Mysterious Mezcal

Uncovering the mystery behind what makes Mezcal different

By: Roxana Garciga

Do you enjoy a good smoke? I’m not talking about a cigar or a pipe. I’m talking about the undeniable “smoke” flavor that can only come from mezcal. Yes, that spirit many associate with eating worms and lost college weekends, has grown up. 

This Mexican export is experiencing a rebirth and is embraced by top mixologists for its bold flavor, character and ability to create truly unique cocktails. Some people confuse mezcal for tequila and technically tequila is mezcal, however mezcal is not tequila. 

While there are many similarities, there are also differences that become quite obvious once you taste through these Mexican beauties. Mezcal is a distilled spirit made in Mexico from the agave plant. Most mezcal is produced in Oaxaca but can also be from Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and most recently, Puebla.  

Most mezcals are produced from espadin agave, although mezcal can be made from any combination of over 30 varieties of agave. Blending different kinds of agave to make a mezcal will impart certain flavor and character to the finished product. Tequila can only be made from agave tequilana (blue agave) in Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and Jalisco.

Agave is also known as “maguey.” To start making tequila or mezcal, the spines of the plant are removed producing a “piña,” that is the core of the maguey, which looks like a giant pineapple. Unlike tequila, mezcal is cooked inside pits in the ground that are lined with rocks, wood and charcoal, then fermented in wooden barrels and distilled in clay pots. Tequila is made by steaming the agave inside stainless steel autoclaves or “hornos” (brick ovens made of clay) before fermenting and then distilling two or three times in copper pots. 

The word mezcal actually comes from the word “mexcalli” which means “oven-cooked agave” in Nahuatl (the indigenous tongue of Mexico). Once the distillation process is over, both tequila and mezcal are aged inside oak barrels. Tequila usually comes in three varieties: blanco (silver), reposado and añejo. Mezcal is grouped into three types as well: joven (blanco or abacado), reposado and añejo. Types for both spirits are based on time spent aging in oak barrels.

Mezcal is wonderful for showing off mixology skills in a crafted cocktail, but can also be sipped neat. It’s a spirit produced in long standing practices and traditions. The development of flavor that mezcal production imparts is truly unique. As for that little worm in the bottle—it’s actually a moth larva.  Finer mezcals will not contain a worm, though some producers use them to impart certain flavors. Below are a few mezcals, which show the versatility of the spirit.  

Gracias a Dios Mezcal Espadin Reposado

Good balance, restrained smoke and oak, fruity and minty. 

Del Maguey Vida de San Luis del Rio Blanco

Cinnamon, sandalwood, banana and tangerine, with a staying soft finish.

Creyente Joven

Balanced with sweet, pleasing smoky and fruity notes.  

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