The Mysterious Spirit of Mezcal
“Para todo mal, mezcal; y para todo bien, también.”
What is mezcal and how is it different from tequila?
Distilled agave is best known as tequila, which is essentially an industrialized form of mezcal, specific to five states of Mexico. Mezcal is produced in nine other Mexican states, with Oaxaca being the most widely known region. Mezcal is made using traditional methods of production and has a smoky aroma and flavor as a result of how the agave processed.
These are the main differences between mezcal and tequila:
- Tequila is made in: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
- Mezcal is made in: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla.
- Tequila is only made with one variety of agave: Agave tequilana, commonly referred to as blue agave or agave azul.
- Mezcal can be made from many varieties of wild agave, though most are made with the cultivated Agave espadin.
What does mezcal taste like?
People say that mezcal is an acquired taste, but a taste worth developing your palate for. With an aroma that’s closer to an intensely peated Scotch, mezcal can be a challenge to appreciate — the stinky cheese of the spirit world.
The smoky flavor profile in mezcal is a product of how the agave is cooked. To make mezcal, the agave’s piña (heart) is removed and cut, then roasted in an earthen pit, which can be as simple as a large rock filled pit in the ground, or more complex like a large conical stone oven set into the ground. The agave is cooked covered, keeping the heat and smoke contained. Low and slow, just like barbecue, sometimes for several weeks.
It is then crushed into small pieces, and fermented in open vats. The liquid is distilled in clay or copper stills (traditional clay stills impart an earthy flavor, while copper stills are more durable and less expensive).
Mezcal has a wide range of flavors that taste different based on its specific terroir. Which is why, if you try a non-Espadín mezcal, don’t throw it back. Instead, take it slow, there is magic in every sip.
Where to start?
Begin your journey with cheaper but artisanal mezcal. There are many great mezcals that start at around $40. From there, work your way up slowly to build an appreciation for the many varieties. Every bottle is unique, and includes the backstory of the land the agave came from.
If you think a bottle of mezcal for $200 is outrageous, consider that many are made from unique, wild-harvested agave varieties that take up to 25 years to mature. Then, they go through an extensive, labor-intensive process of roasting, crushing, slow fermenting with indigenous yeasts, and double distilling, using knowledge that’s been handed down over the generations.
Espadín is a cultivated variety that matures quickly and doesn’t cost as much as more rare, wild varietals. This is also the preferred type to make mezcal cocktails with.
Here’s a good resource for ordering mezcal online: http://everythingmezcal.com/articles/where-to-buy-mezcal-online/
How to drink mezcal?
A common way to drink mezcal is in little gourd cups called jícaras. Another, is out of little clay cups called copitas. It is traditional for the host to start a toast by drawing a cross on the ground with mezcal from his cup and saying “Stigibeu”, a Zapotec word that roughly means “to the lifeforce that is around us.” It is followed by looking everyone in the eyes, with guests replying, “Bakeen,” which means “Drink!”
What’s up with the orange slice and worm salt?
Mezcal is usually served with sal de gusano (worm salt with spices) sprinkled on fresh orange slices. Sal de gusano compliments the taste of mezcal, the smoke and spice of the salt can also add an extra dimension to salsas, cocktails, or ceviche.
“There is something poetic about eating the animal that lives in the agave plant. It makes so much sense to have it with mezcal. You’re eating a little insect that eats the plant as you drink the spirit made from that plant.” — Chantal Martineau