The Mystery Of Mezcal
The rise in Mezcal’s popularity over the years is undeniable, scattered across most cocktail menus and part of all mixologist repertoire it has become a big part cocktail culture. The production of mezcal today looks very much like it did hundreds of years ago and is a source of pride for many small farmers.
Mezcal is a Mexican distilled liquor made from the agave plant, with ninety percent of mezcal being produced in the state of Oaxaca. It is one of the southernmost regions of Mexico with a large coastline along the Pacific Ocean. The state is biologically diverse and includes different terrains from forests to sandy beaches to an arid desert landscape.
As the agave fields are scattered throughout the terrain with many plants having a life cycle between 5 and 30 years before they are ready to harvest. This is what makes mezcal so unique and quite expensive, farmers spend time and resources to care for the agave.
What Is The Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?
People familiar with tequila, of course, know Cuervo, Don Julio, and Patron. But unbeknownst to many, tequila has a lesser-known cousin. Though tequila is the more widespread of the two spirits, tequila is actually a kind of mezcal, not the other way around.
Both tequila and mezcal are made from different varietals of the agave; mezcal can be made from over 30 different types of the agave plant. Espadin agave is the most common used for mezcal, but tequila can only be produced solely from the blue agave. While there is some overlap, the spirits are fermented in different regions of Mexico, as mezcal is mainly produced in Oaxaca and tequila comes out of the state of Jalisco.
The main difference between Mezcal and Tequila is the flavor profile. Mezcal has a distinct smoky flavor that gives it a clear distinction from tequila. The smokiness of mezcal is a stylistic feature unique to different regions and small producers. Mezcal is a vital piece of Oaxacan mythology and tradition.
While tequila and mezcal are both made from the harvested core of the agave plant, they are treated differently during processing. Tequilla is steamed in industrial ovens, then milled in large scale grinders to extract the sugary liquid called “aguamiel”. As the fermentation process is next, sometimes yeast is added to help natural sugars convert into alcohol and stabilize the fermentation process. Traditionally the natural yeast on the agave leaves were used during the distillation process. Today most operations are using a cultivated form of wild yeast. The fermentation process ranges from seven to twelve days depending on the methods used. Following this process tequila is distilled typically 2-3 times and then place in white oak barrels for aging.
Mezcals’ distinct smoky flavor starts at the cooking process, where it’s buried in large underground pits to cook for several days. The extraction of the caramelized liquid is still done today by traditional methods. A larges stone wheel is attached to the burro, who walks around a carved out the platform to press the roasted agave. The fermentation was traditionally done in clay pots but is mostly done in metal today, though some mezcals stick with traditional methods. Copper is used to distill mezcal and the farmers swear that it gives it a unique flavor all its own.
The Sacred Agave Plant
The agave was a sacred and mythical plant in pre-Spanish Mexico. The Mexican culture passes down the myth that mezcal originated when an agave plant was struck by lightning. The inside of the plant, called the piña, was cooked and the juices released. The juice of the agave, because of this tale, is known as “elixir of the gods”.
When the Spanish came to Mexico during the Spanish Conquest, they brought along their own liquor. This, of course, eventually ran out. The Spanish were left to find a substitute. The Spanish Crown discouraged the use of sugarcane and grapes for distillation, so they instead turned to the agave plant.
For thousands of years, the indigenous tribes of Mexico have been making an alcoholic beverage called pulque from the agave plant. Pulque is made from the leaves or sap of the agave plant, and once fermented becomes a milky white drink.
During the pre-Spanish years, drinking alcoholic beverages were heavily restricted but became less taboo after the conquest. As an inexpensive and easy to make a distilled drink, pulque became popular as it became more acceptable. Pulque is still sold in Mexico to this day, but it has a reputation similar to the reputation moonshine has in the United States. You may find a vendor selling it on the streets in plastic bottles or milk jugs.
Having already been introduced to pulque, when the Spanish ran out of their spirits, they began experimenting to create something with higher alcohol content. The end result became mezcal.
The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which means “oven-cooked agave”. The production of mezcal is still very much in keeping with tradition. It is produced on a small scale, one of the qualities that differentiate it from tequila. Because of the small-scale production and lack of industrialization in the process, the spirit contains fewer chemicals and additives than tequila. This makes for a drink with more clarity that goes down smoother and allegedly keeps hangovers at bay.
