You might know mezcal as tequila’s smoky cousin, but it is in fact an ancestor of the world’s most popular agave drink—and “smoky” only scratches the surface of a spirit that is as diverse as the country of Mexico itself. Like wine, each bottle reflects the unique terroir of the region where it was distilled, not to mention generations of family methods and recipes.
“Mezcal is about Mexican culture,” says David Hernandez, a Mexico City native and the director of bars at Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal. In Oaxaca, the spirit is present for all occasions, celebratory or somber: Shots are poured at weddings, and mourners drink a specially made batch from prayer candles to honor deceased family members, he says.
Ivan Vasquez, the Oaxaca-born owner of the Madre restaurants and mezcalerías in California, understands this cultural importance firsthand: His grandfather, who would serve mezcal to locals from a two-table restaurant, gave Vazquez his first sip when he was just eight or nine years old. “He told me that one day, Americans are going to taste mezcal and go crazy for it, and you will see mezcal everywhere,” says Vasquez. More than 25 years later, his prediction has come true: The U.S. drinks more mezcal than any country in the world, and Vasquez boasts the largest collection of artisanal mezcals in America. “That’s what mezcal is about: It connects people, connects times, connects generations, and connects traditions,” he says.
Although it’s booming, mezcal as a category isn’t without controversy. Many in the industry, including Hernandez and Vasquez, worry that the ancestral spirit will go the way of tequila, falling victim to industrial processes such as autoclaves and the often-draconian governing rules of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM). The CRM has regulated mezcal since 1994, but Hernandez and Vasquez caution against relying on its classification system, which can include barriers to entry that limit the unique traditions of families who have been making mezcal the same way for centuries. As such, many bottles labeled “destilados de agave” employ the practices historically used in mezcal-making, and prominent producers including Real Minero and Lalocura have opted to drop out of the CRM registration process altogether.
In truth, a definitive guide to mezcal is nearly impossible to write: The spirit is too vast and too varied, and even Vasquez says he is constantly learning from the mezcaleros he works with on a daily basis. With that said, these are the essential things to know about Mexico’s most beloved spirit.
What Is Mezcal?
Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word mezcalli, which translates to “cooked agave,” and it refers to any agave distillate. Pulque, a milky fermented agave beverage, dates back to at least 2000 BC with the Otomi civilization, and many believe mezcal was born when Spanish conquistadors brought along distillation processes in the 1500s: As the story goes, they ran out of brandy, and used mud and clay to turn agave into a spirit. However, there is archaeological evidence dating mezcal back to pre-Hispanic times, as early as 878 BCE.
How is Mezcal Made?
Mezcal begins with the agave or maguey plant, a succulent that bears more similarities to a lily plant than a cactus. At least 40 species of agave can legally be used for mezcal production, and they can take anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. In palenques, or mezcal distilleries, mezcaleros remove the leaves of every matured plant, then cut the hearts, called piñas, into pieces and roast them in wood-fired underground pits lined with rocks for about three days, imparting the smokiness many associate with the spirit. The cooked agave is crushed, traditionally by wooden mallets or a tahona, a stone wheel drawn by horses or donkeys. The liquid and fibers are then fermented with airborne yeast and water (and sometimes pulque for a funkier beverage) for up to one month in containers, which can be made from materials including leather, animal hides, steel, and plastic. Finally, the liquid is distilled at least twice in clay pots or copper stills. It is sometimes aged in oak or rested in glass before bottling.
Where Is Mezcal Made?
The vast majority of mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but its denomination of origin expands to include the states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luís Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. However, the spirit’s DO only dates back to 1994, in the context of hundreds of years of mezcal-making in Mexico. Mezcal has traditionally been made in states that fall outside of the CRM’s jurisdiction, and in fact both Vasquez and Hernandez consider spirits labeled bacanora, raicilla, and sotol, as well as many spirits which are labeled destilado de agave, to be mezcals. One of Vasquez’s favorite bottles, Lamata De Castilla Nueva León, for example, is made with americana agave using traditional practices, but falls outside of the DO set forth by the CRM.
What’s the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal can be made with more than 40 varieties of agave, whereas tequila is made with only one: the blue Weber agave.
