Mezcal is the cool new kid on the block. Well, maybe here in the United States, but in truth, mezcal's history stretches back farther than tequila's.
In the family tree of agave spirits, tequila is technically just a specific type of mezcal. Therefore mezcal is less cool new kid on the block and more cool older brother you're finally mature enough to appreciate. Or something like that. But either way, if you have a few lingering questions about mezcal, then you've come to the right place.
So what exactly is mezcal?
Mezcal refers to any distilled agave spirit, and the word "mezcal" itself means oven baked agave. Of hundreds of types of agave varietals which exist in the world, upwards of 75% of them are found in Mexico, and dozens of them are currently used or could be used to make mezcal.
What's its history?
Agave distillation has a track record stretching back at least as early as the early to mid-1500s. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they brought distillation knowledge with them. Agave was already being fermented into pulque but it's at this stage that it gets taken to the next level—although there is some research that now says there may have been a limited amount of rudimentary agave distillation prior to this period.
How the hell did tequila lap it?
The specific mezcal that would become known as tequila began to outpace all the rest due to a combination of efficiency and promotion. Tequila is made only from blue agave, which matures in just six to seven years and offers a high sugar content, both highly desirable traits. This compares to the dozens of years required to mature other types of agave.
Tequila, therefore, was cheaper and easier to produce and quickly became standardized and popularized. It received is Denomination of Origin in 1978, whereas mezcal didn't receive its D.O. until 1995.
But worse, the D.O. for mezcal is a mess. It's both too large and generic, while at the same time not inclusive enough of other traditional regions and authentic means of production. That means there's lots of mezcal being made and drank locally in Mexico that couldn't be sold as "mezcal" in the United States. The spiritual home of mezcal is in Oaxaca and a total of eight regions are officially recognized by the D.O. But the spirit is authentically made across the country, regardless of the rules in place.
Why is mezcal trending all of a sudden?
There simply wasn't much, if any, of the stuff available in the United States until the past few years. Once bartenders got their hands on it though and realized how versatile and tasty mezcal could be in cocktails, the spirit quickly began skyrocketing. The proliferation we're seeing now doesn't consist of new producers, but rather, we're finally getting access to what's been made in Mexico for generations. So, thank your bartenders, really—they demanded more of it and spread the gospel to the rest of us.
How is mezcal made?
Production is handled across the country by small local producers known as palenques. To make mezcal, agave hearts are slow cooked in conical underground pits for days. This smoke-fueled process is what imparts the typical smoky profile of mezcal, although it should be noted that not all mezcal is smoky. After cooking, the agave is crushed and left to ferment before being distilled.
What types of agave can be used?
Mezcal's regulations only officially recognize a handful of agave varieties, including what's by far the most common type of agave used for mezcal, espadin. But as mentioned, there are potentially dozens of agaves being put to use. Other well known agaves used for mezcal include barril, blanco, cirial, largo, mexicano, tepestate, and tobala.
It's hard to pin down an exact number of agaves used for mezcal, because they often go by different names in different areas, and are sometimes considered sub-varietals as opposed to a standalone species. For instance, karwinski, a type of agave, has half a dozen sub-varietals.
Is sotol a mezcal?
Not technically. The plant it's made from, the desert spoon, was formerly considered an agave but is not classified as such any longer.
Is raicilla a mezcal?
Technically yes—it's made from agave and is restricted in terms of place of origin rather than type of agave used. Again, though, D.O. regulations would say that raicilla is not a mezcal–but it totally is.
Scotch is a type of whisky. It's made from grain. It is both Scotch, restricted to its place of origin, as well as whisky, its broader category.
How do I drink mezcal?
Most commonly in small clay, wood, or stone copitas, round handheld sipping cups. At a growing number of mezcal-focused bars across the country, such as Washington, D.C.'s Espita Mezcaleria, you'll be able to find large selections, mezcal flights to sample, and educated bartenders to guide you through the process. Mezcal is also increasingly used in a range of cocktails.
In what ways does mezcal taste different than tequila?
To begin with, traditional mezcal never sees the inside of a wooden barrel, so forget the influence of wood which you see in reposado and añejo tequilas. Then, consider the range of agaves used to create mezcal, as opposed to tequila, made from a single varietal. Flavor profiles can be highly agave-oriented or venture into earthy and vegetal flavors, citrus and spicy ones, and beyond. It's quite a broad category and you shouldn't simply equate it with smoke.
Alright, I'm gonna snag a bottle for my home bar. What do I start with?
Really, it depends on what you can find. Some of the most widely distributed brands which you can put your confidence into include Del Maguey, Mezcal El Silencio, Ilegal Mezcal, and Mezcal Vago. But even within most brands, you'll have to make a choice between different agaves. So, the starting point is always to taste through what you can find at your local mezcal-friendly bar to hone your own personal sweet spot.
How do I learn more about mezcal?
Drink more of it at your city's best mezcal bar. Go to Oaxaca to see it for yourself. Or study up at Mezonte in Guadalajara.