What is Mezcal? A Quick Field Guide to Mezcal
by Greg Rutkowski
Mezcal is an alcoholic drink that is common in various parts of Mexico. Its production involves distilling fermented juice of smoked agave, which gives it a smoky flavor.
Although there are over 200 species of agave, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) has approved about 40 to 50 varieties for Mezcal production. Using a variety of agave species and diverse processes when manufacturing this alcoholic drink results in many mezcal varieties.
In this article, we take a deep dive and examine different types of mezcal. We will also highlight salient differences between tequila and Mezcal.
A Brief Mezcal History
It is not clear when Mexicans started producing Mezcal. However, the traditional brewing of Mezcal was a common practice before the Spanish colonized Mexico in the 1500s. The agave plant, which the Mexican ancestors referred to as "maguey", was sacred and therefore considered mezcal as a drink from the gods.
Agave held deep cultural, religious, and economic connotations in early Mexico. It's no surprise that Mexican ancestors drank mezcal during religious and cultural functions because they believed it possessed magical powers.
Today, the traditional brewing of mezcal is still prevalent in various parts of the country, such as Durango, Michoacán, San Luis Potosi, and Oaxaca.
Mexicans have preserved the secrets of brewing this drink for ages and pass various mezcal distillation recipes through family generations.
Some commercial producers use modern technologies to manufacture mezcal in large quantities. Although M\mezcal has its roots in Mexico, it's now consumed in various parts of the world.
A Sneak Peek at Mezcal's Popularity
In 2020, GlobeNewswire estimated the mezcal global market to be worth $496. 6 million. Experts project the market to hit $1.5 billion by 2027. According to Future Markets Insights, the mezcal market grew by 3.4% between 2016 and 2020. The research firm expects this market segment to sustain a CAGR of 10.3% through 2031.
The U.S. is the largest consumer of Mexican mezcal owing to the increased popularity of the drink in the country.
Unlike tequila, Mezcal is available in a variety of flavors. Also, the growing cocktail culture in the U.S. has fueled the popularity of Mezcal with millennial consumers leading the way in trying new varieties of the drink.
In 2020, U.S. accounted for 77% of the over 4.5 million liters exported from Mexico. Other top markets for Mezcal include Canada, Mexico, Spain, and the U.K.
Mezcal Vs Tequila: What's the Difference?
If you love spirits, then tequila may not be strange to you. What you may not know is that tequila is a type of mezcal. However, it is possible to confuse mezcal as a type of tequila, and for good reasons. Tequila's popularity has obscured that of mezcal, at least among global consumers. So, what's the difference between mezcal and tequila? Read on to discover and for an in-depth article on the topic, click here.
Similarities Between Mezcal and Tequila
For starters, it is important to mention that the term mezcal broadly refers to any alcoholic drink made from cooked agave. This definition then makes both mezcal and tequila mezcals because they come from the piña of agave plants. But this is probably the only similarity between these Mexican spirits. They differ in many ways, as described below.
The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal
While there are many varieties of agave, companies use only the Agave tequilana species to make tequila. However, mezcal can be made from any of the CRM-approved agave plants. For instance, some of the popular agave species used for mezcal production include the Agave Angustifolia, Petatorum (Tobala), and Salmiana.
Another difference worth noting is that the production of these Mexican drinks occurs in different regions of the country. For example, mezcal production is common in the regions of Guerrero, Durango, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Zacatecas. On the other hand, tequila is mainly produced in Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas.
For the production process of tequila, producers cook agave heads by steaming them in large-scale autoclaves. They then distill the fermented agave juice multiple times in continuous stills. On the other hand, mezcal production often involves roasting maguey piña in earthen ovens which give the drink the signature smoky flavor. Producers then use clay pots in the distillation stage.
It is a common procedure to age tequila and mezcals in oak barrels. However, there is a slight difference between how producers label tequila and mezcal. For example, tequilas bottled between zero to two months of productions come in silver/Plato or Blanco labels. However, mezcaleros label mezcals of the same age as Joven/Blanco or Abacadoin.
Types of Mezcal
The Mezcal regulatory council limits the alcohol content in these Mezcal drinks to a minimum of 35% and a maximum of 55% ABV. All CRM-approved Mezcal producers have to originate from any of the nine mezcal producing states. They must also use only agave extract to produce Mezcal drinks. Let's examine these Mezcal categories.
