Mezcal: Tequila’s wild, artisanal cousin

A ten-hour drive southeast of the historic town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco, you arrive in Oaxaca, the primary source of truly amazing beverage, mezcal. Few outside of the beverage community have heard of mezcal. Even fewer know anything about it. Yet everyone has heard of tequila; and yet again, few people actually know anything about it, besides taking shots the “cowboy way” at pool halls, pubs and drinking holes. Most people do not realize that all tequila is technically mezcal, yet not all mezcal is tequila. Furthermore, mezcal has been becoming particularly popular amongst the best bartenders in the country. It is far from a bottom-shelf item, nor is it a stepchild of tequila proper. Actually, mezcals that are commercially relevant are considerably more artisanal in nature than the bulk of popular tequila brands imported into the U.S.

Tobalá in Sola de Vega
Tobalá in Sola de Vega

Most simply defined, mezcal is a blanket genre of various distillates made from any number of species of agave coming from Mexico that are not restricted by the legislation regulating geographic and production parameters that govern tequila. But there is nothing remotely simple about quality mezcal. For the record, I love tequila, but when I lecture on mezcal, think about mezcal, and drink mezcal, it is most easily described to the inquisitive layperson as “tequila on steroids, with a tattooed back-piece and a real bad attitude.” (Also for the record, I’ve never taken steroids.)

Tequila on the rise

The best way to start is to identify what mezcal is not, or better yet, by addressing how mezcal and “tequila proper” are different. As mentioned earlier, tequila technically falls into the mezcal, or mezcalwine family. Mezcal wine is an old name used for agave-based spirits by the early Spaniards that brought the art of distillation to 16th century Mexico. For a few hundred years mezcal wine was being produced throughout much of Mexico. The town of Tequila became known for mezcal wine production because of the concentration of emerging mezcalwine distillers. The word “tequila” itself actually comes from Nahuatl, meaning “a place of work.” Tequila became so famous for its mezcal wines that the term “tequila wine” came to replace the term mezcalwine, eventually becoming tequila in common vernacular.

Eventually tequila’s identity distanced itself from other agave-based spirits produced elsewhere in the country. In the middle of the 20th century, the amount of production coming from approximately 90 distilleries operating in the state of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila, necessitated the development of organizations to regulate, organize and advance the “tequila” industry. In 1949, a division was established within the Mexican government known as Norma Ofical Mexicana (NOM) to regulate producers, delimit agricultural areas and establish production criteria. Tequila acquired its own appellation status, or DOT (Denominación de Origen Tequila), in 1994 in agreement with the European Union.

Tequilerías, or tequila distillers, branded themselves well over the past several decades and are largely attributed with driving premium spirits sales in the U.S. over the past 10 years. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), in 2008, in spite of the recession, the super-premium category of tequila continued to grow 10.6% and by the following year Americans positioned tequila as the fifth largest spirits revenue category at a value of about $1.65 billion. Here is one for competitive Americans; in 2007 the U.S. surpassed Mexico in tequila consumption! That would be like Mexico drinking more bourbon than the U.S. – something not likely to to happen.

Part of the fallout of tequila’s success is the public’s perception that agave-based spirit not labeled “tequila” is of lesser quality, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I concede that there are crappy mezcals (largely consumed in Mexico) and that there is also crappy tequila (largely consumed in Mexico AND the U.S.). But quality mezcals are not labeled tequila because of inferior quality; they are just made with different agave species and grown outside the geographic delimitations that qualify a spirit to be labeled “tequila”.

Agave Mexicano
Agave Mexicano

Beyond the blue

So, in regards to tequila vs.mezcal, it is Agave tequilana Weber var. Azul, or “blue agave”, that must make up at least 51% of any agave based spirit hoping to be labeled “tequila”. This is not the case with mezcal, which are largely made from agave espadin, the actual parent plant of Azul. All agave species are amazing plants that very much resemble cacti, though they are in a separate family, the amaryllis family. Different species of agave vary in size, shape, yield, and flavor. They also respond differently to climatic conditions, altitudes, ambient yeast, and cultivation vs. wild plantings, on and on. The blue agave has approximately 200 razor sharp, blade-like leaves known as pincas (seriously, I speak from experience, razor sharp and should not be tackled in a street fight unless you have a sword). They are ready to be harvested between every 8 to 12 years and can grow well over seven feet tall. Upon harvest, azul plants can weigh between 80 to more than 200 pounds. The center of the plant beneath the pointy leaf exterior is known as the piña and looks very similar to a very large pineapple.

