You might think of mezcal as tequila’s quirky, smoky cousin, or even a newcomer to the spirits scene since it has only grown in popularity here in the states in the last decade. The reality is, most people date the origins of mezcal in Mexico to over 200 years ago, around the time of the Spanish Conquest.
It seems that when the Spaniards ran out of their own hard liquor, they began to look for ways to make more. Experiments with the beloved and ubiquitous agave plants lead to the first mezcal.
To complicate things a bit more, agave is not just one plant, but a genus with myriad of different species, and mezcal can be made from fifty different plants. However, as with other spirit and wine designations, mezcal can only be called mezcal when it is made in the Mexican states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla and Oaxaca.
You may be thinking that tequila is also made from agave, so what’s the difference? Where does that smoky flavor come in?
It turns out that tequila is actually a variety of mezcal (yes, you’ve been drinking it all along). To be called tequila, the mezcal must be made from Agave tequilana weber, a variety also known as blue agave, and it’s also only legally allowed to be made in certain Mexican regions.
Producers have the latitude to use any type of agave to make their mezcal, as long as it is not used as the primary material in other Denominations of Origins (which means that if you’re using blue agave, you need to call it tequila and it needs to be made in one of the government sanctioned tequila regions).
As to the smoke, much of the difference is in the processing (though there are many mezcals that aren’t smoky).
A jimador harvests agave in Jalisco, Mexico.
The word mezcal means “oven-cooked agave,” which traditionally means that the liquid is cooked in the ground in lava-rock lined pits full of charcoal and wood and then distilled in clay pots in a process that lends the signature smoky flavor.
In contrast, tequila is made by steaming agave in large ovens and then double or triple distilling it using copper pots.
Some mezcal is left fairly natural, 100% agave, while others include additions like fruit and herbs (to be mezcal, the distillation process has to include at least 80% agave).
To make one special type of mezcal called pechuga, cinnamon, apple, plums, cloves, along with a few other spices are added before it’s distilled through a chicken, duck, or turkey breast.
It’s easy to see how you might spend a lifetime sampling different types of mezcal, each of them distinct.
Beyond the different ingredients, there are trade secrets, technique variations between regions, and even contraband mezcal made outside of the designated areas.
While it is traditional to drink mezcal one way—neat—over the last decade bartenders from Mexico City to New York City have been crafting cocktails that celebrate the distict flavors of this agave liquor.
From seemingly endless variations of bottles to modern cocktails, mezcal offers a distinctly "new world" world to explore.