A Beginner's Guide to Mezcal
Don't confuse this smoky spirit with tequila.
What do you know about mezcal? "It's from Mexico, it's somehow related to tequila, and it tastes kind of smoky," are the points you'd likely start off with. Even though mezcal is the oldest spirit in the Americas, it's relatively new to the U.S. cocktail scene. Mezcal has gained throngs of new fans as more varieties become available in bars and spirits shops throughout the world, but most drinkers still don't know a whole lot about it.
Why Are We Just Learning About Mezcal?
The word "mezcal" comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and it translates to "oven-cooked agave." In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the heart of mezcal country, the hillsides are carpeted with squat, spiky agave (otherwise known as maguey) plants. In Mexico, people have been distilling and celebrating with mezcal since pre-Hispanic times. However, during Spanish rule, mezcal production was outlawed in order to force citizens to buy Spanish-made wine and brandy instead. Of course, the people never stopped making mezcal, but its production was forced underground, and the tradition of small, family-run distilleries continues to this day.
What Are the Differences Between Mezcal and Tequila?
Mezcal is the category of spirits distilled from the agave plant. Tequila is actually a kind of mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. Think of it this way: Just like all chardonnays are wines but not all wines are chardonnays. There are nearly 200 varieties of agave, but tequila can only made from one hundred percent blue Weber agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from any kind of agave (single-varietal or a blend), though there are about 20 types that are most commonly used.
Agave plants can take seven to 35 years—depending on the variety—to mature before they can be harvested and distilled into mezcal, and some types of agave can't be cultivated; they only grow in the wild. Because of these constraints, it's not surprising that the most widely used agave varietal, Espadín, is one that can be cultivated, and reaches maturity (relatively) quickly, in only seven to 11 years.
More Piña, Less Colada
Once the agave is ripe, the bitter, spiky leaves are stripped off, leaving the sugar-rich heart, which is known as the "piña" because it actually does resemble a pineapple. The piñas are piled in stone-lined pits ("hornos") heated by hardwood fires and roasted for several days. It's this roasting process that gives mezcal its distinctive savory, smoky flavor. The roasted agave is then crushed with an enormous stone wheel, usually pulled by a horse, and then the liquid fermented in open-air tanks.
Terroir Is Not Just for Wine
Every bottle of mezcal has a distinctive sense of terroir that it gets from the individual varietals of agave and the soil in which they are grown; the type of wood that's used for roasting; and the natural yeasts in the air that spark the wild fermentation process. Because there are so many variables in the mezcal-making process, you can't know what all mezcal tastes like simply by sipping from one bottle. The only thing to do is keep on tasting!
Mezcals to Try
One of the very first mezcal brands to become widely distributed in the U.S., Del Maguey works with small producers throughout Oaxaca to bottle and export their unique products. Try Del Maguey's Vida Mezcal ($38.99, wine.com) for mixing cocktails, or sip your way through their Single Village series (from $85.99, wine.com) to sample the wide variety of mezcal terroir.
Dedicated to traditional distilling methods and sustainable practices, Ilegal Mezcal's 100 percent Espadín mezcals are available in three varieties: the unaged Joven ($47.99, wine.com), Reposado ($64.99, wine.com), which is aged four months in bourbon barrels, and Añejo ($99.99, wine.com), which is aged 13 months in new American oak barrels.