What is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a distilled alcohol derived from the heart of the agave plant, otherwise known as the piña. The piña, which takes anywhere from 7-30 years to fully develop, is harvested from the agave plant and then cooked in a fire pit for several days to several weeks. The pulpy, cooked hearts are then smashed and the remains, along with the juices from the piña, are added to water and yeast and then fermented anywhere between one month and 12 years. The cooking of the piña is what gives Mezcal it’s signature robust, smoky flavor.

Much like wine, Mezcal’s taste can vary greatly depending on where the agave was grown, what the weather was like as it grew, and how the Mezcal is distilled. Although often compared to tequila, Mezcal stands a world apart. Mezcal is meant to be sipped and savored, not shot and forgotten.

Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también

An Oaxacan Proverb

The History of Mezcal

Mezcal is said to have been first distilled around 500 years ago when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico. The Spaniards brought fermenting techniques with them and introduced the first distilled beverages to the Aztecs, according to historical accounts. Many of the same techniques used then are still used today by many Mezcaleros. These techniques aren’t used by them all, but they are used by the best.

The word “mezcal” comes from the Aztec word mexcalli. This is a combination of “metl” (maguey, or agave) and ixcalli (cooked). The literal translation of mezcal is “cooked agave.”

So is Mezcal just fancy Tequila?

While tequila could be considered mezcal, mezcal can never be considered tequila. It’s true that both are made from the piña of the agave plant, but tequila is made from blue agave specifically. Mezcal on the other hand, can be made from a variety of more than 11 different types of agave plants found across Mexico. This allows for a vast diversity in complex flavors, colorings, body, etc.

The process in which tequila and mezcal are made, are also different. Mezcal piña is cooked in fire pits for long periods of time before moving into the fermenting stage. Tequila however is cooked in more conventional ovens and for far less time prior to fermentation. While both are excellent examples of fine distilling techniques, they could not be more different.