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So you're out with one of your favorite drinking buddies, a good-time guy who's always quick with a laugh, a great story, and, if you're really lucky, a round. One day he brings along his older brother, who's in town for a few days. The older brother broods a lot; sits in the corner and tells dark, mordant jokes; insults other members of the party; and manages to hit on the bartender in a way that's somehow both creepy and oddly funny at the same time. You sit there thinking, "What am I supposed to make of this guy? And did he really just get out of jail, like he says?"

Sometimes I think that's the image Americans have of mezcal, tequila's older, mysterious, and poorly understood brother. People have a lot of misconceptions about mezcal, but it's worth taking a minute to see what it's really all about.

Mezcal Etymology

The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli, which taken together mean "oven cooked agave." Like tequila, mezcal is made by roasting agave hearts in an oven. Despite having a similar name, and despite any rumors you may have heard in college, mezcal does not contain mescaline. The word can also be spelled mescal, but some producers avoid that variation because of the mistaken association between mezcal and mescaline.

History of Mezcal

As I noted in my guide to tequila, the roots of mezcal and tequila stretch far into history, back before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Agave has been cultivated for centuries, used as both a flavoring and a sweetener, as well as being fermented into mildly alcoholic drinks such as pulque, which dates back at least 2,000 years.

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A typical Maguey landscape at dawn. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

When the Spanish arrived, they brought along the knowledge of distillation; and lucky for them, they found a plant (agave) whose juices they could readily distill. Tequila's ancestor was born. The first mezcals appeared in the 1500s, and the beverage spread throughout Mexico over the following centuries, eventually being exported back into Spain.

Where Mezcal Is Made

Mezcal can be produced in seven Mexican states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato. In practice, most mezcal on the U.S. market today is from Oaxaca. In general, tequila is more of a western spirit, whereas mezcal is more southern, but we'll discuss those distinctions later.

Artisanal?

Let's get some politics out of the way. There are a number of ways to define the term artisanal, but I'm going to choose a simple way. Artisanal mezcals are those produced by the same traditional methods that have defined mezcal production for centuries, and I'll describe those methods in the next section. Succinctly, artisanal/traditional producers follow these methods:

  1. They harvest the agave by hand, ...
  2. roast it in pits dug into the ground, ...
  3. grind the agave with stone grinding wheels, ...
  4. ferment the agave with natural yeasts, ...
  5. and distill it in copper alembic stills.

Any method that results in partial or complete industrialization of production is not by this definition artisanal. I make this distinction because some of the best sipping mezcals on the market make this distinction, and because the prices of many of today's premium mezcals reflect this distinction. I'm not being arbitrary. If you're going to pay $75 for a bottle of mezcal, it's important to know why it's so expensive—because it's truly hand-crafted, using processes that take a lot of time, expertise, and labor.

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Molino de maguey-roast agave grinding mill. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Now, to be fair, mezcal is largely still made by techniques that have been handed down for generations. The industrialization that some tequila makers have adopted generally hasn't affected mezcal, which is still handcrafted on small family farms and made slowly.

This is not to say there are no industrial mezcals, made at high volume and low cost, and sold as inexpensive rotgut. But these days, the brands you're most likely to find at a liquor store Stateside are artisanal products made with traditional methods. North of the border, your choices in rotgut agave will largely be limited to mixto tequilas and mezcals sold in plastic, 1.75L handles for $18.99. And maybe that's a good thing, because those are easy to spot.

How Mezcal Is Made

Mezcal, like tequila, starts with agave. Unlike tequila, however, mezcal isn't limited to just one variety of agave. Five different varieties are commonly used, and Mexican regulations allow for many others as well. Moreover, a single mezcal may contain a blend of agaves, similar to the way a particular wine may contain a blend of grape varieties.

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Agave hearts for making mezcal. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

About 90% of mezcal is made from a Oaxacan variety, Espadín.

One thing to look for, though, if you become a mezcal geek, is a product made from the Tobalá variety of agave. Tobalá grows wild at high elevations in Oaxaca; it can be cultivated, but the wild version tastes better to experienced palates. The piñas are smaller than in cultivated varieties. Only a small amount of Tobalá is available annually, so for that reason, prices of Tobalá mezcals are higher than most other bottlings. Flavors are generally earthier and sweeter than other mezcals.

As with tequila, the agave is harvested after, on average, eight years. The outer leaves are removed, leaving only the piña, or heart. The piña is cooked, but here's where a crucial difference is introduced. Most tequilas are made by cooking the piñas in large, stainless-steel, above-ground ovens. For mezcal, by contrast, the piñas are cooked in conical pits dug into the ground. The pits, known as palenques or hornos, can reach 15 feet across and 8 feet deep. They're lined with stones or bricks.

