Updated December 4, 2023
The world of mezcal has come a long way since we launched Mezcalistas in 2012. For one thing, a lot more people are drinking mezcal today. More people are giving it a try and we wanted to break down the basics about mezcal into for people to better understand what they are drinking. Plus, we’re getting awfully tired of reading these ill informed “tequila’s smoky” cousin articles, so we figured that we’d write the Mezcal 101 guide to end all Mezcal 101 guides.
Below we break out terms, briefly look into the history, explain how mezcal and tequila are different and then talk about how it is made. We also encourage folks to check out our Mezcal Encyclopedia and sign up for our newsletter to stay up on all the mezcal happenings.
What is Mezcal?
Colloquially mezcal means anything distilled from the agave plant. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli which means cooked agave and is derived from the Nahuatl words metl (agave) and ixcalli (cooked). This has been going on in Mexico since at least the Spanish conquest, potentially earlier. In a very general sense, mezcal is like the term “wine,” because anything fermented from grapes is considered wine. In most states in Mexico someone is making a spirit from the agave plant and most of them call it mezcal. Legally mezcal has a different definition. The Denominacion de Origen (DO) defines what regions are included based on the cultural heritage and history of production within those areas. As currently defined, Mezcal can only be made in 10 states in Mexico and has to be certified by semi-governmental organizations that have been tasked with regulating the category and when it can be used on labels and certified as legal mezcal. The geography of mezcal changes regularly so this is a highly elastic and recent definition. Everyone fully expects it to welcome in many new states in the coming years. The current list of states includes Oaxaca, Michoacan, Puebla, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Durango and Sinaloa. The state of Oaxaca produces around 80% of the mezcal available in the market.
What is Tequila?
Tequila is a type of mezcal with an extremely well defined sense of itself. It developed in the 19th Century in Western Mexico, in and around Jalisco, achieved some prominence and name recognition by the 20th Century but really developed into an economic powerhouse in the 70’s and 80’s when the legal definition of tequila became even more restrictive in some senses– it can only be made from a single type of agave (blue agave or Tequilina Weber), in five Mexican states, and according to a certain methodology. Sadly the definition of tequila has also been watered down in recent history so that bottles of so called “gold” tequila really may contain very little agave, lots of spirit from sugar cane, and some yummy corn syrup to give it that characteristic yellow taint. Today tequila is a massive industry in Mexico and margaritas are the world’s best selling cocktail – obviously it has been a very successful product.
For a deeper look at the differences of tequila vs mezcal, check out this breakdown.
How is Mezcal Made?
After an agave has reached maturity, its pencas, or leaves, are removed from the piña or heart of the agave. These trimmed agaves are often left in the field for a few days before being removed.
The most common way to roast agave for mezcal is in an earthen pit oven. These pits are usually lined with rock and then fired by wood which is covered by more rocks, which heats to enable a slow roast. The piñas are then piled into the ovens, then covered with leaves, dirt and a cloth covering to seal in the heat. Sometimes the piñas are cooked in above ground brick ovens heated by wood, gas or steam – this method is more prevalent in places like Durango, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato and Zacatecas. Additionally, the piñas can be cooked in stainless steel ovens with steam. This is the most industrial type of roast and the predominant method used in the production of tequila. The oven is called an autoclave.
After the agave has been roasted, it is ready to be crushed in one of three ways, by hand using wood mallets; by a tahona, or stone wheel pulled by a horse, donkey or even a tractor; or by a wood chipper. The cooked agave is crushed in order to release juice and sugars.
The crushed fibers, or mosto, are then put into fermentation tanks made of wood, stone, steel or sometimes even animal hide. Water is added, though not all the time, and then the mosto is left in an open air environment so that wild yeasts in the air can kick start the fermentation process. This process takes anywhere from three days to a week depending once again on the climate and is “where the magic happens” in determining the complex flavors for the final product. In areas outside of Oaxaca there can be variations on this fermentation process. In places like San Luis Potosi and Durango for example, they commonly use only the agave juice from the crush for fermentation. Because of the temperature variations in those states, they also do not rely on wild yeast to kick start the fermentation process, instead using pulque as the starter.
Once the mosto, or juice, is fermented, it is transported to the stills. These stills can be made of copper, clay or stainless steel and are fired in most cases by wood, though some brands have been transitioning to natural gas for environmental reasons. In a nutshell, distillation is the process of separating components or substances from a liquid mixture by using a mix of boiling and condensation. In the case of spirits you are essentially separating the ethanol from whatever else is in the fermented must or mosto. This process is not 100% efficient as the final product is a mix of ethanol, water and other congeners (chemicals other than ethanol and water). Traditional mezcal’s elevated complexity and breadth of aromas and flavors are due in large part to its high level of congeners relative to other spirits.
What makes mezcal different from every other spirit in the world?
It’s the agave. No other spirit has the same base fruit and there’s nothing like agave in the world. It’s a true dinosaur in horticultural terms, totally different from nearly everything else humans cultivate, and truly extraordinary because of this. It has deep historic and cultural roots in Mexico, which contains the greatest number of species and varieties of agave in the world. The agave is considered a sacred plant, largely due to its origin myth with the story of Mayahuel.
Consider this, if you want to make whiskey you get some grain, soak it, ferment, it, distill it. If you want to make more whiskey, you get more grain. You can grow multiple crops of grain annually. It grows in a wide variety of places and it has a very predictable growth cycle. The same story is true of whatever else you like to drink; corn = bourbon, grapes = cognac, grappa, and many other spirits, sugar cane = aguardiente, rum, etc, and fruits are the basis of eau de vie. All of the fruits mentioned above produce fruit annually and you can either, like grain, grow it every year, or like grapes, get a new crop every year.
