What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. You’re probably most familiar with agave in the sweetener format made for teas and coffee. In this form, it has a honey-like substance and is known as a healthier, more natural substitute for sugar.
Even if you don’t recognize agave, you’ve probably heard of tequila. Tequila is, in fact, a type of mezcal. Although it is perhaps its most popular form, it has a separate production process from that of mezcal and so has a much different taste and texture.
Where is Mezcal From?
Mezcal originated in Mexico, as the agave plant is found in abundance there, as well as south of the equator. Where is mezcal from today? It is mainly made in Oaxaca, although you’ll find the agave plant in at least three continents now. When the agave plant is mature, it forms a heart at its center. From this, juice is extracted which is then converted into mezcal.
What is Mezcal Joven?
From Spanish, joven translates to “young” in English. So what is mezcal joven, or young mezcal? Simply put, it is unaged mezcal. Once the juice has been taken from the agave, the final distilled product is either left in barrels to age or bottled and sold right away. The aging process could be anywhere from a few months up to twelve years.
Where Does Tequila Come In?
It may seem like just one plant, but there are actually over 200 types of agave plants, and only 40 or 50 of those kinds are used to make mezcal. Tequila is one of those 40 or 50. Don’t be expecting the same flavor, though. There are a variety of differences between tequila and mezcal.
What is Tequila Made From?
If both mezcal and tequila are agave-based, what is tequila made from that sets it apart? Not only are both kinds of drink made in different regions, but also while mezcal can come from a blend of agave plants, tequila must only come from blue agave.
Mezcal vs. Tequila
Each have a vastly different process, so if you're looking at mezcal vs. tequila, know that one is not a substitute for the other. When you make tequila, you steam the agave using ovens above ground. It is then distilled in copper pots, usually two or three times. When you make mezcal, however, you use earthen pits filled with lava rocks, wood, and charcoal, which is responsible for the strong smoky flavor of the drink. In addition, mezcal is distilled in clay pots, not copper. Mezcal is left with a more robust taste that is traditionally drunk straight, while tequila may have less dimension and tastes superb in a cocktail.
Let's Break It Down
So where does the alcohol actually come from? After the juice is extracted from the plant and has fermented, it is distilled not once, but twice. Distillation is the process of heating up a liquid until it becomes a vapor and then cooling down the vapor until it becomes a liquid again. When you distill mezcal, it causes the alcohol to separate. Once it cools down it’s higher in alcohol concentration. This process can be repeated many times over, leaving a stronger alcoholic content each time.
Mezcal Alcohol Content
Mezcal and tequila are both distilled twice. After the first time the proof is around 75, which is 37.5% alcohol by volume, or ABV. The second distillation raises the mezcal alcohol content to 55%.
The distillation process, the fruits or herbs that can be added during the fermentation process, and the wide number of plant species all have strong effects on the taste and texture of the finished product. This means that mezcal is highly varied. For example, while some is made from 100% agave, there is another kind of mezcal that is only 80% agave and 20% other ingredients that have been mixed in.
The Legend of Mezcal
Mezcal doesn’t just have a great taste, it comes with a great story. Long ago, it is claimed that a lightening bolt struck an agave plant, which not only cooked it but split it open, causing its juice to gush out. The native people of Mexico called it the “elixir of the gods.” It could be just a myth, but the charred taste of mezcal may have a hint of a lightening bolt influence from years past.
What's the Backstory?
The Spanish had been practicing distillation since the eighth century and were no strangers to liquor. When their supplies ran out after coming to Mexico, they looked for a substitute. They discovered that in Mexico, the agave was considered a sacred plant, and its heart, perhaps due to the lightning bolt myth, was ritually cooked and fermented. Using the leaves and sap, the native people of Mexico made a drink called pulque, which was introduced to the Spanish. After experimentation to create a higher alcohol content using the distillation techniques brought with the Spanish, agave mezcal was born.
Build It Up
90% of mezcal is made from tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño and espadín, which are the most common agave varieties. If you’re new to the drink, I recommend you start out with the espadín as it is both popular and widespread. This means each kind will have its own flavor variation, so if you don’t like it at first, you may want to give it a shot elsewhere.
As you work your way through the plant variations, I recommend putting tobalá at the top as it is considered “the king of agave mezcal.” This is due to the scarcity of the tobalá plant and how difficult it is to harvest. This also means it will be the most expensive, so keep an eye on your wallet if you go out to try it!