The piñas are cooked over a wood fire (oak is common, although some producers use mesquite) and covered in layers of agave leaves and earth. The piñas cook for two to three days. This process caramelizes the sugars in the agave, and imbues a smoky aroma and flavor to the agave, which carries over to the mezcal, giving it a smoky quality that reminds some of peated single-malt Scotch.

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Agave hearts for making mezcal. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Some producers, I must add, take steps to minimize the smokiness of their mezcals, feeling that smoky spirits are challenging to sell in the United States. So although it's generally true that mezcal is smokier than tequila, it's not universally so.

After the roasted piñas are removed from the pit, they're crushed using a stone grinding wheel. The pulp is mixed with water. Traditional producers use existing yeasts in the air and on the agave to start the fermentation process. Industrial producers tend to use commercial yeasts. The traditional method takes longer because it requires time for the natural yeasts to take hold.

After fermentation, the wash is then distilled in copper alembic stills. Most mezcal is distilled twice, sometimes for as long as 24 hours per distillation, but some brands are triple-distilled.

When discussing other spirits, such as rum, bourbon, and Scotch, I mentioned that distillers often blend spirits from various barrels to create a product that's consistent from batch to batch. Many mezcal producers, on the other hand, are working as such small volumes that they don't have enough product on hand to blend barrels. This means that each batch has its own unique character unmatched in other batches.

Types of Mezcal

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Mezcal vendor in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Like tequila, mezcal is sold as either 100% agave (Type I) or as mixto (Type II). But whereas a mixto tequila is 51% agave, mixto mezcal is required to be 80% agave. (The remaining sugar in the mix is usually cane.) If you want to be sure you're getting Type I, look for the words 100% Agave on the label.

You might also see something called "crema de mezcal." This is mezcal flavored with fruit, nuts, agave nectar, or other flavorings. Del Maguey makes a bottling made of 80% mezcal and 20% agave nectar, for example.

Finally, you may also see the phrase "con gusano" on a label. That means "with worm," which leads to a question ...

What's Up With the Worm, Anyway?

First up, it's not a worm at all, it's a larva. There are two types of larvae you might find in mezcal bottles: gusano rojo (red) and gusano de oro (white or gold). The red lives in the root and heart of the agave plant; the white in the leaves. Traditionally, the red version was more prized as a mezcal additive. The larvae are commonly eaten as food, but were they always commonly added to mezcal?

In fact, the worm isn't as traditional as you might think. It only dates back to about 1950, when a clever marketer started adding larvae to bottles, having discovered that they could help mask the chemical taste of a poorly made product.

Third, despite what you may have heard during spring break, the larva does not have any psychotropic properties. If you hallucinated after drinking too much mezcal, it's either the booze or your imagination at work. It's also not an aphrodisiac, so while the mezcal might make him (or her) seem hotter, it won't help your libido at all.

Finally, premium brands on the market today don't have larvae at all, so don't believe anyone who says all mezcal has a worm in the bottle.

Categories of Mezcal

Like tequila, mezcal can be aged for different amounts of time, and its category reflects how old it is:

  • Joven is young mezcal, always either unaged or aged less than 2 months.
  • Reposado means "rested," aged in oak for 2 months to 1 year.
  • Añejo means "aged," and these are between 1 and 3 years old.
  • Extra añejo is extra aged. In tequila, extra añejo is a formal legal category of spirit. In mezcal, this category has yet to be formalized, but you may still see mezcals marketed this way. It simply refers to a brand that's more than 3 years old.

Brands

A growing number of mezcal brands are available now in the U.S. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Del Maguey: Importer of "single village" mezcals. Each mezcal DM sells comes from a separate Oaxacan village, and so each one is unique in character and flavor. Del Maguey offers several Espadín varieties, as well as one limited-edition Tobalá.
  • Fidencio: Made in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca. Fidencio offers 5 mezcals from 3 agave varietals: 3 of its mezcals are made from Espadín cultivated on the Fidencio estate. Additionally, Fidencio offers a Tobalá and Madrecuixe (another agave varietal), both of which are foraged wild in the mountains of San Baltazar Guelavila. Currently, Fidencio offers only joven bottlings.
  • Ilegal: The name humorously points to the history of the brand, which was initially smuggled out of Oaxaca into Guatemala. Ilegal offers a joven, reposado, and añejo.
  • Scorpion: Bottled with a scorpion instead of a larva, Scorpion offers a joven, reposado, and three ages of añejo—a 1-year-old, 5-year-old, and 7-year-old. Scorpion also offers two limited-edition Tobalá varieties.
  • Sombra: Made in San Juan, Oaxaca. Also all Espadín. Sombra is currently available only as a joven. (We reviewed it on SE: Drinks a while back.)
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