Agaves take a minimum of four years to mature, usually more in the range of 8-10 years. And once you harvest them, you kill them. Yup, you heard me right. Once you spend all that time raising agave and you harvest it, you have to start all over again and spend another decade before a plant is ready for harvest. If you’re smart you have crops scheduled for maturity so that you know that you’ll be able to make mezcal consistently years down the road. Of course, you only know that you’ll be able to make as much as you plant now so if demand increases you may not be able to deal with it. Or, if no one wants mezcal in a decade, you may have a lot of bottles eating up space and lost revenue. If that wasn’t tough, agaves also have rather unique methods of reproduction which have made it difficult to grow them from seed with the regularity of other fruits. That’s changing with an increased amount of experience and research but most agaves still aren’t grown in a straightforward seeding method.
Is Mezcal regulated?
The government of Mexico owns the word mezcal and oversees the development of the rules and regulations that surround it which are called Norma Official Mexicana or Normas or NOMs. NOM-70 is the regulation that dictates how mezcal can be made and categorized. In the past, only one non-governmental organization called the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (COMERCAM) was tasked with overseeing the rules and certifying the mezcal but that has changed in the past few years. There are now five organizations that have been granted the power to regulate, certify and issue the necessary paperwork for labeling and export.
What’s the deal with the worm in the bottle?
While worms do live in agave roots and are an intrinsic part of some Mexican cuisines, the worm in the agave bottle can be dated back to a marketing campaign in the post-WWII era. Someone had the brilliant idea of putting a worm in a bottle to distinguish their mezcal on the liquor store shelf, and that little marketing twist came to define mezcal for North Americans. Worms aren’t necessarily terrible, some mezcals with worms have a wonderfully savory flavor, but they aren’t intrinsic to mezcal. Nor are they hallucinogenic. So get that idea out of your head as well.
If you’ve had gusanos, it has most likely been in a sal de gusano, accompanied by orange slices. Dried and then ground with chile, salt and lime, it packs an umami punch and makes for a great “secret” ingredient in cooking and cocktail making. The dried gusano itself is full of intense flavor which can be overwhelming for people trying it for the first time. But why is the gusano paired with mezcal? In fact, it lives in the agave, mostly on the penca leaves and is just one of the living creatures that finds shelter, and food, from the agave. Other agave residents or frequent visitors include rabbits, foxes, bats, birds (hummingbirds and bats), butterflies and more. It’s a little ecosystem unto itself, and the worms are part of a healthy, symbiotic relationship.
Is smoke part of mezcal?
Yes, to a degree smoke is an inherent part of mezcal because of the way mezcal is traditionally made. The basic process remains the same today as it was hundreds of years ago which is also part of its attraction. Once agave are harvested they are roasted underground with hot coals where they come into direct contact with smoke. And that’s why mezcal has a smoky, or roasted, flavor. However, mezcals don’t have to be really smoky. Actually they shouldn’t overpower you with smoke. Drinking mezcal isn’t a wrestling match. Mezcal distillers tend to look down on overly smoky mezcals because that could be a sign of a problem with how it was made. Some North American brands think that a smoky flavor is what sells their bottles, just don’t let it get in the way of tasting a good mezcal.
What are the different types of mezcal?
The main ways of distinguishing mezcals are by the type of agave in them and where they’re from. Oaxaca produces most mezcal and most of that is made from a single agave called espadín. So, most of what you’ll find will be Oaxacan espadín. But there are also a wide variety of other agaves from Oaxaca on North American shelves with names like tobala, arroqueno, madrecuishe, and many others. Other emerging mezcal producing states include Michoacan and Guerrero both of which generally use an agave called cupreata. Durango is another mezcal producing state with bottles appearing on North American shelves. Much of the mezcal in Durango is made from an agave called duranguese (of course!)
Just to add a bit of complexity to the topic, there are a few other names that describe mezcals from a particular area and they each have their own DO, Raicilla and Bacanora. Like Tequila, Raicilla is a mezcal made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which falls outside of the DO for Mezcal. Also, because the blue agave is not used to make Raicilla, it falls outside of the DO for tequila. Then there is Bacanora from the Mexican state of Sonora.
Sotol isn’t actually made from an agave plant but it’s made the same way as other mezcals and tastes similar, hence why it is often lumped together with mezcal. It also has its own DO and includes the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango.
Why is mezcal so hot right now?
Everyone has a theory but the easiest answers are: It’s new: While you’ve been able to find mezcal for a while it really has only been widely available in North America for the past decade. It’s strange and distinct: It doesn’t quite taste like any other spirit which means that you can sit around playing the adjective game for hours or, if you’re a bartender, you can base a cocktail on mezcal and deploy that depth and variety of flavor in your favor. People love the story behind it: Much mezcal is still hand made in tiny distilleries with dirt floors. The people who make it learned how from their fathers who learned it from their fathers and so on. The entire process remains deeply ingrained in traditional Mexican cultures and varies by location. It’s the most artisanal product in the world: It resonates with our obsession that everything be artisanaly produced in a very traditional manner. Mezcal doesn’t get much more artisanal than pretty much anything else out there.
Where can I find and taste good mezcal?
Find a local mezcal bar and order a flight. See if they’ll give you quarter ounce pours because mezcal is usually 45-50% alcohol and you only need that much to get a good sense of whether you like something. And, drinking different mezcals (or anything for that matter) side-by-side will give you an instant comparative sense of your preference. We have a whole list of mezcals available in the US. Once you find something you like, pursue mezcals by the same brand or distiller. We have a map of great places to drink mezcal in that is always expanding, faster than we can keep up, because it really is a hot item right now. And finally, when you’re ready to start buying bottles, be sure to check out our list of retailers across the US that carry a good selection of mezcals.
Also, try to check out Mexico in a Bottle, our flagship mezcal tasting event!