We’re willing to bet good money that you’ve indulged in tequila on more than one occasion — or perhaps even overindulged. But you might not be as familiar with what we like to think of as tequila’s older, smokier and all-around more mature brother: mezcal. Over the past decade, mezcal has experienced a surge in popularity outside of its native Mexico, and our cocktails and palates are better for it. It’s quickly gone from behind-the-bar curiosity to top shelf spirit.
A quick note to remember as we talk mezcal: Technically, all tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. (It’s the boozy version of the old math adage "All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.")
The History of Mezcal
Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli, which together mean “oven cooked agave.” Centuries before the Spanish set foot in Mexico, indigenous people were using the agave plant both as a sweetener and to make pulque, a fermented alcohol. When the Spanish arrived, they brought distillation expertise, which came in handy when a trade route between Mexico and Manilla supplied them with stills. But they didn’t have the grapes to make brandy as they were accustomed. Lucky for them, the agave plant was there to offer its juices. After the first mezcals were made on the west coast in the 1500s, it didn’t take long for the spirit to spread throughout the country. Where there were Spanish settlers, there was mezcal.
Mezcal did experience some hiccups over the years. The spirit was prohibited by many Spanish rulers. Some believed it could cause trouble, while others simply believed it was inferior to other drinks. In the 18th century, King Carlos III banned all alcohol production in the Mexican colony, hoping to boost the sales of Spanish products instead. The ban was lifted some 10 years later when a descendant of the Cuervo family was allowed to distill on his property near the town of Tequila.
How Is Mezcal Made?
Whereas tequila must be made specifically from blue agave, mezcal can be made from any of the 150 agave species native to Mexico and even a blend of different types. But five kinds are the most commonly used.
Espadín: The most common agave, used to produce 90 percent of mezcals. Often found in Oaxaca, it’s the grandfather to blue agave (which is why mezcals made from it might taste familiar to seasoned tequila drinkers) and one of the hardiest species of succulent. It also has a high sugar content, so mezcals made with espadín tend to be fruitier and more floral.
Tobalá: A super-rare type of agave, tobalá only grows on rocky terrain at high elevations in Oaxaca. To make things more difficult, it doesn’t reproduce on its own. Instead, the plant relies on birds and bats to spread its seed. Mezcals produced from tobalá agave tend to be earthier, smokier and pricier because of the plant’s rarity. Tobalá agave can take up to 15 years to mature, with a piña that yields only one or two bottles of mezcal.
Arroqueño: A type of agave that produces floral, green mezcals, which sometimes finish on a spicy or bitter chocolate note.
Tobaziche: Often harvested wild rather than cultivated, this type of agave produces herbal, savory mezcals.
Tepeztate: A wild agave that can take up to three decades to reach full maturity. Tepeztate is clearly ready when bright yellow flowers bloom at the tips of its stems.
Some agave is farmed, but most plants grow wild in the countryside. They take about eight years to mature. Once they’re ripe for harvesting, the leaves are stripped away, leaving only the heart or piña. Mezcal producers cook the piña in cone-shaped pits lined with stones or bricks. As the piñas roast over a wood fire for two to three days, the sugars in the agave caramelize, giving mezcal its signature smoky flavor.
After the piñas are roasted, producers mash them using a stone wheel and then mix the runoff with water. Traditionally, natural yeast absorbed from the air will kick off fermentation, but bigger producers will often use commercial yeast strains instead. Following fermentation, the wash is distilled in a column still (if it is mass-produced), clay pot or copper alembic still. (The label on the bottle should state which method was used). Most mezcal is distilled twice, though some producers distill a third time for extra smoothness. Each distillation can take up to a full day to complete. Some distillers who make spirits like bourbon and scotch blend different barrels to ensure consistency. But mezcal is typically made in such small batches, there is no opportunity for blending, making each batch unique. By Mexican law, the finished product must be between 36% and 55% ABV (72-110 proof).
Back in your college days (or in television or movies), you may have encountered a bottle of mezcal with a worm at the bottom and wondered, “What’s up with that?” First off, it’s not a worm at all. It’s actually a larva (one of two types found in the agave plant), which are considered pests. A brilliant marketer started adding them to bottles in the 1950s as a ploy to sell cheap mezcals. Some claim the larvae mask the taste of a poorly-made spirit, and you may have heard they’re hallucinogenic. (They’re not.) Leave these bottles on the shelf.
Where Is Mezcal Made?
Mezcal is produced in seven Mexican states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato. Most mezcal on the market in the United States comes from Oaxaca.
Mixto: The label on a mezcal bottle should always indicate whether it is made from 100 percent agave or mixto. To qualify as a mixto, a mezcal needs to be at least 80 percent agave and is typically blended with cane sugar.
Crema de Mezcal: A mezcal-based liqueur flavored with fruits, nuts and/or agave nectar.
Joven: Mezcal that is entirely unaged or aged for less than two months.
Reposado: Reposado mezcals are aged in oak barrels for two to twelve months.
Añejo: These mezcals are aged for one to three years.
Extra Añejo: In order to be classified as an extra añejo, mezcal needs to be aged for more than three years.
Pechuga: One of the stranger styles of mezcal, pechugas are distilled with local grains, nuts, fruits and a raw chicken or turkey breast, which is hung above the liquid in the still. The vapors steam the meat, which, in turn, imparts a full-bodied flavor to the mezcal. Mezcal de pechuga is produced in small batches and typically drunk on special occasions like baptisms, weddings and quinceañeras.
How Do I Drink Mezcal Straight?
Mezcal should be sipped slowly, not shot. In Oaxaca, mezcal is traditionally served at room temperature with a pinch of salt and an orange slice. Sometimes, the salt is mixed with ground fried larvae, chili peppers and salt to make sal de gusano, which means “worm salt.” (It’s delicious, for the record.)
Notable Mezcal Cocktails
Naked and Famous: Bittersweet and citrusy, this new classic made with mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice, was invented by mixologist Joaquin Simo for Death & Company.
Mezcal Old Fashioned (Oaxaca Old Fashioned): This twist on the traditional cocktail substitutes mezcal and tequila for the usual whiskey to create a punchy, smoky flavor profile.
Pearl of Puebla: Legendary bartender and cocktail book author Jim Meehan created this drink for Please Don’t Tell in New York. Made with mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, pastis and oregano, it’s both herbal and smoky.
Mezcal in Culture
Mezcal is an important part of Mexican life, particularly in Oaxaca. The spirit is almost seen as a member of the family, rather than just something to drink. It’s massaged onto children’s rashes, used to welcome loved ones home and offers a social glue of sorts, helping to bring strangers together.
This lesson wouldn't be complete without mentioning an important cousin of mezcal and tequila: raicilla. What once was a cheap, local moonshine of sorts is now coming into its own as more and more producers are making high-end versions for market. Produced similarly to mezcal (but without any government sanctions), raicilla is distilled from wild agaves roasted in underground pits (coastal style) or above-ground ovens (sierra style). Raicilla's subtle smoky flavor makes it great for sipping or mixing in cocktails.