcalero/Mezcalero - a reverent term for the small production distillers that have been making mezcal since pre-Hispanic times
- Palenque - a mezcal distillery, typically a boutique production
- Santiago Matatlán - the self-proclaimed “World Capital of Mezcal,” in Oaxaca
Mezcals To Try
Where To Drink Mezcal In Southern California
Here in Southern California (Salt & Wind’s HQ by the way), mezcals been popping up everywhere, from our fave vegan Mexican eatery Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, Las Perlas in Downtown LA to Tahona in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood.
Now that you’re primed on all things mezcal, join us on a Salt & Wind trip to Mexico this year to experience this and many more delicious cultural traditions up close!
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Photo Credit: Kristen Kellogg