What Is Mezcal?
The story behind a great spirit
What should be regarded for its handcrafted traditions and respect for heritage, nature, and the elements is instead often seen as the rough liquor with a worm or scorpion in the bottle. But authentic mezcal is made with a true chef’s attention to flavor and detail, with awareness of the surroundings.
Think of mezcal like wine. The agave (also sometimes called "maguey") reflects a sense of place just as wine grapes have terroir. Variations in seasonal rainfall, heat waves, earthquakes, and even political unrest can affect a vintage in the same way they would wine, with good years and bad years. There are also different varietals of agave used for mezcal.
The producers employ local workers who are often younger generations of those with a family legacy of mezcal production. The palenqueros are proud of their work and their ancestors’ and relatives’ work, and this pride can become territorial. Only a small percentage of the mezcal produced is imported, and much of it is not available commercially. Clans have been known to fight over whose family recipe is better, who has claim over a certain growing field, and even knowledge that a family member is now working for a rival producer.
How does mezcal differ from tequila? Most mezcal production is concentrated in the southerly state of Oaxaca, with some in more northern Guerrero, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Durango. And as mentioned, mezcal can be made from a variety of agaves, while tequila is only made from blue Weber, with the majority made in Jalisco and its highlands.
Besides the varietal and location differences, the major difference is in how the agave is cooked prior to fermentation. The word mezcal derives from the ancient Nahuatl metl ixicialli, meaning "oven-cooked agave." The piña (heart) is often fire-roasted in an earthen pit before fermentation, tequila is steamed.
In Mexico, mezcal is not meant to be mixed into cocktails or drunk as a shooter. It is a ceremonial drink shared between friends and family. In some homes, there are shrines dedicated to Mayahuel, the goddess protecting the agave and fertility of the soil it grows in. It is customary to pour a few drops on the earth as an appreciative offering to her.
In the U.S., mezcal has a different story. While more of us have come to appreciate its heritage and nuances, we can’t help ourselves from enhancing its flavor with cocktails. Below are some brands to try and ways to enjoy them. Like tequila, mezcal is available in different age variations, but for the purposes of this article only jovens are mentioned.
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