Mezcal is a complicated drink. If you’re here reading this, you probably already know that it’s often confused with tequila (quick refresher: tequila is actually a type of mezcal), there are lots of rumors around about it (it doesn’t make you hallucinate and it doesn’t always have a worm in it), and it has quite the colorful (and ancient) history. We’ve already given you a primer
on all the basics you need to know about mezcal in a previous blog post, so you should be familiar enough with the spirit. Now, it’s time to delve into all the details that we know about mezcal’s lifetime, from its birth to where it stands in modern day.
So, let’s go far back. Like, really far back. Before the Spanish came to Mexico, the agave plant that mezcal is made from was particularly important to Mexican tribes. It was used both its nutrients as well as its medicinal properties. Its many uses led different tribes to hold it in religious regard, and it had a place in ceremonies and stories. There is even an Aztec goddess
named Mayahuel that was a physical embodiment of the plant, and represented fertility. She was also thought to have given birth to the gods of intoxication, a bit of history that lends certain historians to believe that distilling the plant to liquor was a practice already going on way back
then. Interestingly, the Greek’s had a similar respect for agave. In their belief system, Agave was the goddess of desire and had links to intoxication as well.
Despite the clear historical link between agave and inebriation, there aren’t any concrete agreements as to when mezcal (or a drink that’s similar to mezcal) first began to appear. Some point to pulque, an alcoholic drink dating from around 1000 B.C., as the genesis of what would become mezcal. It was made from agave sap that was fermented into a milky drink. This
process is quite different than mezcal today, so it’s definitely considered a different product, but the connection is there. Others say that the 1500s is when mezcal first started to really solidify in the way we know it today. Researchers claim that it can be found dating that far back in southern Mexico.
While we’re on the subject of unconfirmed stories, here’s maybe the coolest one out there. There’s a myth about the ancient origin of mezcal that states a lightning bolt struck and cooked an agave plant, with the juice coming out of it being mezcal. We aren’t here to confirm or deny this story, but it’s definitely a fun one to imagine.
So, back on track. Let’s start on one thing that is generally accepted as truth: there was some form of non-distilled agave liquor in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. This can’t really be called mezcal, as the distillation process is really what sets it apart and gives it a strong alcoholic concentration. Most think that distilling the liquid became a thing when the
Spanish came, as they had been distilling liquor for a while and brought the process to Mexican culture.
As the Spanish began to travel through Mexico, they encountered villages and areas where agave grew heavily and villagers knew how to work with the plant. Some say it was in Jalisco where it all really started to take off, which doesn’t seem too far-fetched as it is still a known hub for mezcal today. Other theories point Michoacan, another area with a deep history
with the drink. Either way, the Spanish making their way to these places is likely what allowed the drink to develop into what we know as mezcal today.
Before, in the time of pulque and non-distilled liquors, drinking alcohol was not very well accepted in Mexico. During the Spanish colonial period, laws and culture began shifting to where mezcal was a pretty big part of the land. Travelers through the area wrote about the drink saying that it was merely distilled pulque (which is definitely not true), creating another rumor
that confounded the history of the beverage.
Still though, there were restrictions around mezcal in certain areas. Not too long ago, people had to transport mezcal completely secretly so as to avoid law enforcement, who were known to break into mezcal facilities and destroy them. One practice that evolved from this was burying mezcal underground. This was used to hide it from authorities or others who may have had a stake in taking or destroying it. Today, this is still practiced in some places, though for different reasons.
After all of the legal troubles around the drink began to settle down, mezcal producers began to crop up all over Mexico, defining their own standards for what it should be. The traditions they set in place largely still exist today, and mezcal is made by small, local producer by-and-large. For the past 200 years or so, not a lot has changed in Mexico.
In America, on the other hand, things are really only getting started. The market is starting to realize the intense and unique properties of the drink. Import from Mexico is growing and growing, and it seems that mezcal is finally hitting its stride. Excitingly, this has allowed lots of Americans to experiment with the drink, finding perfect food pairings and learning how to
communicate the complexity of its flavor.
If you’re interested in connecting with the incredible history and rich tradition of mezcal, we here at madrerestaurants.com have plenty of meals that work excellently for experiencing the drink and learning all about it. There’s no reason to wait any longer to get in on mezcal; after all, it’s waited plenty of time for