Mezcal: what it is and what it’s not
Tequila is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in Mexico followed by beer. According to Mintel, Mexico is one of the largest producers and consumers of tequila in the world.
A report from International Markets Bureau says that Mexico produces at least 44 different variants of tequila. One common consumer confusion lies in these variants; the difference between tequila and mezcal (not mescal).
Although there are numerous differences between tequila and mezcal, all tequila is technically a mezcal. While tequila is traditionally from the town of Tequila and is made with 100 percent blue agave, mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any of the agave plants native to Mexico. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl mexcalli metl and ixcalli which means oven-cooked agave. Mezcal can be produced from from any variant of the 30 varities of agaves, although most are made with agave espadin.
Since both tequila and mescal are made from agave, by law, tequila can only be produced in specific states of Mexico. Mezcal, on the other hand, is produced in eight regions of Mexico including Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and the recently approved Michoacan. Oaxaca is the center of the mezcal world, as 80-90 percent of mezcals are made in Oaxaca.
Mezcal also has a very different production process from tequila, which leads to a distinctly different flavor in the finished product. While the harvesting of the plants are the same, when it comes time to cook the pina, the process changes dramatically.
With tequila, pinas are cooked in large industrial ovens called autoclaves. In essence, autoclaves are giant stainless steel pressure cookers. Once cooked, the pina is shredded and fermented. With mescal, the process is much more artisanal. Following a tradition that dates back hunderds of years, pinas for mescal is earth-baked in a cone-shaped pit about 10 feet deep.
The pit is lined with volcanic rock and ignited with a wood fire. Once the rocks hit extreme heat, the pinas are then piled into the pit and covered in about a foot of earth where they smoke and caramelize over several days. This is where mezcal gets its smokey flavor. Once cooked, the pinas are then crushed with a tahona, using a donkey that pulls a large stone wheel around in a circle.
There are five common variants of agave used in the production of mezcal.
- Espadín: This accounts to for more than 90% of mezcal production and is the most common agave.
- Tobalá: Deemed as the “king of mezcals” this particular variety is very rare and harvested from the wild!
- Tobaziche: This agave is harvested from the wild and can make herbaceous and savory mezcal.
- Tepeztate: This agave takes up to 30 years to reach maturity. This obviously means good luck finding any and probably not the best choice for cocktails.
- Arroqueño: The mezcal made from this plant is floral, vegetal and often have a spicy, bitter chocolate note.
The production process combined with the type of agave plant used is what distinguishes the different types of mezcal. Regular mezcal drinkers will tell you they can be light and fruity with a hint of smoke or they can be produced to be overly dominate in the smoky taste while tequila tends to focus on citrus flavors with a hint of pepper of vegetal.