As I’m writing this piece, it is officially Mezcal Week, September 8 – 15th, and the “Mexico in a Bottle” event is coming to Denver, Colorado on Sunday just in time to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day. This was all a surprise to me and a total serendipitous encounter. I already planned to write about Mezcal because (a) I love it! and (b) there’s a new taqueria and cantina in Fort Collins with a killer mezcal selection called Uno Mas.
The mysterious Mexican spirit
Mezcal is growing steadily and exports have more than tripled over the last 5 years, but it remains a mysterious spirit to most of us outside of Mexico. It is a cultural beverage made from the native agave plant. The people of Mexico describe this spirit as the essence, soul or heart of the agave, also known colloquially as maguey. There are more than 200 species of agave, and the most famous agave-based spirit is tequila.
The biggest difference between tequila and mezcal is that tequila must be made from the blue agave species. No other agave species is allowed, and furthermore, tequila can only be legally made in the five Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Generally speaking, any agave-based spirit is called mezcal, and you would be correct in calling tequila a mezcal.
Differentiating between tequila and mezcal
Another major differentiator between tequila and all other mezcals is the cooking method of the agave “pinas”, the inner core of the agave. For tequila, the pinas are steamed, but for mezcal they are roasted with burning wood underground which gives it a smokey, almost Scotch-like flavor. It’s been made this way for hundreds of years.
Without getting too technical and veering off-course into the minutia, let me summarize what factors contribute to the uniqueness and expression of individual mezcals. I also want to share a few additional resources to dig deeper.
Growing the agave plant
Like wine, mezcal is impacted by terroir or the location where the agave is grown – wild or farmed. The elevation, temperature, rainfall, wind, soil quality, ambient yeasts, water source, etc. are important to the flavor characteristics of the final spirit. The species or variety of the agave is a major contributor to the resulting mezcal, as is the maturity of the plant. Common varieties are espadín, tobala, duranguese, arroqueno, madrecuishe and cupreata, among others. The plants require 4-10 years to grow and mature before they can be completely removed from the earth and harvested. This is drastically different from grape growing or barley farming and why sustainability is a serious issue.
The type of wood that is used to roast the pinas also plays a role. Fermentation vessels, stills and the number of distillations are key to the spirit’s transformation. See where I’m going with this? Then there’s the aging of mezcal, similar to tequila. Joven is the unaged mezcal. There’s also the aged styles called reposado and añejo. Most importantly when you’re shopping for the spirit, look for the category Artisanal which you can find on the label. This category is regulated and follows strict rules on cooking, grinding, fermenting and distilling.
For more information on mezcal and tequila, check out these entertaining resources.
- Agave: The Spirit of a Nation documentary film
- Maestros Del Mezcal podcast
- Mezcalistas website
- Mezcal PhD website
Click on the recipe links below and discover some tequila creations. Substitute mezcal for the tequila and find a new happy.