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Unveiling the Mysteries of Mezcal: Everything You Need to Know

All you need to know about Mezcal

Mezcal facts

Although perhaps less well known than its cousin tequila, mezcal has been steadily making its way into bars and liquor cabinets over the years. It’s a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, but unlike the smoother taste of tequila, mezcal has a smoky finish.
If it seems like you’re encountering more mezcal than ever before, it’s not just your imagination. Recently, the US market for mezcal has overtaken that of Mexico. According to Shanken News, although mezcal still lacks the recognition of tequila, 71% of its exports go to the United States. In terms of sheer volume, the United States received 371,000 9-litre cases of the spirit, while only 304,000 were distributed throughout Mexico. The relative increase in popularity is linked to the demographics outlined by mezcalistas: millennials and Gen-Xers.
Perfect on its own and an essential ingredient in many cocktails, mezcal seems set to become the new gin. So let’s learn more about tequila’s less popular cousin.

Dawn of Mezcal

As The Daily Meal explains, we first heard of mezcal 400 years ago, when Spanish conquistadors brought distilling techniques to Mexico and applied them to the local agave to make up for the lack of vines.
Clearly, however, the intoxicating effects of the agave had been discovered long before that. Great Agave describes how, centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, the plant was considered sacred and given its own divine personification called Mayahuel, goddess of fertility and food and mother of Centzon Tōtōchtin, the 400 rabbits of intoxication.
It was in this spirit that another agave-based intoxicant, pulque, was produced and can still be enjoyed today. The difference between pulque and mezcal is that the former is made by fermentation, while the latter is made by distillation. The name mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words “metl” and “ixcalli”, meaning “cooked agave”, due to the distillation of a plant already used to get drunk (via Gabbi Patrick).

How Mezcal is made

Many varieties of agave can be made into mezcal. However, this ease belies the difficulty of production. Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas are the Mexican states that can legally call their product mezcal. To produce the spirit, the agave must first be allowed to mature, an indefinite process that can take from eight to 30 years. If the farmers take too long, they may miss the harvest window and have to wait another decade or so before they can harvest their crop. After the harvest, another crop has to mature, according to Serious Eats.
Then comes the actual harvesting of the piña, the heart of the plant from which mezcal is distilled. To get at it, the farmers have to chop off the leaves that surround the agave. To add insult to injury, it takes more than one piña to make a batch of mezcal.
According to Gourmet Traveller, once the piñas have been collected, the mezcaleros, or distillers, build a fire and reduce it to a simmering mass of charcoal. The mezcaleros place the piñas around this mass, cover them with leaves and dirt and leave them to roast. After roasting, they mash the piñas and leave the extracted juices in a huge tank. The process ends with a fairly simple distillation. Except in the case of mezcal, the distillation takes place in a pot made of copper, clay or wood.
The most common type of mezcal produced is espadín, which accounts for 90% of production and has a versatile flavour, according to Food Republic.

The difference between Tequila and Mezcal

Some may wonder what the difference is between Mezcal and Tequila. Both are Mexican spirits made from the agave plant. Wine Enthusiast Magazine makes the distinction for the uninitiated: tequila is a type of mezcal distilled from the blue Weber agave, a specific subspecies of the plant. Tequila is also produced mainly in the Jalisco region of Mexico, along with a few other municipalities. So it is mostly a case of all squares being rectangles, but not all rectangles being squares. All tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.
The other difference is that tequila is made by steaming the piña in an oven rather than roasting it. For this reason, anyone describing the taste of mezcal will talk about its smoky flavour. Mezcal has gained popularity for its unique and distinctive characteristics, attracting a growing number of enthusiasts and connoisseurs.

The rise of Mezcal

Over the years, mezcal has experienced a surge in popularity, especially among millennials and Gen-Xers. While tequila has long been a staple in bars and cocktails, mezcal offers a different drinking experience with its smoky finish and complex flavours.
The United States has become a significant market for mezcal, surpassing Mexico in terms of exports. According to Shanken News, 71% of mezcal exports go to the United States. This growing demand can be attributed to the increasing interest in craft spirits and the exploration of unique and artisanal beverages.
Mezcal’s rise is also fuelled by its versatility in mixology. It serves as a fantastic base for cocktails, adding depth and complexity to classic recipes. Bartenders and mixologists have embraced mezcal as a creative ingredient, experimenting with different flavours and combinations to create innovative and enticing drinks.

