The word mezcal, derives from the pre-Hispanic native Indian Nahuatl word mexcalli; literally meaning “cooked agave”. Mezcal is a spirit protected by a Denomination of Origin/Appellation of Origin and the is enforced by the Mexican government, unlike Tequila most Mezcal that is produced are made from 100% agave. Mezcal can be made from a number of different species of agave at the present time around 28 species, with Espadin being by far the most common.
What is the difference between tequila and Mezcal?
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century they too began drinking pulque. It was soon discovered that cooking the agave produced a sweeter juice which, when fermented, became a mildly alcoholic liquid known as ‘mezcal wine’. Mezcal wine when distilled it produced mezcal which proved, over a period of many years, to be more popular.
The initial impetus for absinthe to become more than just a regional drink came through the French Algerian conquest of 1830, when the French soldiers were given it to purify the water and as a preventative against malaria and dysentery. They developed a taste for this green liquor which they brought back home with them. The green hour, l’heure verte, became the fashion on the boulevards of Paris, where between five and seven in the evening the soldiers would congregate and enjoy their absinthe in the cafés. The bourgeoisie, seeking to associate with the returned heroes, would frequent the same cafés, also drinking absinthe. The poets and artists too developed a love of the green fairy, taking it with them to the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, thus beginning the long association between absinthe and the bohemian lifestyle.
In 1656 the village of Tequila was granted a charter by the governor of New Galicia. Tax records of the time show that mezcal was already being produced in the area. This mezcal, made from the local blue agave, established a reputation for having a superior taste, and casks of the "mezcal wine from Tequila" were soon being shipped further afield. By the mid 1800s there were dozens of distilleries and millions of agave plants under cultivation around Tequila in what had become the state of Jalisco. Gradually, the locally produced mezcal came to be known as tequila (just as the grape brandy from the Cognac region in France came to be known simply as cognac, and corn whiskey from Bourbon County became known as bourbon).
The jimador or magueyero will harvest the plant by cutting away the pulpy spikes, or pencas, leaving the heart, called the piña (‘pineapple’). The piñas, which weight around 80kg, but in some instances been found weighing more than 250kg, are cut into several pieces and then cooked.
To produce mezcal, piñas are traditionally roasted in a conical rock lined pit in the ground. A large hole is dug then covered in rocks. Wood is burnt on top of the rocks turning them red hot.The rocks are then covered with damp agave fibres from the last production, so not to burn the agaves. The pile of piñas is covered in banana leaves of similar fibres then finally earth and left for up to five days to cook. When the cooking is finished the oven is opened by removed the earth covering the agaves and the piñas are left in the shade for a couple of days where natural yeast will start developing on the surface of the agaves, then the agaves will be crushed, either by hand or placed in stone or concrete ring and crushed using a large stone wheel pulled by a horse or donkey.
The resulting mashed piñas are fermented in large wooden vats, with added water, the only water added in the production of traditional mezcal; smaller producers will allow the mix to ferment naturally with airborne microbes for a number of days.
Some modern producers will allowed the fermentation to take place in large stainless steel vats with addition of yeast and introduced accelerators before distillation.
Mezcal is made throughout Mexico, with the NOM (NORMA Oficial Mexicana) allowing 7 states the right to use the world Mezcal to describe their product: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango and Tamaulipas. Most of the Mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico, with Santiago de Matatlan as the spiritual capital of mezcal.
Types of Mezcal
Joven (‘young’) or blanco (‘white’) A colourless spirit that is either un-aged or aged for less than two months
Reposado (‘rested’) A light amber coloured spirit that is aged for two months up to a year in casks no larger than 350 litres.
Añejo (‘aged’) A gold coloured spirit that is aged for a minimum of one year in casks no larger than 350 litres.
Con gusano (‘with worm’) The worm, which is the larvae of a weevil or moth, can be found is some brands of mezcal. It is general a product of marketing but some producers have relatively recently experimented with using the worm to flavour the spirit. The worm is exclusive to mezcal as it is prohibited to add insects, larvae or worms of any kind to tequila.
Pechuga (‘chicken breast’) A traditional type of mezcal only recently granted legal recognition. Mezcal is macerated with wild fruit and redistilled with a chicken breast suspended in the still.
Mezcal Blanco This should represent mezcal straight from the still, showing the full flavours of the agave. The mezcal should be brilliant, clean and colourless. The nose should hold elements such as flowers, vanilla, figs or similar fruit, spices and smoke. A high quality mezcal should have a long smooth distinctive slightly smoky finish with warming notes of burnt honey, citrus, tropical fruits, almond, apple and overtones of refreshing peppermint.
Mezcal Reposado The short period of resting in a cask will lending further complexity to the mezcal. Expect enhanced characteristics of fruit, vanilla, honey and nuts.
Mezcal Añejo A good mezcal añejo which has been carefully distilled and aged should have a fine, smoky essence and an extremely smooth palate having taken on characteristics from the casks it has been matured in. Casks will often be made from French or American oak that have sometimes previously used for wine or brandy.
How to drink
In Mexico mezcal is drunk straight. It is recommended that high quality mezcal is drunk straight as mixing only acts to mask the spirit’s characteristic taste. To truly appreciate the fullness of flavour premium mezcal deserves to be drunk straight as an aperitif or after dinner digestif.
The true story of the worm in the bottle
The maguey (agave) worm is really the larvae of a moth, which feeds on the agave. These larvae can remain in the heart of the agave during production, and in 1950 Jacobo Lozano Páez, owner of a small alcoholic bottling company in Mexico City, discovered that imparted a different flavour to the mezcal.
He wanted to give his product a distinctive marketing touch, by adding a ‘worm’ to the beverage and including with the bottle a small sack with salt, seasoned with the same larvae, dehydrated and ground. Ultimately these ingredients determined the identification of the mezcals "Gusano de Oro" and "Gusano Rojo."
Various myths have sprung up around the worm, largely concerning its supposed aphrodisiac or narcotic effects, and usually attributing it an extended heritage. It should be pointed out that it was in fact not created by the Aztecs as a form of hallucinogenic Viagra.