Most of today’s cultivation and distillers come from the state of Oaxaca. The producers take pride in their roots and the tradition of the process. Everything is done by hand. Workers harvest the agave plant and remove the piña, which looks like a giant pineapple. Then they bury the piña in an underground pit with hot rocks, where it cooks for three days. Once the piña is cooked, it is mashed using a stone wheel grinder turned by a horse. This sounds like something out of an old movie, but it is how mezcal is still made to this day.
Different Types of Mezcal
Once the mash is fermented and distilled, it is bottled and sold. There are three general types of spirit. Similar to how there are light and dark rums, mezcal comes in different shades that affect the flavor. Joven, meaning young, is unaged and is light or clear. Darker mezcal is called reposado. The darkest mezcal is añejo, typically the darker the spirt, the smoother the taste.
Though most mezcal is left unaltered, it can come in a variety of flavors. Producers can and will add anything during the fermenting process to add flavor. Stopping by a mezcal shop in Oaxaca offers visitors dozens of fruit or herb-flavored varieties to sample: apple, cinnamon, avocado, plum— often whatever happens to be growing in the garden. There are even creamy varieties like strawberry and cream or orange and cream.
Mezcal usually comes with a worm at the bottom of the bottle, a practice sometimes imitated by tequila producers. The worm is actually the larvae of a moth that lives in the agave plant. There’s no confirmed reason for why the worm is included, though there is speculation. Some affirm it is there to prove it is good, while others say it’s there to add flavor. The most popular theory is simply that it’s a marketing ploy, something provocative to set the drink apart from other liquors. Either way, the worm has become a part of the mezcal’s history.
Mezcal is firmly rooted in Mexico’s cultural traditions. A well-known adage in the Oaxacan region is “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien,” which translates to “For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, too.” They drink it to celebrate and they drink it to commiserate.
The spirit is also a part of many cultural celebrations. A big part of the Mexican wedding tradition is the calenda, a wedding procession through the streets. The bride and groom, with their family and friends, parade down the streets, singing and dancing and handing out shots. A modern addition to the ritual is beaded necklaces with shot glasses attached to them, which members of the party will hand out to onlookers so they can share in the festivities.
Additionally, a mezcal festival is held in the capital city of Oaxaca de Juarez each year called the Feria del Mezcal. For forty pesos (a little over two American dollars), locals and tourists visit stands of different vendors to sample shot upon shot and purchase bottles of their favorite varieties.
Although patrons of the Feria del Mezcal become understandably inebriated, the importance of mezcal is not forgotten. Tourists will not struggle to find a native who can tell them the story of the lightning striking the agave plant and creating the first rendition of this culturally important drink. In Oaxacan culture, tradition and mythology are always at the forefront of the festival and ready to be shared.
Mezcal is typically served straight and sipped slowly to enjoy the smooth, smoky flavor. In recent years, as mezcal grows in popularity amongst other countries, mezcal has begun to substitute for the usual liquor in other popular drinks. The ever-growing list of cocktails includes the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, mezcalitas (a take on the margarita), and the Mezcal Mule, to name a few.
A large number of international visitors to Mexico stay in resorts further north where they are typically provided a full bar, so they may not have been exposed to mezcal.The rise of mezcal being mixed in popular cocktails could be attributed to an increase in exportation over the past decade. Due to the small-scale organic production and micro process of distilling the liquor, the majority of the market has been kept out of the United States and other countries until recently.
Though mezcal is growing in popularity throughout the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe, an association of mezcal producers try to keep large brands from coming in and industrializing the production.
The trending popularity of artisanal goods, microbreweries, and craft beers make it a spirt for current generations who are spending their money in bars. The organic production and absence of chemicals and additives is appealing to the health-conscious young adults of today who are ordering Mezcal cocktails. This gives weight to the mezcal producers’ initiative to keep brands from industrializing the production.
Keeping Tradition Alive
Despite the fact that the heavy exportation of mezcal could be a huge moneymaker for many Oaxacans, it seems a surplus of money is less important than tradition and culture. Mexican culture has always been firmly rooted in tradition that passes down from family to family. The culture and myth of mezcal are ingrained in the culture. It can be a ritual, a celebration, or condolence. For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, too.
What’s your favorite Mezcal? Let us know in the comments below. Want to read more about the history of your food? Check out The Knead Feeds post on The Agricultural Revolution and how it has impacted the way we eat.