How to Order a Mezcal
The traditional way to drink mezcal is straight: unmixed with other liquids. However, if you want to add a flavor variation, try adding some sliced lemons, limes, or even oranges. If it comes with something called “worm salt,” that means a mixture of ground chili peppers, salt, and ground fried larvae.
The Perfect Pair: What Food and Drink to Choose?
Given the varieties of mezcal, you’ll want to base your food selection off of the strength, flavor, and texture of the drink, or vice versa, rather than sticking with the same food each time. The most important note to remember is not to overpower either the food or the drink. If you have a heavy, smoky mezcal, choose a rich, strong flavor of food. If you’re eating something light, such as greens or fruit, try finding a more herbal tinged mezcal. As always, it is also a matter of personal preference, so don’t be afraid to try a few combinations before making a decision. Mezcal doesn’t have to have a strong, charred taste, so if that’s not your style, try some with floral or fruity notes.
What to Know about Purchasing Mezcal
While it is typically served straight in Mexico, is has become an increasingly popular choice for cocktails in the United States. Whether it’s straight or mixed, keep in mind that you cannot buy flavored mezcal. If you are looking for a different taste, you should simply try another variation.
In Spanish, mezcal is pronounced “mescal,” so if you see a drink advertised as such, it’s not a knockoff or mislabeled, just a different spelling.
Region is important. Just as champaign should come from France and scotch from Scotland, mezcal should come from its origins in Mexico. Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas are assured and authentic regions from which to buy mezcal. Today, you won’t have to travel far to find true mezcal, as thanks to its popularity, exportation of the drink is on the rise.
Thanks to creative mixologists, you'll often find mezcal at the heart of some of the most popular craft cocktails served in swanky lounges and hotel bars. You'll find that a lot of these drinks are made with lime juice, hibiscus, and other herbs. Most of these recipes are quite popular and can be found online, but I've put them all right here in one location in case you want to create one at home.
The most popular mezcal cocktail is probably the mezcal mule, which my friend Larry and I call “the burro.” Essentially this is a moscow mule with mezcal instead of vodka.
Mezcal Mule or “Burro” Recipe
If you love moscow mules, you'll love this! For this recipe, you'll need the following:
- 2 oz. mezcal
- ½ oz. lime juice
- ½ oz. ginger juice
- 1 oz. agave nectar
- 1½ oz. sparkling water
Dry shake all of the above ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Strain the mix into a copper mug and add ice. You can garnish this with lime or mint.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned Recipe
For one glass of this high class drink, you'll need the following:
- 1.5 oz. of reposado tequila
- 1/2 oz. of mezcal
- teaspoon of agave nectar
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- orange twist, lightly toasted, just as a garnish.
Directions: simply mix the ingredients above in a shaker with ice. Strain over one ice cube in a lowball Old Fashioned glass. Using the orange slice, lightly flame the peel and place over the top of the cocktail so it rests on the glass as a garnish.
If you enjoy making margaritas, you'll love the mezcal margarita recipe below. It's everything you love about the traditional style margarita, but amped up with smoky mezcal.
For this recipe, you'll need the following:
- 1.5 ounces mezcal
- 1 ounce Cointreau (or any orange liqueur)
- .75 ounce freshly-squeezed lime juice
- agave nectar or simple syrup if you desire extra sweetness
- salt and lime wedge as a garnish (if desired)
Directions: if you enjoy your margarita with a salty rim, run the juicy part of a lime over the top of your glass and then dip it in one of these recommended tequila salts. If you don't have one of these handy, just use your regular table salt but know that it's even better with the special stuff!
Once you are done with the cup, mix all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake until it's all mixed together. Give it a taste, and if you desire more sweetness, add in some agave nectar or simple syrup until you find the level of sweetness you are looking for.
Click the below links to read reviews of various mezcal's that have been purchased and sampled. (Coming soon.)
Summing It All Up
Whether it’s the legendary lightning bolt creating the elixir of the gods or the distillation techniques brought with the Spanish in the eighth century, there is tradition behind the taste. Mezcal delivers a smoky, unique flavor in over 30 varieties. Try the rich tobalá straight, or get creative with the widespread espadín and mix it up. However you choose to drink it, enjoy the experience of agave mezcal.