Mezcal agave liquor
Mezcal agave liquor by Gustavo Andrade via Flickr

If you’ve already formed a love affair with mezcal, like I have, then you may already have put some thought into how it’s made and what makes it so unique. One of the most educational vacations you can take, if you like mezcal, is to visit one of the distilleries in Oaxaca to learn the process of making the spirit and to see it with your own eyes. Then you can really begin to appreciate the heart and soul that goes into producing this aromatic, smoky drink.

Mezcal is one of the most traditional drinks you’ll find in Mexico. While it’s currently gaining notoriety in the United States and elsewhere, you really should know that Mezcal is more than just another liquor. It’s a history, a story, and a culture that has been passed down from generation to generation in Mexico.

They have been distilling mezcal in Mexico for centuries, using the same, somewhat antiquated, traditional method they always used. Many of the distilleries, even today, are just home operations, called palenques – people making mezcal for their family and friends in their own backyards.

How Mezcal is Made

Agave plants used to make mezcal
Agave plants used to make mezcal

Mezcal is an agave liquor. Some of the most popular types of agave used for mezcal are espadin and tobala, but there are a possible 28 (it’s a bit of a moving target) types of agave that can be used under the strict quality standards set forth under Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) regulations. Many producers use just one type of agave, but some have started experimenting with blends. There is a great deal of character added to mezcal as a result of the blending of agave, much like with wine.

The agave is harvested after about 7-8 years and the “piña”, or heart of the agave, is roasted in elaborately constructed wood-fired pits underground. Then, it is twice distilled in small batches to preserve the quality. The small batches are put in either clay or copper pots. Clay pots will lend an earthy flavor while copper pots give it a smoother taste and is the preferred method for high-end mezcal distilleries.

The result, when done well, is a unique, smoky flavor, with a slight sweetness and a smooth finish. When you really get into the nuances of mezcal, you can begin to identify the differences in taste between the agaves and see how the terroir changes the final product.

Check out this video to see the process in action:

The History of Mezcal

In pre-Columbian times, people fermented the “piña” or heart of the agave to create a potent type of juice. The high priests of those times called it “a gift from the gods.” They declared that the only time people should drink this potent juice was when they were presenting sacrificial offerings to the gods. Medicinal use of this drink was also deemed appropriate.

Then around 400 years ago, when the Spanish conquerors arrives, they shared their distillation techniques with the natives. Thanks to the new processes they learned, the distilled spirit we now know as mezcal was born. It was the first distilled spirit ever in the Americas. Over the next 400 years until now, mezcal has been a prized spirit.

Mezcal Production
Mezcal Production (photo via Flickr by Russ Bowling)

What is the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila

Most people are under the mistaken impression that mezcal is the same as tequila. The truth is that both are made with agave, but they use different agave plants and are cooked using different methods.

Mezcal can be made from a number of varieties of agave, while tequila is only made with blue agave. That means that in reality, all other spirits made from agave are mezcals, though a lot of regulation has been placed on what can technically be classified as mezcal.

The rules of the Protected Designation of Origin state that Tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small parts of four other states. Mezcal must be made in Oaxaca and seven other designated states.

Top shelf mezcal of the highest caliber should be amber in color, oak-wood-barrel aged and incredibly smooth. It should be sipped to enjoy the refined flavors, ideally served at room temperature with an orange slice and the slightest pinch of salt. We also like using mezcal in cocktails. Here’s a recipe for one of our favorite mezcal drinks.

The cheap stuff tends to be the reason some people will never give Mezcal a second chance. It can burn the throat. It also typically features a worm in the bottle, which is just a marketing gimmick and should be avoided at all costs. Be on the lookout that you’re getting the real stuff. Mezcal has an official certification from the Appellation of Origin to symbolize the quality of this Mexican spirit.

Our Favorite Mezcals

There are so many brands of mezcal available now that you can easily lose track of your favorites. If you’re ever able to attend a mezcal festival, I highly recommend it as a good way to become more familiar with the agaves and the brands that are available.

Mezcal Marca Negra

Mezcal Marca Negra
Mezcal Marca Negra (photo by Savored Sips)

One of the mezcals that you can find on the U.S. and U.K. market for a while now is Mezcal Marca Negra, which refers to the black handprint on their label. The handprint stands for all the people the mezcal comes in contact with, from the farmer to the drinker. They source only the very best mezcal from villages and farms, no matter how small or remote.

They have a tabala, espadin, dobadaan, arroqueno, and Ensamble, which is a blend. All very good expressions of mezcal, and great for sipping or mixing in a cocktail (as long as you don’t overpower the mezcal with other flavors, which would be a huge shame.

El Jolgorio

El Jolgorio mezcal
El Jolgorio mezcal (photo by Savored Sips)

Mezcal is often part of rituals and celebrations, like weddings, births and festivals, which are known as jolgorios, in Oaxaca, Mexico. El Jolgorio produces nine different mezcals with native agave plants from local villages. Their mezcal is twice distilled in copper stills and then bottled and labeled with all of the information identifying its uniqueness. We love this brand because of its true dedication to the art and tradition of mezcal, and to responsible harvesting methods. I also really love the artistic labels that depict the specific type of agave plant that is used in that bottle.

Derrumbes

Derrumbes Mezcal
Derrumbes Mezcal (photo by Savored Sips)

We love Derrumbes because the selection is incredible, and the mezcal is delicious. Is there anything more you could want? They have a very diverse range of mezcals from different areas, differen agaves, and different terroir, so there’s something for everyone. We particularly like their Michoacan, made with agave Cupreata and Cenizo. It is fermented in underground tanks lined with pine wood, which increases the herbal notes.

CONCLUSION

If you haven’t tried mezcal before, you should definitely give it a try and see for yourself how great it is. If you’ve been to Mexico to see the production of mezcal, we’d like to know about your adventures – tell us what you love!

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A beginner's guide to mezcal, Mexico's agave liquor.
A beginner’s guide to mezcal, Mexico’s agave liquor.
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Laura is the founder and editor of the travel blogs Savored Sips and Savored Journeys. She is dedicated to sharing the best information about drinks found around the world.

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