Producing this Mezcal variant is popular among most large-scale distilleries. Mezcaleros can use advanced equipment such as autoclaves to roast agave and diffusers for the milling stage. For fermentation and distilling stages, these mezcaleros can use stainless steel tanks and continuous stills, respectively. This way, commercial distilleries can produce Mezcal in large quantities. It is important to note that the CRM allows Mezcal distilleries to use less advanced equipment such as earthen pits for cooking agave, mechanical mills for milling, and masonry basins for fermenting the maguey juice.
The Mezcal regulatory council classifies Mezcal Artesenal as Mezcal produced by distilleries who use less advanced equipment and process. These producers use open pits or clay ovens to roast maguey heads. They then use a Tahona or hand mallet to break down the cooked agave. Thereafter, they ferment the agave extract in animal skins, concrete tanks, or hollowed tree trunks. They may also ferment the juice together with the agave bagasso. When distilling Mezcal Artisanal, the distilleries use copper, steel, or clay pot stills on direct fire. The raw concentrate used for the distillation process may include the maguey bagasso.
The production of Mezcal Ancestral must involve cooking the agave in earthen pits and milling the cooked maguey with a hand mallet, Tahona, or Egyptian mill. The fermentation process takes place in animal skins or concrete/wooden/clay vessels. Distilleries put both the agave extract and bagasso to sit in the fermentation chambers. They then distill the Mezcal Ancestral using clay pots on an open fire.
Does it Matter How Mezcal is Made?
Yes! The CRM classifies mezcal drinks depending on the equipment and processes used in producing them. Although the process followed in making mezcal does not necessarily result in a superior or inferior drink, labor-intensive processes are expensive. It is therefore not surprising for mezcaleros who use old-fashioned processes price their spirits expensively. While the equipment and processes used for making mezcal spirits may differ, there are common stages mezcaleros follow when preparing mezcals, as explained below.
Key Steps for Processing Mezcals
Harvesting Maguey Piña: Agave plants take about seven years to mature. Making mezcal starts with harvesting agave piñas from the wild or plantations. This process involves cutting the spines using sharp tools such as the coa and separating piñas from the roots. The distillers then transport the agave hearts to the palenque. On average, a maguey heart can weigh up to 220 pounds.
Roasting/Cooking: It is common to roast agave piñas in pits. The distillers make a fire at the base of the pit and then pile river stones on hot ambers. When the stones are red hot, they cover them with agave bagasso (residue pulp) and then pile the sliced piñas. They add a layer of leaves or bagasso and put mats on top of the piñas before covering the pit with earth. The agaves take about four days to cook and now ready for milling. This process breaks down complex sugars in the maguey into sweet nectar.
Milling: At this stage, distillers crush the roasted agave to a consistent pulp. This way, it is easy to extract the agave's natural sugars. They use various equipment such as the tahona mill. Here, a beast of burden is used to roll a big grinding stone whose weight crushes the agave.
Fermenting: After crushing the agave to a pulp, some mezcaleros prefer to separate the nectar from the bagasso and place the juice in large tanks. This approach is less labor-intensive. However, fermenting the agave nectar with bagasso results in agave spirits with musty notes. They add natural yeast and water and leave the fermentation tanks to settle for some days.
Mezcal Distillation: This stage involves the extraction of alcohol from the fermented juice using copper stills or clay pots. The juice is double distilled to produce high-grade mezcal. At this stage, mezcaleros can distill the mezcal further and flavor it with chicken, turkey, fruits, or spices. The resulting Blanco is Mezcal de Pechuga and is popular with Mexican celebrations.
Aging Mezcal: Distillers have the option to age their spirits and produce more product labels. Usually, the mezcaleros use oak barrels to age the distilled mezcal. They then bottle the drink after two to twelve months as Mezcal Reposado. It is common for this label to feature a Chinicuil (maguey larva). If the drink rests for over twelve months, distilleries label it as Mezcal añejo. This label is smoother than the Blanco and Reposado labels.
After reading this article, we hope that you now understand what is mezcal, and how it differs from tequila. In short, all tequilas variants are mezcals, but not every mezcal is tequila. You can start drinking mezcal cocktails with confidence as you explore the variety of flavors that come with these spirits.