Once upon a time, mezcal had a bad rap. Not good enough to include in a margarita, it was once viewed as a cheap, shabby, rotgut cousin of tequila where shots were pounded down and fights broke out over who got to eat the worm (larvae, actually).
But in the past decade or two the spirit is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. Gulping and quaffing is now sipping and savoring, as aficionados discern the subtle smokiness of a spirit that has been crafted for centuries. Just to confuse things a bit, all tequila, because it is agave based, is a mezcal, though mezcal is not tequila. Got that?
Tequila, by definition, can only be made from blue agave and is produced primarily in Jalisco, on Mexico’s west coast, where about 80 percent of tequila distilleries are located. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be produced from upwards of two-dozen other varieties of agave (or maguey) and is primarily produced in the southern state of Oaxaca, where about 60 percent of that spirit is produced.
Another bit of confusion is that agaves are not cacti at all, but are related to the lily family.
And while the two different spirits have similarities, there are important differences. What’s similar is all agave plants are harvested and the long, spike-tipped leaves are sheared off at the base and what remains looks like a gigantic pineapple, and is called a piña. The piña is quartered and roasted or heated, and from there the differences begin. Think mass production versus artisanal.
Tequila is generally made in large, industrial-sized pressure cookers known as autoclaves. A faster process, it enables large-volume production and allows for a uniform-tasting product that is only altered somewhat through ageing.
Mezcal’s piñas, on the other hand, are placed and covered in open-pit ovens that have been heated from beneath, and the piñas are slow-roasted for two to seven days, depending on distiller preferences and weather conditions. Roasted piñas are then placed in a press where a large, heavy stone-grinding wheel slowly crushes the roasted agave to force out the liquid, now a rich, sweet brown color. The unfermented mixture is distilled using natural yeasts that need more time to take hold than industrial-made yeasts and the mezcal is processed using a standard whiskey still. What flows out is a clear, flavor-filled spirit that shows complexity and individuality.
The variety of agaves used, the characteristics of slow roasting the piñas, and then pressing out the juice creates the opportunity for mezcal to release more distinctive flavors than is normally found in tequila.
The result with mezcal is a smoky and complex maturity, where the terroir of the agave and the talents of the maker combine to create a spirit that continues to gain respect and appreciation.
Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico) is recognized as the home to many of Mexico’s best mezcals (though it can be produced in other states in Mexico’s southern region). Thanks to shrewd marketing and maturing taste buds, this distinctive spirit is gaining newfound respect in markets around the world.
Once distilled and adjusted to the desired alcohol level, tequila and mezcal can be consumed with almost no aging. But to give consumers a choice and distillers opportunities to showcase their products, both tequila and mezcal offer three general types; joven (ho-ven), reposado and añejo (an-yay-ho). Joven has almost no aging and is usually clear as water. Reposado has been aged in oak barrels from two months to a year and añejo has been aged for one to three years.
And because of the industrial approach to tequila manufacturing and marketing, that spirit is a goliath compared to mezcal production. Based on 2011 data, an estimated 261 million liters of tequila were produced (nearly 69,000,000 gallons), while mezcal production approached perhaps only one-tenth or less of that amount.
Many of the small-batch distillers operating in Oaxaca don’t make enough to export to the U.S. or Europe. In fact, some excellent labels don’t even make it as far as Mexico City, less than 230 miles away. That means many people who would appreciate these offerings are missing out on some true gems of artisanal mezcal.
By the way, the worm (larvae) in the bottle was a marketing gimmick thought up years ago and disdained by any distiller making a quality product.
Distillers happily offer free tastings and are eager to tell you about a pride and joy that has been a tradition in Mexico as far back as 1,000 years. So, if the idea of sampling an underappreciated delight sounds like a good idea, then a trip to Oaxaca will be an unforgettable introduction to an old tradition that is fast becoming the newest thing in distinctive, artisanal spirits.