Agave espadin is responsible for about 95% of mezcal. It’s a relatively similar in size to agave azul, growing up to approximately 160 lbs., but it only needs 7 years to harvest. Espadin is widely cultivated in Oaxaca, the epicenter of mezcal production, and is easily transplantable and cultivated with healthy yields and quality flavor for mezcal.

There are many other species of agave used for mezcal. Many of the “wild” species are just that, unable to be cultivated and only found in their own little indigenous pockets. Not too dissimilar from wild mushrooms, varieties of agave like Tobalá are sought out by fábricas or palenques (mezcal producers). Tobalá is by far the scarcest species of agave and scarcity means sticker shock for the would-be collector. It’s a particularly small agave plant at around 25 kilograms (50 lbs.) and small plants make small yields. Tobalá plants also need about 12 years to grow into maturity. All things considered, tobalámezcals tend to retail over $100.

Arroqueño in Barro
Arroqueño in Barro

Another “wild agave” is also arrequeño, which is slightly more abundant than tobalá, and some consider the most regal of the wild agaves. It too is a non-cultivated agave, but a bit easier to spot in the landscape as they grow to a whopping 360 pounds. In Oaxaca, there are three primary valleys whose northern ends converge on the city of Oaxaca itself and arrequeño is typically found centrally in the valleys. The juice extracted from arrequeño is considered the sweetest and the best.

Sierrudo is an enormous agave that takes 16 to 20 years to harvest and can grow upwards of 1,000 lbs! At such size, Sierrudo is prized for its yields and its juice is sweet, but does tend to have a sour element. Mexicano is another species but it’s about one-fifth the size of sierrudo and takes about half as long to reach maturity for harvest. Mexicano also tends to have a bitter element. Neither sierrudo nor mexicano can be cultivated.

Mezcal and tequila are classified differently by the government. There are two primary ways of classifying tequila: by category and by aging regimen. Both are regulated in order to achieve their DOT status. You have tequila labeled, “100% Blue Agave” which must be made from… 100% blue agave. Then there is “mixto”, which only has to meet the minimum criteria of 51% blue agave; the other 49% could be juice extracted from other agave species or more likely a hodge-podge of sweetening agents, older “mixtos” from previous distillations or God-knows-what. Whether “100% Blue Agave” or “mixto”, both fit into an aging criteria: “silver”, or tequila aged no longer than 60 days, “reposado”, which has been aged between 60 days and 1 year, “añejo”, which has been aged over a year and most recently, “extra añejo” which have been aged at least 3 years.

Slow, steady, and smoked

Historically, there was no legislated criterion for mezcal and production was no holds barred. There still isn’t much regulation, but in 1997, mezcal did receive its own Norma as tequila did almost 50 years earlier. According to the Norma established for mezcal in 1997, legitimate mezcal is broken down into two categories: Tipo 1 is 100% agave (whatever species, though 90% of mezcal is agave espadin) and Tipo 2, which must be at least 80% agave.

Some quick notes on some areas of production that deserve to be highlighted: the vast majority of blue agaves destined to become tequila are “cooked” (using a heating process facilitating the conversion of inulininto fermentable sugars) in steam autoclaves that fast forward (6 to 14 hours) the slow, oven roasting process (upwards of three days) only utilized by ultra premium tequila marks. After cooking, the brown, caramelized piñas are shredded apart and water is poured over this pulping matter known at begazo to leach out the sugar, creating aguamiel, or “honeyed water”. The honeyed water will be moved to vats, cultured yeasts will be added and a low proof beer-like liquid known as tepache is born in stainless steel vats. This eventually makes its way into a still for spirit production. Tequila has to be distilled at least two times; the first distillation takes a couple hours and yields ordinario, a spirit at 20% and the second distillation takes about twice as long, yielding a spirit at 55% alcohol, which is later diluted down with water. Tequila has to be bottled at a minimum alcohol level of 35% ABV for domestic distribution or minimum 40% ABV for USA distribution.

