What is Mezcal?
You already know all about what tequila actually is, but today we are going to introduce you to it’s big brother, Mezcal. You’ll be surprised to know that tequila is actually a subset of Mezcal, a mistake we all have made given the popularity of tequila. You may have heard of Mezcal here or there; then you found out there might be a worm involved, went against your better judgment, and didn't try some. It’s okay, we all have made mistakes, and we are here to let you know, it is not too late to be adventurous. We have observed the bar and cantina scene around Downtown LA, and one thing is for sure… Mezcal is on the rise and it is going to be an exciting ride to the top!
-A distilled beverage made from the cooked saps of agave (AKA ‘maguey’ in Spanish). Most are made with the Agave Espadin. It requires eight years to mature in the ground. Once ready to go, the lengthy process begins…
-To break it down simply, only the heart of the agave is used, also known as the piña. The piñas are roasted in a fire pit made of river stones for a total of 4 days. Then they are crushed at a special grinding mill with a stone wheel, usually pulled by a mule with the aid of a person who uses a pitchfork to move the agave in the mill.
-The piña is placed in wooden barrels for fermentation. Hot water is added to the barrel and left for a few days, then it is filled to the top with cold water and left to ferment for several days after. The process usually goes faster in warmer weather.
-After fermenting, what is left of the mash is distilled. The first distillation yields low-grade alcohol. So the fibers are then removed from the still and the alcohol is distilled a second time.
-Usually, ready to go Mezcal is bottled right away, but the high quality stuff like Anejo or Joven is left to age in Oak barrels. It’s been known to reach an ABV of 37.5% before the second distillation, and an impressive 55% after.
A Brief History:
If you've read your history books you’ll know that before Spanish conquest, Mexico’s natives believed many kinds of plants were holy. Specifically speaking, to them the maguey (agave) was a plant that held sacred powers and thus it was used in many rituals. When the Spanish took over Mexico they found themselves in a bit of a situation… The distilled liquors they had brought from Europe ran out quickly, and so they had to make use of the land.
Having tried Pulque (an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of certain types agave plants) and other drinks based on the agave plant, they decided to begin researching to find a way to make a product with a higher alcohol content. The beautiful result was mezcal.
Upon making landfall, the Spanish quickly planted crops of sugarcane and grapes, key ingredients to make drinkable alcohol. However, they were forbidden to use them as a source for distillation by the Spanish Crown. They were allowed to use local harvest, so they turned to agave.
The Mescalero Apache Indians compared it to a sharp whiskey, and thus it has been enjoyed neat since its invention. It is however, bound by the region it is made in. Those states are Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas; anything made outside those boundaries cannot be called/named/labeled Mezcal.
In the U.S. we have integrated Mezcal into some pretty flavorful cocktails (Mariana’s favorite) but in Mexico, the tradition is to drink it neat; perhaps accompanied with sliced oranges, lemon or lime. The lemon/lime slices are sometimes sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called sal de gusano, which literally translates as "worm salt".
Speaking of worms… Why do some Mezcals have it at the bottom of the bottle? History shows many different theories, but it is first important to know that this is not a worm! It’s actually a type of larvae that lives in the agave plant. Legend has it that people used to believe it brings good fortune and strength to the lucky person who finds it. However, it has been more commonly used as a simple marketing technique, but only for Mezcal. So if someone tries to sell you some really expensive tequila with a lucky worm at the bottom, they’re trying to rob you.
Mezcal vs. Tequila:
In February, we introduced you to tequila, and how it differed from Mezcal. Those differences remain the most basic understanding of the related spirits:
-Mezcal can be made from over 30 different types of agave, while as by law, tequila can only be made by the Blue Agave.
-The boundary of the regions where each spirit can be made in are strict, though there is some overlapping. Mezcal, for example, cannot be made in Jalisco.
-Due to the different distillation processes, Mezcal comes out tasting smokier than tequila.
-Tequila will never ever have a larvae at the bottom of a glass or bottle.
If you have trouble explaining these differences to a friend just remember one saying:
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
If you are new to Mezcal, we beg you to try it neat at first so you can grasp the complex notes of it’s smoky, yet floral and citrusy flavors. And do not shoot it, it is meant to be enjoyed by slowly sipping.
Our two articles cover the bases of these fascinating ancient spirits. We hope you have learned a thing or three, check back every Monday to learn with us! Thanks for reading and as always…