Among those of us who frequent our neighborhood watering holes but not our neighbors to the south, our closest interaction with Mexico comes in the form of spirited food and beverage consumption — especially tacos and tequila. And for those of us residing within the confines of the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would say “no” to such an indulgence. Ask anyone about their experience with tequila and colorful stories of dancing, late nights, and adventure normally follow suit. Though the horror stories of overindulgence are there, when enjoyed responsibly, tequila can be a fascinating spirit.
As for its cousin, mezcal, the reputation of this liquor is only growing in popularity thanks to the resurgence of the craft cocktail scene. However, mezcal has been around for centuries, buried deep within Mexican culture and only surfacing occasionally in the U.S. in the form of cheap knock-offs fused with gimmicks (we’re looking at you, worm). Fortunately, we’re becoming more aware of the drink and giving it the respect it deserves. In fact, it’s quite possible that, given a continued growth in consumption, the popularity of mezcal could someday surpass that of tequila. Though there is a long road ahead, the smoky and more earthy drink is odd enough to keep us interested, yet storied enough to tell a great tale. But what exactly is the difference between the two? Quite a bit actually. From the region in which it’s made, to the process used to make it, to the taste, variations mean a very different but still quite similar drink that we should all try at least once.
Traditional Methods Still Used To This Day
Just like the term whiskey is used to describe any spirit distilled from grain, the word mezcal is used to describe any alcoholic beverage made from the agave plants native to Mexico. Therefore, tequila is actually a type of mezcal. It’s just produced in a different region through a different method. It’s rumored that fermenting this plant came about through the Spanish conquest of the area when conquistadors looked for new ways to make a distillable mash from the omnipresent plant.
Any type of mezcal (again including tequila as a subcategory) was – and still is – made in the same traditional methods that were developed centuries ago. That is, cooking the heart of the agave plant (called the piña) and fermenting the juices that are released. The liquid is referred to as the “elixir of the gods,” stemming from a cultural myth. What it demonstrates is that the enjoyment and perceived “healing power” of the drink permeates deep throughout Mexican culture. In fact, in Oaxaca, where the majority of mezcal is produced, there’s a saying which makes the claim that the drink is both a healing tonic for every illness and a celebratory beverage for every occasion outside of its medicinal use: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien.”
A Fusion of Smoke and Earth
As a spirit that can be produced from up to 28 varieties of agave, mezcal (stemming from the word “Mexcalmetl,” meaning over-cooked agave) can impart a variety of flavors and drinking experiences based on the types of agave used. However, the most common variant of agave featured here is Espadin agave. Historically and legally, Mezcal is produced in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, though recently this has expanded into the surrounding regions of Guerrero, Durango, San Louis Potosi, and Zacatecas.
In terms of production, the methods remain the same as day one with the utilization of in-ground pits. Once the agave is harvested, the hearts (piñas) are then cooked in one of these pits for several days. Typically the pits are about ten feet wide by ten feet deep and lined with volcanic rock. Then, a wood fire is started at the bottom heating up the rock. Piñas are then piled on, filling the hole, and then covered with about a foot of earth. This smokey oven cooks the piñas, caramelizing them in the process. The cooked agave is then crushed and fermented over the course of about six days – after which the mash is distilled and then the mezcal is born. Because of this unique artisan process, which often takes place on a large agave farm called a palenque, mezcal is a smokier spirit, boasting complexities and earthy notes that aren’t found in tequilas. There are, of course, cheaper and lower-quality versions out there, but the handcrafted nature of true mezcal is worth every penny.
Everyone's Favorite Mistake
Much more familiar to all of us, tequila needs little introduction or explanation. One of the main differences here is that tequila can only be made from blue agave – similar to how single malt scotch can only be made from malted barley. It’s also mostly produced in Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located, naturally. In terms of production, the agave piñas are still used to make the spirit, but the cooking process is much different. With tequila, the agave is steamed cooked inside ovens before the mash is fermented. This process leads to a less earthy and smokeless flavor profile. The process is one that began much later than traditional mezcal – during the late 19th century, to be exact – so it stands to reason that tequila is the youngest member within the entire mezcal family.
From here, tequila is distilled 2-3 times – depending on the distillery – and then aged in oak barrels for anywhere from 2 months to over 3 years. Each stage of the aging process then warrants a different name for the style of tequila, as well. For instance, 0-2 months aged makes a Blanco tequila (known as Joven for mezcal). Two months to a year aged makes it a Reposado. And a tequila aged between 1-3 years is known as an Anejo. There is such as thing as a super Anejo that’s aged for more than 3 years, but these tend to be on the rarer side.
Need To Know: Age Categories
For any tequila or mezcal, the amount of time each distilled spirit spends within a barrel correlates to the drink’s hue and, naturally, its flavor profile. From here, tequila and mezcal fall within three distinct categories based on age:
Blanco (Joven for mezcal): Aged no longer than 2 months.
Reposado (“rested”): Aged between 2 months and 1 year.
Anejo (“aged”): Lives in barrels anywhere 1-3 years.
Of course, the longer a tequila or mezcal rests in the barrel, the smoother the overall profile will be. Anejos can oftentimes be sweet and smooth thanks to the type of wood in which they’re aged, while Blancos and Jovens tend to be a bit harsher on the palate.
Fact or Fiction
We’ve all heard stories of people eating the infamous Mezcal worm – a task in which only the bravest of souls bent on a psychedelic mission dare to take part. Well, we’re sorry to burst that bubble, but there is no hard evidence to support that this is even remotely true. In fact, the “worm” isn’t even a worm at all. It’s actually a larva – either red, white or gold – that takes up residence in the root, heart, or leaves of the agave plant.
The actual practice of placing the “worm” in mezcal wasn’t even initiated until 1950 when it was put into practice in order to help mask the taste of a poorly-made spirit. A bit of a bummer, we know, but let it be a sign of an undesirable beverage. As for the rumors of hallucinations or aphrodisiacal properties, consider them a clever marketing ploy in conjunction with an over-indulgence of booze. Regardless, you should save your money for quality brands that, unsurprisingly, leave the worm out of the equation when bottling.
Now Put These Spirits To Good Use
With summer just around the corner, there’s nothing more refreshing than a tequila cocktail. In fact, go ahead and try our best tequila cocktails on for size. You can even use some mezcal, if you’re feeling experimental. Cheers.