However, the distinction has become complicated by the spirits’ denominations of origin (DO), which originated in 1974 for tequila and 1994 for mezcal. In fact, up until it received its DO, tequila was called vino de mezcal de tequila. Today, the CRM limits tequila’s production to all of Jalisco and parts of five other states, whereas mezcal can be made in nine Mexican states and is mostly produced in Oaxaca. Spirits that fall outside of the DOs for tequila, mezcal, and other regulated spirits such as bacanora are called destilados de agave.
The spirits also typically differ in how they’re produced: Although they both are made with the piña, or heart, of the agave plant, most mezcal is made by roasting agaves in wood-fired rock-lined pits, which imparts the smoky notes many associate with the spirit. Most tequila, meanwhile, uses agave that is steamed in above-ground ovens (Vasquez notes that ancestral tequila was made underground; producers such as Siembra Valles apply traditional mezcal practices to the blue Weber agave plant). Another key difference: Most tequilas rely on commercial yeast during the fermentation stage, while mezcal ferments naturally with airborne yeast.
How Should You Drink Mezcal?
Hernandez and Vasquez recommend drinking mezcal neat to best appreciate the time and methods that have gone into the spirit. If you are using mezcal for cocktails, opt for an espadín with a lower ABV of 35% to 45%. “That hurts the least to use,” quips Vasquez. It also tends to have flavors that integrate better into mixed drinks.
What Does Mezcal Taste Like and Is All Mezcal Smoky?
“Mezcal is an expression of Mother Earth with the help of agave,” says Vasquez. “But it’s also the historical expression of the families behind these beautiful spirits.” Like tequila and other agave spirits, mezcal shows earthy and vegetal notes from the plant, but from there, expressions can vary widely. And although the process by which mezcal is made imparts some smoky flavors, the level of smokiness differs from bottle to bottle. “The smoky flavor profile should be secondary,” says Vasquez, as skilled mezcaleros will shave the piña after it cooks to ensure no burnt pieces end up in the batch.
The terroir of the region where the agave plant is grown and the methods of the mezcalero will most influence the flavor, which can range from floral to minerally and even cheesy. As an example of terroir’s unique influence, Vasquez cites Mezcal Tosba in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, which is grown alongside apples and pineapples, resulting in universally fruity, sweet expressions, whether the agave species used is a tobalá or a tepeztate. The producer Lalocura, meanwhile, has released rainy-season expressions to show just how much seasonality can affect a bottle, he says. Other factors that can affect the flavor of mezcal include the use of spring water versus well water in the fermentation stage and the type of pot used to distill the mezcal.
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) was established in 1994 and regulates what can be labeled mezcal based on strict parameters, including the manner in which the spirit was produced. However, there are questions over the efficacy of the organization; many prominent producers like Real Minero and Lalocura have opted to drop out of the process, which can pose financial barriers and limit the creativity of mezcaleros. You may very well find a bottle of mezcal that employs artisanal or ancestral practices, but which is excluded from certification for any number of reasons, from denomination of origin down to acid and aldehyde levels. That said, here are three classification labels you might find when you’re buying a mezcal bottle and what they mean—plus where destilado de agave falls into the mix.
Mezcal with this label can use industrialized processes and tools such as autoclaves for cooking the agave, stainless steel fermentation vessels, and continuous column stills for distillation. Hernandez says an industrially made mezcal likely uses many processes borrowed from the production of modern-day tequila, which can betray the spirit’s, well, spirit. “The most magical thing about mezcal is that every batch is going to be different,” he notes.
Most registered mezcals are labeled artesanal. Cooking only takes place in pit ovens, but some modern updates to the traditional process are allowed, such as the use of copper stills for distillation instead of clay pots and mechanical shredders for grinding the agave fibers instead of wooden mallets or tahonas.
For this ultra-traditional variety, producers must use clay pots fueled by fire to distill the spirit. The clay imparts a mineral-like taste to the final product, says Hernandez.
