The History of Mezcal: An In-Depth Look
by Greg Rutkowski
The average American consumer (as well as the average consumer from virtually any country that isn’t Mexico, for that matter) likely only discovered mezcal fairly recently. Thus, you could be forgiven for not realizing just how long this spirit has been around.
It would be impossible to cover everything you need to know about the history of mezcal in a single blog entry. Experts could write (and, some would say, have written) entire books on the subject. However, this relatively in-depth overview will cover the basics of mezcal’s roots, helping you better understand where this beverage comes from, and why it’s such a important part of Mexican culture and history.
What You Need to Know About the History of Mezcal
Tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave plant. Tequila has overshadowed mezcal for hundreds of years, which is ironic when you consider that some food and beverage historians believe mezcal may be the first spirit ever distilled in the Americas.
(Note: There’s no official consensus among historians that this is the case. Some believe that the native tribes of Mexico and the surrounding countries may have distilled other beverages prior to the Spanish conquest, but others disagree.)
Mezcal has historically been made primarily in and around Oaxaca, Mexico. This is because the 11 different varieties of agave from which mezcal can be made are native to this region.
The native inhabitants of the Oaxaca area began distilling Mexico approximately 400 years ago when they applied distillation techniques they’d learned from Spanish conquerors in combination with the ingredients available in their environment.
Additionally, the Spanish themselves began creating mezcal when the supplies of liquor they had brought over ran out. While they might have otherwise used such ingredients as sugarcane or grapes to distill new spirits, for various reasons, the Spanish Crown opposed this, so they opted to use the agave plant instead.
The ‘Elixir of the Gods’
The agave plant isn’t merely an ingredient necessary for the creation of mezcal and tequila. Its role in the history of mezcal has a degree of spiritual, cultural, and mythological significance.
According to a myth that circulated in Oaxaca and the surrounding regions, mezcal came to be when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant. This resulted in a beverage that the natives referred to as the “elixir of the gods.” They thus assigned certain mystical qualities to mezcal, associating it with a gift from a higher power.
Mezcal’s History: An Economic Perspective
The Spanish conquerors didn’t merely encourage the production of mezcal because they needed more liquor to consume on their own. As they established a new government in Mexico, they needed products whose sales could generate tax revenue.
This was another major reason mezcal production began to increase relatively quickly after the Spanish conquerors arrived. Mezcal was a new item they could sell and tax, helping to boost the economy of the growing society.
Accounts from various travelers during Mexico’s colonial period indicate knowledge of mezcal was fairly widespread in and around Oaxaca during this time. Many who came back from Mexico with stories about mezcal particularly highlighted its strength when describing it. Despite these early accounts, though, it would be centuries before widespread awareness of mezcal reached beyond Mexico’s borders.
The History of Mezcal Production
As mezcal production became more and more commonplace over the years, mezcal production became a family business for many. Mezcal production could even contribute significantly to the overall economies of individual villages.
Families who produced mezcal for a living would pass down their specific techniques from one generation to another. This has resulted in various families in the Oaxaca area producing mezcal for (potentially) centuries.
Over time, some of these families began sharing their techniques with others in order to increase production. This triggered the slow process of mezcal production reaching a state of critical mass in which the drink was more readily available. This development is among the major reasons people outside of Mexico have become more aware of mezcal’s existence over the last few decades. Increased production made it easier to break into other markets.
That’s not just a theoretical observation. Various mezcal producers have explained that their goal in sharing techniques to increase production is to introduce the spirit to consumers who otherwise never would have known of it. Instead of restricting mezcal’s availability to Mexico, they want it to be available throughout the entire world.
The History of the International Mezcal Festival
The International Mezcal Festival is another factor that has helped mezcal cross borders. Its inception also serves as a reminder of just how important mezcal is to the history of Oaxaca in general.
In 1997, several of the major mezcal producers in Oaxaca coordinated to host the first International Mezcal Festival. It’s since become an annual event.
The festival is typically held over the course of 10 days. Visitors pay an entrance fee. In exchange, they can try as many shots of mezcal (within reason, of course) as they like from various producers.
This naturally helps the producers spread awareness of their brands. However, it also helps guests better appreciate just how nuanced a spirit mezcal is. Many have remarked that, like quality whiskey, for example, mezcal comes in a wide range of styles and varieties, each with their own unique qualities. By tasting these different varieties, guests get a clearer sense of just how much there is to learn about mezcal. They also better understand how the specific techniques various producers use can result in strikingly different products.
All that said, while mezcal has been around for longer than many realize, its history outside of Mexico is still in its infancy. We’re right now just beginning to see what may very well become a global mezcal revolution.