When you count up the number of agave varieties, production methods and mercurial distillers in the Mexican hinterlands applying methods that date back some 400 years, industrial producers have no choice but to fall in line. Mezcal is the original craft spirit.
The craftwork is wrapped in the DNA and key to its broadening appeal: Keeping mezcal pure, small batch and handcrafted are cause célèbre.
The agave genus, also called maguey, contains some 200 species. Each individual species contains a subsections of agave varieties that are genetically similar, but not entirely identical.
The spirit of agave has a history that stretches back to ancient Mexico, before the Spanish conquest, at a time when the Mayan, Aztecs and Toltecs worshiped the Gods and Goddesses of agave.
(Nahuatl pronunciation: [maˈjawel]) is the female deity associated with the maguey plant in Aztec cultures.
The word “mezcal” is derived from the Nahuátl, the language of the ancient Aztecs/Mexica. The two original words combined,”metl” and “ixcalli”, meaning “cooked agave.”
History is told by the conquerer and mezcal’s origin story begins with the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 16th century.
Spanish Conquistadors were introduced to the fermented agave drink called pulque and began to experiment with agave distillation. Before long, the Spanish were distilling fermented agave mash in copper pot stills to create what we now call mezcal.
There are more than 30 varieties of agave used to make mezcal, whereas tequila has just one.
Before exploring the different agave varieties, one should know that the method of production plays a huge role – experts say, an even bigger role than the variety of agave used in the mash.
Two distillers can use the exact same agave variety and arrive at completely different tastes, starting with the way the raw agave is processed. Other factors that impact the taste include the ambient yeasts that carry out fermentation, as well as the soil and climate (terroir).
Regular tequila drinkers may note a similar taste profile in mezcals made from Espadín. This is no coincidence. Espadin and Agave Tequilana, also known as Blue Weber agave, are two varieties of the Agave Angustifolia species.
Mezcal is Tequila’s Smokey Cousin
Because the agave are roasted in fire pits underground, the spirit tends to have a more savory, smokier profile than most tequilas roasted above ground. But also bear in mind that tequilas spend time aging in barrels, resulting in different flavor notes more typical of brown spirits.
AGAVE IS A MEMBER OF THE ASPARAGUS FAMILY?
Depending on the species and whether it is cultivated or wild, it takes between seven and fifteen years for a plant to mature. Agave fields are a common sight in the semi-desert areas of Oaxaca state and other parts of Mexico.
The CRM currently allows mezcal production in nine different states: Oaxaca, Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato.
Upwards of 90 percent of the bottles exported to the U.S. come from Oaxaca, with Durango placing a very distant second place. After that, the remaining seven states contribute around 1 percent of mezcal exports combined.
If you’re making mezcal in areas that aren’t covered by a current appellation what are you going to do? You can’t call it mezcal, even if your agave spirit is highly admired.
The question of who regulates mezcal should be easy. Unfortunately it’s a complex mix of local patronage, bureaucracy, economic policy, and global branding initiatives.
The simplest way to understand mezcal is this: The Mezcal trademark is owned by the Mexican government and managed by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM).
To protect the culture of small growers, “mezcal” is divided into three distinct categories according to the process and methods. The first is the industry category called mezcal which includes everything from industrial mezcals to small batch mezcals made in rural communities.
The one just labeled “mezcal” is the most industrial of the three, allowing high-tech equipment including autoclaves and diffusers (for roasting), stainless steel fermentation vessels, and continuous column stills.
The smaller craft producers are given a second classification labeled either “mezcal artesenal” or “mezcal ancestral” that follow more traditional methods:
“Mezcal Ancestral” production is limited to traditional and much more rudimentary processes. Roasting takes place only in pit ovens, while fermentation can be carried out in a range of vessels including wooden tanks, hollowed-out stone or tree trunks, and animal skins. Mezcal Ancestral distillation exclusively uses clay pots fueled by fire.
Mezcal Artesanal is the most popular style in United States. The vast majority of certified mezcal falls into this category, where the use of autoclaves, diffusers, and column stills are prohibited.
Unlike tequila, barrel-aging is not an important aspect of mezcal production.
Mezcal production has traditionally taken place in rural communities and the cost of barrels can be prohibitively expensive. But even now, when production is more commercially focused then ever before, most mezcal enthusiasts argue that barrel aging only detracts from the spirit’s ability to showcase terroir.
Mezcal labelings is slightly different, going by joven, reposado, or anejo. Joven is the same as tequila’s blanco (up to two months of age), reposado is the same, and anejo (for mezcal) requires minimum one year of age.
The premium mezcal producers and mezcal aficionados will continue to work hard to educate the influencers on the front lines. But until our next favorite mezcal makes its rounds, we will be sipping on this one!