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Mezcal wine - tequila's grandparent - was first produced only a few decades after the Conquest that brought the Spaniards to the New World in 1521. It was variously called mezcal brandy, agave wine, mezcal tequila and finally simply tequila - appropriately named after Tequila, a small town in a valley in Jalisco state, Mexico.
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Updated June 27, 2007
Mezcal: the mysterious ancestral soul
If you think tequila's cousin, mezcal, is just 'the drink with the worm,' or your experience with mezcal has only been through a single bottle of the mass-produced variety, you are in for some pleasant surprises when you discover the authentic mezcal (also spelled mescal, but less often because of the potential but incorrect association with mescaline and the drug culture).
Although some of the 100 or so brands are commercially available outside Mexico, finding the premium brands is very difficult. Even in Mexico they are rare outside urban communities or Oaxaca state. But thanks to the efforts of some new entrepreneurs, that is slowly changing.
My thanks to Ron Cooper of Del Maguey Mezcal and Barbara Sweetman, VP, Caballeros Inc., Importers of Scorpion Mezcal and Mezcals de Oaxaca for reading, commenting and correcting numerous points on this site.
If anything, mezcal has suffered from bad first impressions more than tequila. Far too many young travellers have been enticed to buy mezcal by the kitsch of the worm in less-expensive brands. The expected psychedelic high turned to nausea when the bottle proved to contain a liquid that smelled and tasted suspiciously of gasoline and gave hangovers of gargantuan proportions. Memories of those experiences kept the adult visitors away from the better mezcal products, even when premium brands started to appear on the shelves. But slowly, consumers outside Mexico are becoming educated to the real mezcals, and learning to enjoy the unique taste and the body of quality mezcals.
Most commercial mezcal is produced around the city of Oaxaca in the mountainous southern part of Mexico. It can also officially be produced in the states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas.
In many states you can purchase homebrew mezcals made by local residents in the nearby hills. Sometimes this is a remarkably good product. Often it is highly variable between batches. It's always an adventure to sample it.
Mexican law passed in 1994 now protects the name mezcal with an AOC from being applied to products made from anything except the allowed and approved agave plants. Only six counties (municipos) can legally manufacture a drink named mezcal, all near to the city of Oaxaca. Refer to NOM -070-SCFI-1994.
There are more than 500 mezcal producers in Oaxaca state, mostly small and run by Zapotec Indians using traditional methods. Mezcal is also produced as a regional drink in many other states such as Guerrero and Zacatecas. These mezcals are not presently exported.
Many drinkers who see tequila's popularity as moving the drink away from the heart of Mexico to a new commercialism, are turning to mezcal as better retaining the soul - and taste - of the maguey and Mexican culture.
Mezcal is still primarily made in small batches in rural areas, with only three large-scale distillers (Monte Alban/Beneva, Gusano Rojo and Dos Gusanos) that compare with most tequila producers. Large companies may not actually make their own mezcal, but instead buy their products from mezcaleros, and only do the blending and bottling. Some small non-commercial producers may also adulterate their product with aguardiente.
Mezcal can be made from up to 28 recognized species and varieties of Agave, including the Blue Agave - as long as it is grown in the region. Ninety percent (90%) of Mezcal currently produced is made from the Espadin Agave variety (Agave Angustifolia). Agave varieties can be blended to create a diverse flavor pallet such as done when blending grapes to produce different flavors of wine.
Premium mezcals have appeared on the shelves beside premium tequila for the past decade, but it is taking much longer to sell North American drinkers who still see it as the 'worm' drink.
Mezcal may never match tequila in production, sales and marketing hype. It has a long way to go - there are 1,000+ brands of tequila available in 2007, compared to about 100 for mezcal, and the widespread, high competitive distribution of tequila is far above the limited sales of mezcal.
I've personally found sangrita, a popular Mexican chaser made of tomato and orange juices, is also good with some mezcal because its sharp, spicy taste cleans the palate between sips, making each subsequent sip of mezcal as fresh and interesting as the first.
Ron Cooper, on sangrita: "Personally, I think of sangrita as another gimmick. What does one drink with grappa, cognac and single malt scotch to cleanse the palate? I have found that the pleasure of prolonged sipping of the same mezcal over a period of hours with a friend continually rewards and surprises me with new flavour hits that were not perceived initially. I feel that sameness/consistency are not as pleasurable as the constant change and surprise/revelation."
And I reiterate: make sure you explore premium mezcal Do not be afraid to try local mezcals, especially those available in a Mexican bar. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to discover one of the smoothest, most palatable local mezcals in bars in Zihuatanejo. The mezcal is made in the hills of Guerrero, and brought into town by the palenquero in plastic bottles. The bar pours it into re-used tequila bottles so its customers won't be offended - but even if the delivery was a trifle rustic, the product itself was superb. I could easily understand the affection for mezcal described in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.
The classic Oaxacan drink is the Donají, made by mixing mezcal with orange juice and grenadine in a glass rimmed with chile powder and salt.