Exploring the heritage of mezcal

Mezcal has a rich cultural heritage that is deeply rooted in Mexican traditions. The production of mezcal dates back centuries, with indigenous communities in Mexico using the agave plant for its intoxicating properties long before the arrival of the Spanish.
The agave plant held sacred significance and its divine personification, Mayahuel, symbolised fertility and sustenance. The production of pulque, a fermented agave-based beverage, predates mezcal and was an integral part of pre-Hispanic rituals and celebrations.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, distillation techniques were introduced to Mexico, leading to the development of mezcal as a distilled spirit. The process of distillation transformed the agave plant into a potent and flavourful beverage, opening up new possibilities for enjoyment.

The art of making Mezcal

Making Mezcal is a labour-intensive and meticulous process that requires expertise and patience. The journey begins with the cultivation of the agave plants, which can take anywhere from eight to thirty years to reach full maturity. Timing is crucial, as farmers must harvest the agave at the optimum moment to ensure the best flavour and sugar content.
Once harvested, the piñas, the heart of the agave plant, are recovered by removing the leaves that surround them. Several piñas are needed to make a single batch of mezcal. The piñas are then roasted over a fire to release their sugars and develop the characteristic smoky flavours.
After roasting, the piñas are crushed and the extracted juices are collected in large tanks. The next step is the distillation process, which takes place in traditional copper, clay or wooden pots. This method imparts unique characteristics to the mezcal, contributing to its distinctive flavour profile.
Several Mexican states, including Oaxaca, Guerrero and Durango, are legally authorised to produce Mezcal. Each region has its own unique terroir and agave varieties, resulting in mezcals with different flavour profiles and nuances.

Appreciating the versatility of mezcal

Mezcal offers a wide range of flavour profiles, from earthy and smoky to fruity and floral. The most common type of mezcal, espadín, accounts for the majority of production and has a versatile flavour that appeals to a wide range of palates.
One of the unique aspects of mezcal is its ability to showcase the terroir and the variety of agave used in its production. Each batch of mezcal carries the unique characteristics of the agave plant and the specific region in which it was grown.
Mezcal can be enjoyed neat, sipped slowly to appreciate its intricate flavours and aromas. It is also a fantastic base for cocktails, adding depth and complexity to mixed drinks. Mezcal’s smoky notes can complement and enhance a wide range of ingredients, making it a favourite choice for adventurous mixologists.

Bottom line

With its smoky finish and complex flavours, mezcal has emerged as a compelling alternative to its better-known cousin, tequila. Its rise in popularity can be attributed to its unique characteristics, versatile nature and rich cultural heritage.
As mezcal continues to captivate the palates of enthusiasts worldwide, it is paving the way for exploration and innovation in the world of spirits. Whether enjoyed neat or in creative cocktails, mezcal offers a sensory experience that delights, surprises and invites us to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry behind this ancient Mexican beverage.


Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave, a plant native to Mexico. It has a distinct smoky flavour and is often compared to its more famous cousin, tequila.

How is Mezcal different from Tequila?

While both mezcal and tequila are Mexican spirits made from the agave plant, there are some key differences. Tequila is a type of mezcal made specifically from the blue Weber agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from different types of agave. In addition, the production methods and flavour profiles of mezcal and tequila differ, with mezcal often having a smokier flavour.

What are the different types of Mezcal?

There are several types of mezcal, each with its own unique characteristics. The most common type is espadín, which accounts for the majority of mezcal production. Other types include tobala, tobalá and pechuga, which are made from different varieties of agave and can have different flavours and aromas.

How is Mezcal made?

The production of Mezcal involves several steps. It begins with the harvesting of mature agave plants, which can take several years to reach full maturity. The heart of the agave, known as the piña, is then extracted and roasted over a fire to impart smoky flavours. The roasted piñas are crushed and the extracted juices are fermented and distilled. The whole process requires expertise and precision.

Can mezcal be enjoyed on its own or in cocktails?

Absolutely! Mezcal can be enjoyed neat, sipped slowly to appreciate its complex flavours and aromas. It is also a versatile spirit that can be used as a cocktail base, adding depth and smokiness to mixed drinks. Bartenders and mixologists often experiment with mezcal to create unique and enticing cocktails.

What makes mezcal so popular with connoisseurs?

Mezcal’s rise in popularity can be attributed to its unique characteristics and rich cultural heritage. Its smoky finish and complex flavours intrigue and captivate the palates of spirits enthusiasts. In addition, mezcal’s versatility in mixology allows for creativity and innovation, making it a popular choice among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts.

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