You really need to be living under a rock these days to have never heard of tequila. As a spirit, it’s having a bit of a moment right now — and for good reason. But not as many people have heard of mezcal, even though technically they may already be drinking it. So, what is this spirit all about?
Mezcal is an ancient and storied spirit from Central America that has been made by the indigenous people since at least the 16th century, using the fibrous cores from agave plants to create alcohol.
That history is reflected in the variations of mezcal that you can commonly find on store shelves, including the aforementioned tequila. Yes, technically speaking, tequila is a variety of mezcal. Much like how a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares, all tequila is technically a form of mezcal — but not all mezcal is a tequila. The distinction is that tequila is more restrictive on the type of agave plant used, whereas mezcal is much more accommodating.
Tequila comes from a specific set of agave plants, but mezcal can come from pretty much any form of agave. This variety in source materials allows for some drastically different flavors, compared to the relatively consistent flavor profile of a tequila. Mezcal does require that the agave plants come from Mexico, where they grow wild in some areas and takes between seven and ten years to fully mature to the point where they can be used.
As they grow, these plants start storing excess energy in the form of “fructans”, which are complex carbohydrates that function in mezcal similarly to a starch in grain-based whiskey production. The difference here is that, while distillers need to use enzymes to release the sugar from a starchy material, all you need to do to release the sugar from these fructans is to add heat. It’s a much simpler process and explains why agave-based spirits have been around in the Americas since well before Europeans arrived.
Once the agave plants have reached maturity, they are harvested by a worker called a “jimador”, who attacks the plant with a very sharp shovel on a long pole, shaving off the spiky leaves until all that is left behind is the hard fibrous core.
The normal process from in tequila production is to pop the cores in a pressure cooker, which adds the necessary heat to convert the fructans into fermentable sugars. That’s something that many mezcal producers also do, but with mezcal, the more popular methods seem to be based on traditional approaches.
Going very old school, some distillers will do what their ancestors did and place agave cores that have been split in half into a large earthen fire pit with a bunch of hot rocks. Then they cover the pit, allowing the agave cores to cook for many days before being removed. Producers that aren’t quite that intense go with a middle ground approach: putting the agave cores into a brick oven where they are heated. In either case, the use of open flame and direct heat on the agave cores imparts some smoky characteristics, and encourages the creation of new flavors through the “Maillard reaction“, which is the same process that makes a cooked steak delicious.
Once the cores have been cooked, the next step in the process is to extract the sugary liquid inside. The modern way to do this is through mechanical shredders, but the traditional methods for this step include either using large hammers to break the cores up, or a large stone wheel rolled around a circular trough filled with cores and powered by a single horse.
Now that we have some fermentable sugars, it’s time to actually convert this into alcohol.
The traditional method here is to just let the natural ambient yeast do it’s job, converting all that sugar into alcohol. Modern distillers will instead use lab grown yeast, which has a much more predictable yield and flavor profile.
One option that some distillers will use is the addition of some agave fibers to the fermentation tanks. There’s no chemical benefit to this process from an alcohol production perspective, but it does add some additional herbal or earthy characteristics to the end product and alters the flavor profile.
The biggest difference compared to modern tequila is that, in tequila, pretty much everyone uses stainless steel vessels to hold the liquid for this process. But with mezcal, the traditional methods include either large stone vats or wooden vessels, both of which interact with the liquid and add additional flavors and textures.
There’s so much variety in this distillation process that it’s hard to actually nail it down. In fact, there isn’t even a minimum distillation strength requirement (unlike pretty much every other spirit in the world) — just that it needs to be distilled.
The traditional method of mezcal or tequila production is through the use of clay pot stills. These kinds of stills are actually pretty ingenious when it comes to the sulfur reduction properties: just like with copper in whiskey stills, the clay surface reacts with the spirit during distillation and helps reduce the sulfur content to make a cleaner tasting spirit.
Nowadays, distilleries will more commonly use those same copper stills, and either a pot still for batch distillation or a column still for a larger continuous operation.
Something interesting, as well: sometimes a distillery will add some natural flavoring or aromatics and re-distill a mezcal, much like the concept with creating a gin. These spirits are labeled as “Destilado Con” followed by whatever the flavoring might be. Believe it or not, one popular choice is actually meat, creating a savory flavor profile.
The end result of these processes is a clear spirit with some lighter flavor characteristics. After that, there are some choices that distilleries can make about how they mature that spirit that can give you a wildly different experience, but the label should give you a good understanding of what’s going on.
For a Blanco or Joven mezcal, the newly made spirit is not altered in any way other than proofing down with water. That’s it. (Note that this is different from the “Joven Tequila” appellation, where flavorings and coloring is permitted — both of which are forbidden in this case).
Another interesting potential choice is a Madurado en Vidrio mezcal, meaning that the resulting spirit was aged a minimum of 12 months in a 5 liter (or larger) glass vessel. Since glass is an inert material and doesn’t impart any flavors of its own, this is instead primarily intended to allow time for the flavors already in the mezcal to adjust and settle down prior to bottling.
Finally we get to some terms that tequila drinkers will recognize, with generally the same definitions. Reposado mezcal must be aged in oak barrels for between 2 and 12 months. Anejo mezcal must be aged more than 12 months — and interestingly enough, cannot be aged in vessels larger than 1,000 liters. (The reason for this is to ensure that the anejo spirit is actually picking up the required flavor from the wood.)
As with tequila, in most cases, the use of some sort of flavoring is permitted prior to bottling. Generally whatever is edible is allowed, and sometimes the bottles may helpfully be labeled Abocado Con.
We’ve already talked about tequila being a variety of mezcal, but there are actually two more to talk about: Artisanal and Ancestral mezcal. The idea behind these two label appellations is to encourage the use of historical and traditional production methods, so that they can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
We’ve talked about these components above so I won’t bore you with them again, but the requirements for each version are described in the table below:
|Fermentation Tank Material
Copper or Clay
Clay still, wood fired
Hopefully you’re walking away from this with a slightly improved understanding of tequila. If so, it’s time to start trying out the different varieties and find a favorite! Check out our full list of reviews here — and happy exploring!