Mezcal isn’t enjoyable merely because it tastes good. Yes, its unique flavors are this spirit’s main draw, but for many mezcal enthusiasts, it also offers the same types of rewards experienced by wine connoisseurs. The more they drink mezcal, the more they realize how much there is to appreciate about the spirit.
For example, there isn’t just one single type of mezcal. There are multiple categories, including mezcal, mezcal artesanal (or artisanal), and mezcal ancestral.
This brief overview will explain the differences between these three. Learning about them will help you better understand how the way in which a particular mezcal is made plays a key role in the quality and distinct traits of the finished product.
Key Differences Between Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral
Before exploring the specific differences between mezcal, mezcal artesanal, and mezcal ancestral, it’s important to understand that a would-be mescalero can’t merely create any spirit and label it mezcal. In 1994, Mexican lawmakers passed Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994. This law governs mezcal’s certification and labeling. Quite simply, if you want to sell a spirit as mezcal, your distillation process needs to conform to certain standards.
However, those standards can vary somewhat. That’s why there are categories of mezcal. Although there are essential differences between mezcal, mezcal artesanal, and mezcal ancestral, all of them can earn the official mezcal label.
To be certified in the basic mezcal category, a mescalero can use certain tools during the production and distillation process that are not permitted in other categories. These include column stills, and stainless steel tanks for fermentation. They can also use shredders for the grinding step of the process, and autoclaves (essentially, pressure cookers) for the cooking step.
These tools weren’t commonly used in traditional mezcal production. However, they allow companies to create new batches more quickly than they would if they used only traditional methods. This results in industrial-level mezcal production.
The requirements for a mezcal to be certified as mezcal artesanal are somewhat more stringent. Shredders are still acceptable during the grinding process, but autoclaves are not allowed during cooking, nor are stainless steel tanks allowed during fermentation. Distillation can involve the application of direct fire to clay pots or copper stills. Distillation can also involve the use of maguey fibers, but it doesn’t need to.
For their product to qualify as mezcal ancestral, a mescalero must adhere to the strictest rules. They can only use pit ovens during cooking, they can’t use shredders during grinding, they can’t use stainless steel tanks during fermentation, and during distillation, they must use maguey fibers and clay pots.
Why Are There Differences Between Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral?
Someone not involved in the production of mezcal might understandably wonder why it’s so important to ensure mezcal producers follow certain rules in order to determine which type of mezcal their products are certified as.
However, these rules are actually reflective of the changing nature of mezcal and the culture surrounding it. Remember, until fairly recently, many outside of Mexico didn’t even know what mezcal was. Those who produced it did so by adhering to methods passed down from one generation to another, creating only small batches as a result.
Now that mezcal is becoming more popular throughout the world, demand is higher. Industrial-level mezcal production is necessary to meet that demand. That said, by breaking mezcal up into different categories, the purity and history of traditional mezcal remains protected.
Regardless, if you’re a budding mezcal enthusiast, you may consider this to be important when choosing which mezcal to try next. When you’re looking to save money, you may opt for a basic mezcal. When you want to taste something more traditional, maybe you’ll select a mezcal ancestral instead. If you want to split the difference, you can choose mezcal artesanal. What’s most important is that you enjoy it.