Mezcal is a spirit alcohol made in Mexico from agave plant hearts, known as “piñas.” In North America, owing to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), a product cannot be called Mezcal unless it is made in Mexico.
Tequila is a type of Mezcal, though most Mezcals tend to have a smokier taste, because instead of being baked on their own, as they are for tequila, the agave piñas are baked in underground pits with leaves that give off smoke (some people refer to this as roasting, though it isn’t really.)
You can now get premium and unblended Mezcals. Larger Mezcal companies may buy their Mezcal from smaller producers and blend and bottle it under their own name. Some Mexicans feel that Mezcal, is more authentically Mexican than tequila, because tequila has become too commercialized.
By law, Mezcal can only be produced in the 6 counties of Mexico: Ejutla, Miahuatlan, Ocotlan, Sola de Vega, Tlacolula, and Yautepec. The counties are found in the 5 Mexican states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and Oaxaca. In practice, though, most Mezcal production occurs in Oaxaca, particularly around the city of Oaxaca.
A 1994 law stipulated which agave plants could be used. The varieties include: espadin (sword — Agave Angustifolia), tepestate (horizontal), larga (long) , de cerro (Agave Esperrima), de Mezcal, (Agave Weberi cela), de tobala (Agave Potatorum), and verde (Agave Salmiana.)
To make Mezcal, the agave piñas are roasted over hot rocks in covered pits. The pits are about 12 to 15 feet wide (3 ½ to 4 ½ metres) and 5 to 8 feet (1 ½ to 2 ½ metres) deep. Rocks in the pits are heated by burning a fire over them first, then the piñas are put in when the fire is out and the rocks are heated. The piñas are then covered with leaves, then earth, and let stand for 3 days and then carefully dug out.
The baked piñas are then mashed or pressed to release the juices. By standards passed in 1997, to be classed as Type 1 Mezcal, it must be made from 100% agave. Type 2 Mezcal must be at least 80% agave. Beyond that, grades of Mezcal can go down to being made from a wort that is as low in agave sugar as 51%, but that is the minimum.
Water is added to the juices to create a wort, in a ratio of about 90% juice to 10% water. It is allowed to ferment naturally from yeasts in the air, or by adding starter from a previous batch, then distilled.
When distilling starts, the first liquid to come out is called “the head.” Approximately the first 10 quarts (10 litres) of “the head” are discarded, as they are too high in methanol. The last part of the liquid to come through is called “the tail.” This tail is captured, separated, and put into the next run of liquid as a starter, because its proof is too low to be used.
The lowest quality Mezcal is only distilled once; premium blends may be distilled twice.
After distillation, the Mezcal is then filtered through charcoal or sand.
Mezcal is always bottled in Mexico.
|Blanco||Means “white” (though it’s actually clear, not white.) It is not aged but distilled then bottled straightway. Aka “joven” (“young.”)|
|Reposado||Means “rested.” It is aged in wood 2 to 12 months. Aka “madurado” (“matured.”)|
|Añejo||Means “aged.” It is aged in oak for at least six months, but usually 1 to 4 years. It can’t really be aged any longer than 4 years or it will start getting bitter in the barrel. Aging in oak dates from the 1950s. Previously, it was aged in clay jugs.|
|Con gusano||Meand with the caterpillar. The Mezcal is a pale yellow colour.|
|Minero||Usually triple distilled.|
|Tobala||Is white and typically, not aged. It is made from a wild agave called “Agave Potatorum.”|
Mezcal is the Mexican alcohol that may have a worm in the bottle. Though in the popular mind outside Mexico that’s tequila, a worm will never be found in Tequila bottled in Mexico, only in lower grade tequila bottled outside Mexico.
Mexicans call the worm “gusano.” It’s not a worm: it’s actually a caterpillar that would have turned into a butterfly (species “hipopta Agavis”) whose life cycle is based around the agave plants. The caterpillar is edible and it’s also sold separately in Mexican markets as a food item.
The caterpillar can be red or gold. The red one (“gusano rojo”) lives either in the root or heart of the agave plant. The gold one (“gusano de oro”), which can be more white, lives on the leaves. Once in the alcohol, the red one turns pale red, the white one turns greyish. The caterpillars are cooked first, then pickled.
The addition of the worm is a marketing thing for gringos; it’s not actually done for Mexicans. The caterpillar is very popular amongst Asian drinkers, who eat it. Some producers are now putting 4 in a bottle.
This marketing schtick was started around 1950 by one producer named Jacobo Lozano Páez.
Instead of putting a worm in the bottle, some producers sell the worm with a small, attached bag of salt made from salt, dried ground caterpillar and chile powder.
Contrary to urban myth, the caterpillar does not contain any psychedelic properties.
Mezcal was being made by 1608 — that’s when the governor of New Galicia (roughly what is now the state of Jalisco) imposed a tax on it. In 1636, the governor Don Juan Canseco y Quiñones decreed that you had to get permission to make it. This made it easier to know who was making it, which therefore made it easier to collect the taxes. Official production was stopped in 1785 by Charles III of Spain — he banned it because he wanted people to buy imported Spanish alcohol instead. The ban was lifted by Ferdinand IV around 1792 or 1795.
The name “Mezcal” comes from the Nahuatl Indians name for the Agave plant: “metl” or “mexcametl.”