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Mezcal Introduction

Mezcal Defined

The Mezcal Worm

Mezcal History

Mezcal Production

Mezcal Denomination


Mezcal's Future

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Tequila sips:

As the 'drink with the worm' mezcal has suffered from a bad reputation, and has not been helped by the availability of cheap, poor-quality commercial mezcal that became the defacto mezcal experience for many visitors to Mexico. Ron Cooper and others have struggled to raise mezcal's profile and present it as a premium spirit. Cooper has gone a long way to go beyond the worm image and does not put one in any of his products. Doug French, on the other hand, has played a gambit way beyond it, by putting a scorpion in his products.


Updated June 27, 2007

Mezcal Controls & Regulations

Agave and mezcal fermentationMezcal had its first modernized set of government regulations (NORMA) in 1994. A new NORMA was drawn up for mezcal in 1997 and revised in 2005. Under the new laws, all mezcal production must be certified in order to sell or export it.


All certified mezcal has a NOM on each label, similar to tequila, to identify where the mezcal was produced. All certified mezcal will also have a green and white circular COMERCOM seal on the label. Mezcal that was aged in barrels prior to certification in 2005 is not allowed for sale or export.


All mezcal must be bottled at point of origin and cannot be shipped out of the country in bulk as is allowed with mixto tequila.


Under these new rules, there are two classifications (types or tips) of mezcal:


  • Type 1 is 100% agave, usually artisanally produced in small quantities;
  • Type 2, which must be made from at least 80% agave sugars (compared to only 51% for mixto tequila).
  • Both categories must be bottled in Mexico: there are no bulk mixto sales as with tequila.

There are also aging categories that are similar to those used in tequila. These include:


  • Abacado (also called blanco or joven): Bottled immediately after distillation. Earthy and smoky flavour, clear (white) or silver (plata). May legally have the "addition of one or more flavoring or coloring agents, as permitted by the Secretariat of Health and Assistance and Assistance."
  • Reposado or madurado: Aged two-eleven months in a wooden barrel or vat, similar to reposado in tequila.
  • Añejo: Aged in oak barrels for at least 12 months in wooden barrels no larger than 200 litres. May be aged for longer. A seven-year-old, barrel-aged mezcal was made by Scorpion. before that, Ultramarine offered a six-year-old mezcal. No doubt the new extra añejo category introduced to tequila in 2006 will generate a similar category for mezcals soon.

Grinding roasted agave for mezcalA recent limited offering from Del Maguey included two añejo mezcals: Chichicapa and San Luis del Rio. Both were aged in the bottle. Contrary to conventional wisdom that mezcal (or tequila) doesn't age in the bottle, Ron Cooper of Del maguey disagreed, and these two brands rated very highly by tasters.


An interesting sidebar: mezcal producers are forbidden from making tequila, and vice versa.


There are also several subcategories of types which may be local descriptions , including:

  • Con gusano: With worm. Bottled 4-6 weeks after distillation. Straw yellow color. The 2005 NORMA was originally written to attempted to ban the worm, but was defeated after an outcry from the mezcal producers. See

    the worm page. Note that Scorpion brand Mezcal contains a real, edible exoskeleton scorpion in each bottle. The scorpion is harmless and adds no flavor to the spirit.