Destilado de Agave
This label refers to any agave distillate that does not meet the criteria set forth by the CRM or other regulatory agencies for spirits with a denomination of origin. It could also simply refer to a bottle from a producer who uses artisanal or ancestral mezcal practices, but has opted to forgo the often time-consuming and expensive CRM registration process.
Mezcal Aging and Resting
Like tequila, mezcal can be aged in wooden barrels after distillation. However, mezcal producers typically don’t focus on aging, and most expressions are unaged blancos. In fact, Vasquez only serves blanco or madurado en vidrio (rested in glass) expressions at Madre. “We should let customers taste the practices and the work of the maestro mezcalero,” he says. Here are the labels set forth by the CRM.
Blanco or joven: This expression is unaged.
Reposado: This expression, which means “rested,” is aged in wooden containers from two to 12 months.
Añejo: This type, which means “aged,” is aged for at least one year in wooden containers.
Madurado en Vidrio: Meaning “matured in glass,” this mezcal rests in a glass container for at least 12 months after distillation. Both Vasquez and Hernandez note that resting an expression in glass can make the spirit smoother and tone down any high-key flavors, allowing the agave to really shine.
What Is Espadín?
If you’ve ever ordered a mezcal cocktail, chances are it contained espadín. One of the common names for the angustifolia agave species, this variety makes up between 80% and 90% of the mezcal consumed worldwide. Its high concentration of sugars yields more mezcal than other varieties, and it typically takes less time to mature than other agave species, factors which render it more affordable.
Understanding Mezcal Varieties
Tobalá vs. tepeztate is just the beginning: Agave species have different common names in different mezcal regions. For instance, the agave angustifolia is most commonly known by its Oaxacan name, espadín, but it is called espadilla in Puebla. Barril and bicuixe, meanwhile, are both shorthand for the karwinskii plant. And these common names oftentimes reflect the original language of the communities that make mezcal. “You have to respect how people know these species,” notes Vasquez.
The difference between a plant’s common names isn’t arbitrary, as the unique terroir of each region will affect the final product. Even within a region, flavors can vary widely based on the processes of a producer. For example, the Chacolo family in Jalisco produces mezcals from 14 types of local angustifolia, says Vasquez, and each bottle tastes completely different. With that in mind, consider the varietal guide below as an incomprehensive introduction. To really experience the spirit and its many expressions, you’ll just have to taste it.
Common names include: Arroqueño
This plant takes up to 25 years to mature. It often yields mezcals with soft, sweet, and citrusy notes, says Hernandez.
Common names include: Espadín, Espadilla, Pelón Verde, Tepemete
Up to 90 percent of the mezcal on the market is made with this plant: It takes just six to eight years to mature, and as such is more easily cultivated than other varieties. Angustifolia is an ancestor of agave tequilana (otherwise known as blue Weber agave, aka the stuff in tequila), and during a tequila shortage in the early 2000s, espadín was often swapped in for the spirit.
Common names include: Baicuishe, Barril, Cuishe, Madre Cuishe, Pacheco, Tobaziche, Verde
This species typically yields smaller batches of liquid, which are earthy and mineral-like, says Hernandez. He compares the flavor to sal de gusano, the worm salt that is often served alongside mezcal.
Common names include: Pichumel, Tepeztate
The marmorata plant famously takes up to 35 years to mature. All that time in the ground yields spicy and intense flavors such as peppercorn and cinnamon, says Hernandez. Of course, flavors can vary: One of Vasquez’s favorite pichumels from Maestro del Mezcal in Puebla is floral and sweet, with a long finish.
Common names include: Papolome, Tobalá
Sometimes known as the “king” of mezcal, this small-but-mighty variety is best known for its characteristic sweetness—and its hefty price tag. Unlike other varieties, potatorum can only grow from seeds (others can grow from genetic clones of an agave).
Common names include: Cuixe, Mexicano
Hernandez describes this relatively rare varietal as floral and likens the sweet finish to cooked agave nectar.
Mezcal blends, called ensambles, include multiple varieties of agave. Vasquez says these blends are true to the spirit of mezcal, as producers would historically use whatever agave was available to them in their expressions. He cautions, however, against brands that will jack up the price of a blend that includes just a small amount of a pricier variety such as tepeztate.