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In the 1700s, mezcal wines became an important product for export because the town of Tequila lay on the route to the newly opened Pacific port of San Blas. Mezcal wines from the region developed a reputation for quality even in urban Mexico City. But in 1785, the production of all spirits, including mezcal wines and pulque, were banned by the government of Charles III to favour and promote the importation of Spanish wines and liqueurs.
Updated June 27, 2007
Mezcal Defined: The Differences
"Fine mezcal, made naturally from 100% agave, is probably the purest, most traditional spirit available on planet earth. Mezcal smells like history. It tastes like wonder and superstition. It finishes with ancestral connections to the past and mystical visions of the future. Love it or hate it, no one remains ambivalent after tasting mezcal."
Lance Cutler, Tequila Lovers Guide to Mexico (and Mezcal), published 2000.
Mezcal is the original spirit of Mexico. Originally all agave sprits were called mezcal, mezcal brandies or mezcal wines. Regardless of name the production process was similar for all brands of these agave spirits. In the mid to late 19th century, producers in Jalisco switched from cooking agave heads in wood-heated pits to steaming them in above-ground ovens. Mezcal producers continued to use in-ground pits to cook the heads. This began the two traditions and split tequila from mezcal, which maintained the time-honoured method of baking the agave heads in pits right until today.
Tequila is still technically a mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila. Like cognac is a brandy from a specific region of France, tequila is a mezcal from a specific region of Mexico.
Mezcal is, however, the drink with the worm. There is never a worm in tequila.
While tequila is made from a single specie of agave, mezcal can be made from up to 28 varieties, including the blue agave as long as it is grown in the region. Ninety percent of mezcal currently produced is made from the espadin agave (Agave Angustifolia). Agave varieties can be blended to create a diverse flavor pallet such as done when blending grapes to produce different flavours of wine.
Mezcal has its own Denomination of Origin to protect it as a uniquely Mexican product. There are several states where mezcal can be made legally and labelled mezcal, but the majority of mezcal production is done in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico's poorest state, where it remains a small-scale, family-run, traditional operation.
Mezcal for export markets, or for private use by the mezcaleros, is distilled twice or even three times. The spirit is then sometimes left to age for three months to over a year. Mid-quality mezcal is called bronco, while low-quality mezcal mainly used for bulk sales is a granel (a term also used for bulk tequila, and not noted on any label) and some a granel mezcals may only be distilled once.
Premium mezcals are slowly starting to appear in the market now, on the shelves beside tequila. There are even 'super-premium' mezcals available. They are expensive because the process is slow and labour-intensive. Many are unblended, such as Del Maguey's single village series. The result is often a sweet aroma and a smoky flavour that clings pleasantly to the palate, followed by a long (often sharp or peppery) aftertaste.
There are some local variations on mezcal you may find in your travels to Mexico:
However, these are not officially recognized as "mezcal' under the AOC because they are made outside the denomination of origin region. Most are homemade, and qualities vary considerably.
Even in areas where mezcal may be officially made, there is a lot of homebrew. I found some mediocre local mezcal in Guerrero served at one restaurant in Zihuatanejo, while another bar offered a surprisingly good homebrew, both apparently from the same producer.
The differences between tequila and mezcal can be likened to the differences between scotch and rye whiskeys. Or between cognac and brandy. And while mixto tequila may be exported in bulk and bottled outside Mexico, mezcal is always bottled in Mexico.
Tequila and mezcal are similar in the amount of alcohol in the bottle: around 38-40% for most tequilas, while the NORMA for mezcal is 36-55%. However, most export brands of mezcal are around 40-42%.
Mezcal producers are more likely to use traditional methods - artisan style - than tequila manufacturers, and premium mezcals are also 100% agave. There are around 400-500 small producers in Oaxaca, many of them making only 300-400 litres a month.
The ritual toast for mezcal reflects the ancient beliefs that still cling to its use:
"Arriba (above), abajo (below), al centro (the centre), para dentro (within)."
Mezcal is important to local economies because the agave requires little care after planting: no irrigation is necessary. Agaves can also grow in areas where other plants or cattle do not survive. Typically agave plantations in Oaxaca are planted 1,000-2,000 per hectare, 2m apart in rows 3.5m apart. This is considerably less dense that the agave plantations in Jalisco. An estimated 35,000 families in Oaxaca depend on mezcal production for all or part of their income.
Mezcal has a distinct, smoky flavour that is quite different from tequila. A good mezcal has a rich, almost sweet body. A poor mezcal tastes like gasoline. Mezcal is also good when cooked in many dishes because of its strong, smoky flavour, and is especially good in marinades for barbeques.
Malcolm Lowry, the Canadian writer, made mezcal famous in his 1947 novel, Under the Volcano.
Mescal or mezcal?
Either spelling is correct. The traditional spelling is mescal, with an 's' but some producers prefer mezcal with a 'z' to help disassociate the spirit from mescaline. Also, it helps differentiate between the Native Indians, the 'Mescalero' and the mezcalero who males the spirit. Like tequila, mezcal has its own burden of urban mythology. I have chosen to honour the "z" spelling on this site.
The plural for is mescales or mezcales, and since the word refers to a family of spirits rather than a single band or regional variety, it should more properly be written in the plural form.