Mezcal (lit. ‘oven-cooked agave’) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico. Agave, which is often misidentified as a variety of cactus, grows in many parts of Mexico, though most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, a southern state. A Oaxacan expression regarding the drink is: ‘Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.’ (‘For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good as well.’)

It is unclear whether distilled drinks were produced in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest. The Spaniards were introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, a milky-looking, alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant (also known as agave americana). Soon, the conquistadors began experimenting with the agave plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash. The result was mezcal.

Today, mezcal is still made from the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, much the same way it was 200 years ago. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though mezcal is not as popular as tequila (made specifically from the blue agave in the region surrounding the city of Tequila in the state of Jalisco). Mezcal is made from over 30 agave species, varietals, and subvarietals, in contrast with tequila, which is made only with blue agave.

The agave was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Spanish Mexico, and had a privileged position in religious rituals, mythology, and the economy. Cooking of the piña and fermenting its juice was widely practiced. According to myth, mezcal was first discovered when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it, releasing its juice. For this reason, the liquid is called the ‘elixir of the gods.’

Upon introduction, these liquors were called ‘aguardiente’ (literally ‘fire water’). The Spanish had known distillation processes since the eighth century and were accustomed to consuming hard liquor. They brought a supply with them from Europe, but when it ran out, they began to look for a substitute. They had been introduced to pulque and other drinks based on agaves, so they began experimenting to find a way to make a product with a higher alcohol content.

Sugarcane and grapes, key ingredients for beverage alcohol, were two of the earliest crops introduced into the New World, but their use as source stocks for distillation was opposed by the Spanish Crown, fearing unrest from producers at home. Requiring a source of tax revenue, alcohol manufactured from local raw materials such as agave was encouraged instead.

The drinking of alcoholic beverages such as pulque was strongly restricted in the pre-Hispanic period. Taboos against drinking to excess fell away after the conquest, resulting in problems with public drunkenness and disorder. This conflicted with the government’s need for the tax revenue generated by sales, leading to long intervals promoting manufacturing and consumption, punctuated by brief periods of severe restrictions and outright prohibition.

Travelers during the colonial period of Mexico frequently mention mezcal, usually with an admonition as to its potency. Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt mentions it in his ‘Political Treatise on the Kingdom of New Spain’ (1803), noting that very strong versions of mezcal were being manufactured clandestinely. He mistakenly observed that mezcal was obtained by distilling pulque, contributing to its myth and mystique. Spanish authorities, though, treated pulque and mezcal as separate products for regulatory purposes.

America ethnologist Edward S. Curtis described in his seminal work, ‘The North American Indian,’ the preparation and consumption of mezcal by the Mescalero Apache Indians: ‘Another intoxicant, more effective than túlapai, is made from the mescal—not from the sap, according to the Mexican method, but from the cooked plant, which is placed in a heated pit and left until fermentation begins. It is then ground, mixed with water, roots added, and the whole boiled and set aside to complete fermentation. The Indians say its taste is sharp, like whiskey. A small quantity readily produces intoxication.’ This tradition has recently been revived in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Traditionally, mezcal is handcrafted by small-scale producers. A village can contain dozens of production houses, called ‘fábricas’ or ‘palenques,’ each using methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. The process begins by harvesting the plants, which can weigh 40 kg each, extracting the piña, or heart, by cutting off the plant’s leaves and roots. The piñas are then cooked for about three days, often in pit ovens, which are earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks. This underground roasting gives mezcal its intense and distinctive smoky flavor. They are then crushed and mashed (traditionally by a stone wheel turned by a horse) and then left to ferment in large vats or barrels with water added.

After the mash ferments, the resulting liquid is collected and distilled in either clay or copper pots which will further modify the flavor of the final product. The distilled product is then bottled and sold. Unaged mezcal is referred to as ‘joven,’ or young. Some of the distilled product is left to age in barrels between one month and four years, but some can be aged for as long as 12 years. Mezcal can reach an alcohol content of 55%. Like tequila, mezcal is distilled twice. The first distillation is known as ‘punta,’ and comes out at around 75 proof (37.5% alcohol by volume). The liquid must then be distilled a second time to raise the alcohol percentage.

Mezcal is highly varied, depending on the species of agave used, the fruits and herbs added during fermentation and the distillation process employed, creating subtypes with names such as ‘de gusano,’ ‘tobalá,’ ‘pechuga,’ ‘blanco,’ ‘minero,’ ‘cedrón,’ ‘de alacran,’ ‘creme de café,’ and more. A special recipe for a specific mezcal type known as ‘pechuga’ uses cinnamon, apple, plums, cloves, and other spices that is then distilled through chicken, duck, or turkey breast. It is made when the specific fruits used in the recipe are available, usually during November or December. Other variations flavor the mash with cinnamon, pineapple slices, red bananas, and sugar, each imparting a particular character. Most mezcal, however, is left untouched, allowing the flavors of the agave to come forward.

White mezcal is clear and hardly aged. Dorado (golden) mezcal is not aged but a coloring agent is added. Reposado or añejado (aged) mezcal is placed in wood barrels from two to nine months. Añejo mezcal is aged in barrels for a minimum of 12 months. The best of this type are generally aged from 18 months to three years.

Not all bottles of mezcal contain a ‘worm’ (actually the larva of a moth, Hypopta agavis that can infest agave plants), but some add one during the bottling process. There are conflicting stories as to why it is added. Some state that it is a marketing ploy, others that it is there to prove that the mezcal is fit to drink, and still others argue that the larva is there to impart flavor. Mezcal is generally not mixed with any other liquids, but is often accompanied with sliced oranges, lemon, or lime sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called ‘sal de gusano,’ which literally translates as ‘worm salt.’

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