Now we are all familiar with tequila and what it tastes like, but did you know all tequilas are actually all part of the mezcal family, which as a drink in its own right remains very much under the radar.

But talk to any discerning bartender in the world’s best bars, then it is mezcal that they want to get their hands on.

What is it?

In a nutshell mezcal is the hipster version of tequila. It’s the ‘craft’ side of tequila.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman in Oaxaca, Mexico - MezcalThere’s also not a great deal of it around. Tequila may be available in most bars around the world, but it only makes up just 2% of the of the entire spirits produced globally. Mezcal is even more niche, accounting for only 1% of spirits made.

But whilst there are about 150 major distillers of tequila that are producing that 2%, there are 1,000s of mezcal producers that make up their 1% share. Hence its total hipster tag.

Mezcal also has some serious heritage. The first official mezcal has been dated back to 1521, but there are some geologists who think its origins could go even further back than that.

Where it comes from

Any spirit that is distilled from the agave plant in Mexico is considered a mezcal. Tequila just happens to be one of the specific types of mezcals that are then made. In all there are three types of mezcal  (including tequila) including artisansal mezcal and ancestral mezcal. The difference between the three comes down to how they are made.

typical maguey of Mexico, used for decoration, honey extraction and produce mezcal maguey.

There are up to 30 different species and varietals of agave, whereas tequila is only made from the blue agave.

Because mezcal can only be produced in certain regions in Mexico, tequila and mezcals have different Denominations of Origin – like a wine from Burgundy or Parmesan cheese.

These are broken down in to eight different states across Mexico but the main growing area is in the region of Oaxaca.

How it is produced?

One of the reasons why mezcal is such a unique and niche product is that when the agave plant is harvested it dies. Mezcals, unlike tequila, can be made from wild indigenous varieties of agave that can take up to up to 35 years to mature and are often out in places inaccessible by car. Some  can weigh as much as 40kg each.

freshly cut agave heads ready to be baked in ovens - mescalThe heart of the plant is called the piña, which means pineapple (because it it looks like one), and is where the plant’s very rich latent sugars are stored.

Here are the different processes you have through to make a mescal:

Stage 1

Unlike the process used to make tequila, the piñas are first cooked in covered pits in the ground for up to three days. It is this underground toasting that gives mezcal its distinctive smoky flavour.

Stage 2

They are then crushed and mashed and left to ferment in large vats or barrels with some water added. This is when the rich sugars are released.

Stage 3

The resulting liquid then goes through a distillation process, in either a clay or copper pot, with different processes used to modify and adapt the final flavour. This is known as the punta and comes out at around 37.5% abv.

Stage 4

The liquid will then be distilled a second time in order to bring its alcohol level up to around 55% abv.

mescal with wormHence the differences between a standard mezcal, an artisanal mezcal and an ancestral mezcal all comes down to the way it is cooked, how it is smoked, what it is fermented in and how it is finally distilled. Each with their own strict legal definitions.

In order to age a mezcal the distilled liquid is placed in barrels for any time from just a month right through to 12 years, but most come to market a lot sooner.

If a “worm” (actually the larva of a moth) is added to the mezcal then this is done at the bottling stage.

Sipped not for shots

Considering the time and effort that goes in to making a mezcal then this is a drink to be sipped not thrown back in a single shot like a tequila. It deserves to be treated more like a single malt and has the history and production process to be treated with respect. In fact if you are into smoky, peaty whiskies then definitely give mezcals a try.

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