Everything You Need to Know About Mezcal

Defining Mezcal

Mezcal is a spirit derived from cooking and distilling the agave plant. Referred to by those in the know as “the mother of all Tequilas”, Mezcal can be made from over 20 different varietals of Agave, although 90% are made from Espadin agave. Cooking the piña, or core of the plant by fire-roasting in earthen pits is what gives Mezcal its smoky, earthy and floral flavor and differentiates it from Tequila, which is only made from steaming Blue Agave.

Origin of Mezcal

The magical qualities of Mezcal can be traced all the way back to Aztec legend, where it was proffered as medicine and a pathway to communing with gods and spirits. Although many claim that cooking and distilling the agave plant was a process brought over from the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, historians have found evidence that Mexican distillers were honing their process before the Spanish invaded. Mexico, after all, is home to the vast majority of the world’s agave.

Man chopping up the pina, or "core" of the agave
The piña, or "core" of the agave, is cooked to unlock its flavor

Agave

So what is Agave? There are 274 recognized species of agave in the world. All of them originally from the Americas and later transplanted to other continents as gifts or tributes. 75% of those species reside in Mexico and 104 are endemic, making Oaxaca the agave-richest state in the country. The large core, or piña, and long, verdant leaves make it unmistakable, and it contains within it a high concentration of sugar that makes it perfect for distillation into a succulent, refreshing spirit.

Oaxaca: The Land of Mezcal

Today, Oaxaca stands out as the number one producer of Mezcal worldwide. It’s an industry of quick growth and quantum technological leaps whose economic impact is beginning to catch up to the historical and cultural influence this spirit has for Mexicans.

Today, Oaxaca stands out as the number one producer of Mezcal worldwide.

Cooked agave ready to be used to distill mezcal
The piña, or "core" of the agave, is cooked to unlock its flavor

The Spirits of Tradition

Mezcal has gone by different names among different groups, but its status as a celebration staple is shared by more than 16 ethnic groups in the Oaxaca region. The key player in Mezcal production were the Zapotecs, followed distantly by the Mixtecos, given that they have been living amongst the agave for at least 2,500 years. Zapotec organizers of celebrations like births, marriages, christenings, first communions and funerals offer Mezcal during the ceremonies.

Current Trends

Today, industrial Mezcal facilities steam agave in autoclaves, a process which allows them to process and extract thirty to forty tons of distillation in a short amount of time. Artificial yeasts are used during the pouring and distilling process to increase speed, and while this process allows for the mass production and customization of Mezcal, the spirits made on a traditional Palenque are still preferred by most Mezcal enthusiasts.