Slowly fermenting tepache
Slowly fermenting tepache

Mezcal production is completely different and considerably more laborious. The agaves are roasted rather slowly underground in fire pits for several days to upwards of a month. Imagine earthen, mound-like fire pits that are filled with scorching hot rocks and covered in various ways.   Depending on the resources of the artist or the customs of the village, a single village may have a number of palenques that share resources like a still or a tahona, the traditional grinding stone pulled by a donkey to mash the agave. This village may cover the roasting agave with earth, compost, pinca leaves from the agave, or perhaps a tarp woven from the pincas. This lengthy and intense process of converting inulin into glucose and fructose in these pits is where mezcal gets its considerably smoky and pungent aroma.

After the piñas are roasted they are then mashed, traditionally in the tahona (assuming the village has that luxury).Some palenques without access to a tahona simply bludgeon the pinas to a pulpy mess with a baseball bat or club. Try to imagine the therapeutic value of sipping mezcal and then laying into a 100 pound roasted agave with a baseball bat; sounds way better than working a heavy punching bag if you ask me.

When fermenting, the brown, sugary agave are moved to small open-top wooden vats known as tinas and ambient yeast get to work in a slow, lengthy fermentation. Remember, in tequila production, they are spraying water over crushed agave to leach out the honey water. Here, only a tiny amount of water is added to the smashed, sugary agave (approximately a ratio of 10-15% added water to pulp). The fermenting mash is more reminiscent of some crude, thick brown stew served to you in prison than the tepache produced in tequila production.

Finally, the low-proof brew is moved to a still for one, two, or three distillations depending on the preferences of the craftsman. Stills for mezcal production are generally rather small and put together with considerable MacGyver-like resourcefulness. On the luxurious side, a distiller may have the good fortune of a small copper still, while others may be using ceramic stills or even clay pots with bamboo shoots as their condensers – seriously, bamboo for condensers. In all cases, production and distillation for quality mezcal is an extremely laborious and lengthy process.

50-liter clay pots (ollas de barro) used for distillation by some
50-liter clay pots (ollas de barro) used for distillation by some

Oak? Gracias, pero no.

Not to be forgotten is the relaxed legislation regulating ingredients and mezcal. I don’t mean ingredients like sweetening agents or coloring agents; I mean ingredients like fresh, seasonal fruits, nuts, and spices, etc. There is an unquestionable artistic liberty in the creation of these lovely libations and sometimes that creativity manifests in what some would consider absolute insanity (not me, of course). There are mezcals that will hang game (chicken, venison, rabbits, various pig parts) in the top of their wee stills and percolate their base through said animals carcasses suspended over a evaporating batch of sweet, gooey brew. And yes, from the ones I’ve had, they are awesome, artisanal and you can genuinely taste the game!

There is the consideration of geographic differences between tequila and mezcal. According to NOM law, there are five states in Mexico that can produce tequila. Nayarit, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato can all legally produce tequila. Collectively they house about five dozen distilleries, but Jalisco has over 100 distilleries and produces about 90% of tequila made in Mexico. Amatitan and Los Altos are two prominent areas of quality agave cultivation that surround Tequila township.

Well established by now, most mezcal comes from Oaxaca, but with the Norma of 1997 there are 8 primary states of mezcal production. Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango and a few municipalities in Tamaulipas and Michoacan can make legitimate mezcal, though Oaxaca is by and large the dominant source. Within Oaxaca, six counties can use the mezcal appellation – Sola de Vega (world’s most famous spot for tobalá), Miahuatlan, Yautepec, Ocotlan, Tlacolua and Ejutla.

Lastly and more interesting than geographic restrictions, mezcals are not subjected to the aging regimens of tequila. Oak regimens are widely considered as flavor distractions to the “soul” of the recipes and boy, do these spirits have soul. If you spent time in the desert mountains of central-southern Mexico, making a beautiful spirit from rare ingredients in itty-bitty amounts, why the hell would you introduce oak and mask all the flavor and identity? Essentially, “we don’t need no stinking oak”!