  • Tobala, wild agave used in mezcal, ready for harvestingTobala: Has an earthy and sweeter flavour than other mezcals (44-48% alcohol). Clear (white) colour. Obtained from a rare and small wild agave that grows in the shade of the high canyons, it is very expensive (see references to Del Maguey, below). Usually not aged. The agave salmiana is also a wild agave used for some mezcals like La Penca, as well as commonly used for pulque. The Oaxacan government stopped all harvesting of the wild maguey in 1999-2000, but there was another harvest in 2001 and subsequent years. Apparently Scorpion Mezcal is cultivating several thousand tobala agaves at present.
  • Minero: A historical rather than a varietal classification, this mezcal is clear with a strong flavour. It is named after the silver and gold miners who worked the region during the Colonial period. They were the best paid workers in the region, so they could afford the best product. "Minero" was considered the best. It has no clear-cut distinction as far as variety of agave used, but is usually triple-distilled.
  • You may also find Mezcal Con Chile, bottled a month after distillation with chile pepper(s), and Cremas de Mezcal (which are infused with fruits and nuts (orange, blackberry, peach, walnuts, coffee, banana) to make a mild (18 - 22% alcohol) liqueur. These products are now governed by the new NORMA for mezcal, although there were some initial problems in getting certification.
  • Another rare kind is called pechuga mezcal, made with mezcal poured into in a vat with wild apples and plums, then distilled a third time. A washed chicken breast is hung over the vats for the third distillation to clear the spirit of dominance by the fruits. Sometimes a turkey breast is used, sometimes the breast is hung in the still. With limited production of this traditional mezcal, prices are high, some selling for $200-$300 USD a bottle in 2001.
  • Another unofficial type, produced solely by Del Maguey since 1995, is Limon. This limited-edition mezcal is identified by a whole lime inside the emerald-green bottle. Ron Cooper ties the bottles over promising blossoms on lime trees in the village of Teotitlan del Valle, in Oaxaca state. After the lime matures, the bottle is 'harvested' with the complete lime inside, then cleaned and filled with Del Maguey's Chichicapa mezcal. The sealed bottle is finished in a hand-woven green basket. A limited number of bottles are produced every year. In 2001, 36 bottles were placed but only 21 of the blossoms matured (58% success). The result is a superb mezcal tempered by the oils of the lime infused into it. However, it cannot be stored for long because the lime oils make the mezcal too bitter.

While tequila can only be made from one variety of maguey (agave tequiliana weber blue variety), mezcal can be made from several species and varieties (24 species of agave grow in Oaxaca). The most common of these, and those listed in the NORMA are:


  • Maguey Espadin (Agave Angustifolia Haw, blue variety ), harvested at nine years and the most commonly used agave through tradition in Oaxaca and other states;
  • Maguey de cerro, maguey bruto or maguey cenizo (Agave Esperrima jacobi, Amarilidaceas), harvested at nine years;
  • Maguey de mezcal (Agave Weberi cela, Amarilidaceas ), harvested at eight years;
  • Maguey de tobala (Agave Potatorum zucc, Amarilidaceas ), a rare, wild variety that grows in the mountains, harvested at eight-ten years;
  • Maguey verde or maguey mezcalero (Agave Salmiana Otto Ex Salm SSP Crassispina (Trel) Gentry ), harvested at eight years.

MezcaleroBarbara Sweetman says 28 varieties of agave are be used for mezcal, while Doug French says 16. Other sources say as many as 30 species are used. The NORMA allows for other species: "Other agaves, provided that they are not used as the primary material in other governmental Denominations of Origin."


The following six municipios (counties) in Oaxaca state can use the AOC to produce a drink labelled as mezcal:

  • Sola de Vega
  • Miahuatlan
  • Yautepec
  • Ocotlan
  • Tlacolula
  • Ejutla

The new laws have allowed mezcal producers to branch out into flavoured products, similar to tequila. These are called 'crema' regardless of whether they contain dairy products. Some new flavoured mezcals include orange, peach, mint, almond, coffee, strawberry, lime, guava, coconut, mocha, pineapple and blackberry flavours.


Comercam - Mezcal Regulatory Agency

The non-profit Mezcal Regulatory Council (COMERCAM) was established in December, 1997 to oversee compliance with the official NORM (NOM-070-SCFI-1994) that governs mezcal. COMERCAM works with The Registry of Estates with Plantations of Agave, and certifies all mezcals for national and export consumption. 


Mezcal faces the same problems with its monoculture as tequila: with emphasis on the espadin agave as the source for 95% of all mezcal, a weakened gene pool from decades of cloning is exacerbated by the growing demand for product and the developing monoculture. In the 1960s, piñas averaged 200 kgs - today they average only 50 kg. Some companies, like Scorpion, are cultivating other agave for production, including the rare, wild tobala and the massive aruqueño.


The Mexican government generally does not exercise any control over small-scale home brew production of mezcal not intended for commercial sales or export. Making moonshine is a centuries-old tradition the government seems content to leave alone.




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Del Maguey Mezcal