A Mezcal Guide for the Uninitiated
If you don’t know a ton about mezcal, there are a couple of questions that might be in your head right now. Does it cause hallucinations? Is it the same as tequila (c’mon, be honest, it’s the same, right)? Will there be a worm in my glass, god forbid? What is it made from, and where does it come from? If you’re thinking about any of these questions or more, well, I’m here
to ease your racing brain, sweet Internet user. Mezcal is a subject that most people aren’t hugely knowledgeable about, and that’s no biggie. You’re just one quick read away from becoming an expert!
Mezcal: what is it?
In short, mezcal is a distilled drink made from the heart of agave, a slow-growing plant that’s similar to yucca. It’s made in Mexico, typically by hand by smaller producers. The process of turning agave into mezcal begins by chopping down the agave to just the heart, also known as the pina. The pina is then slow-cooked in underground, traditional ovens. We’re talking real
slow. Like, several days. After this, the pina is mashed down and left to ferment, creating liquid that is distilled (twice!) and then, voila, we have mezcal. The final product has a similar alcohol content to tequila, finishing up at about 110 proof after that second distillation.
One of the coolest facts about mezcal is how open the market for it is. There are over 9000 producers of mezcal in Mexico, which give their booze to 150 different brand names. The process of making the drink hasn’t really changed a whole lot since it was first started to be made, and there’s a rich history and tradition in the production of it.
How long has it been around?
Well, that’s tough to answer. There’s some debate over whether mezcal in the way we understand it today has been around since before the Spanish Conquest or not. In general, most believe the distillation techniques that the Spanish brought to Mexico are what created modern mezcal. That means it’s over 400 years old. Cool! It’s even mentioned in literature from as early as around 1800, with a famous Prussian explorer writing about its strength.
How is it different than tequila?
Another tricky question, or a trick question, depending on how you look at it. This is because it’s not really different than tequila, per se. Tequila is a drink made from Weber’s blue agave (or Agave tequilana, if we want to refer to it by its scientific name). This makes tequila a type of mezcal, not the other way around. Mezcal is the umbrella term here, believe it or not! Interestingly, that technically makes mezcal more popular in America than you might’ve thought, though many people treat tequila as its own product due to the strong differences in the way the two drinks are commonly understood.
With that being said, there are some key differences in taste between tequila and mezcal. Weber’s blue agave gives some spiciness and citrus flavors, with a lot of brands treating the plant in a way that lends the drink a sweeter taste. Mezcal is more known for particular smokey notes, though many types of mezcal offer sweetness as well. Those with a keen tongue for whiskies will often appreciate a good mezcal. Additionally, the way tequila is made is totally different, and often lacks the artisanal touch that most mezcals have.
Will I hallucinate if I drink mezcal?
Finally, an easy one! The answer: no, unless you don’t handle alcohol too well. A lot of people get mezcal and mescaline confused (I can’t blame them). Mescaline is a naturally- occurring psychedelic that has similar effects to acid, and is definitely not present in a bottle of mezcal.
So…about that worm….
Oh yeah. Are you gonna have a worm in your mezcal bottle? Well, it depends. There are some good mezcal brands that will put a worm in the bottle, though in general most of the better brands out there don’t go that extra mile. If it’s something you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find it. Just Google something like “agave bottle with worm” and you’ll find plenty of options that feature the so-called agave worm.
Also, about that: it’s not really a worm! Not to get too technical on you, but it’s actually the larva of a moth that often inhabits the agave plant. This fact might make you worry that these larvae are landing in bottles by accident, but this is definitely not the case. The little “worm” is put in on purpose during the bottling process, but people disagree on why exactly this started being done. Some say it was originally added to distinguish it from tequila (clever marketing!), while others say it adds flavor, which doesn’t seem too far-fetched when there are products like worm salt out there.
Are there different kinds of mezcal?
Yep! There are tons of different kinds of agave, all of which can be used to make mezcal. From these different species, there are five main ones that are commonly used. The most common is espadín, which has a lot of sugar and lends a sweeter taste. Arroqueño makes green mezcal with a spicy taste, which mezcal made from tobaziche agave is more savory. Tobalá agave is really rare and makes some of the smokiest (and priciest) mezcal that is out
there. Finally, there’s tepeztate agave, which is also rare and expensive but can produce a variety of different flavors.
Beyond this, seasoned mezcal drinkers will also tell you that there is a major difference between young and aged mezcals. Blanco mezcals aren’t aged and don’t have any real additional flavors that might come from that process. Reposados are aged for a few months (but not longer than a year), and añejo are aged the longest at a year or more. Generally, the aging takes place in wooden barrels, which obviously alters the taste depending on the wood.
So, there you have it, a quick primer on the basics of mezcal. There’s a lot of
misinformation out there about the Mexican spirit, so it’s best to get your facts straight, especially when considering the fact the mezcal is only projected to grow in popularity. At this point, mezcal is pretty worldwide, something that is pretty remarkable considering the fact that the production really hasn’t changed in centuries.