Mezcal 101 : A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Mezcal





First let me say this: mezcal is not a spirit that's for everyone. And that's okay. It's okay not to like mezcal.
Can all the folks in the back hear this? Not everyone has to like the same thing, that would be really strange and honestly kind of creepy. Also, more mezcal left over for us weirdos who love it. Also, tequila is still delicious, you don't have to choose one over the other. You can have both! 





Mezcal and agave spirits are my favorite spirits category, and I would easily argue that mezcal is tragically misunderstood by many. Outside of what I would call, "cocktail bar* cities" (Chicago, SF, NYC, LA, etc.) the first association with mezcal for many is a worm at the bottom of a (probably) dusty bottle. A bad night out. "That one time in Cancun." The truth is that most casual consumers don't know where it's made, what it's made from, and why it's not all just called tequila. (It's actually the other way around.) For those getting ready to embark on an agave journey, here's a good place to start your education.

Ready for school?!


*haha, remember when we had cocktail bars?



What is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a distillate made from the agave plant that's typically produced using traditional methods that lend it a uniquely rustic and often smoky profile. It can currently be produced in eight Mexican states (now nine, if you include the newly inducted Puebla), but when I say it can only be made in these states, I'm talking about certified mezcal. Spirits distilled from agave can be found all over Mexico! Mezcal has a DO, or denomination of origin, much like wine. So to be able to print the word "mezcal" on the bottle, it must be submitted to a certification board and be approved.

Fun fact, technically tequila is a type of mezcal. So while not all mezcal is tequila, all tequila is mezcal. (Just like all Chianti is Sangiovese, but not all Sangiovese is Chianti.) Oaxaca is the leading and best known producing region for mezcal sold in the US, so much of what you'll find on the shelves at your liquor store is from this state. Mezcal and the agave plant are both culturally important, and the knowledge of production has been passed on for many generations. Its history is over 400 years old!

How is it Made?


a remote agave field in Oaxaca


TLDR: Mezcal is a badass, culturally relevant, labor intensive spirit that deserves your respect whether or not you enjoy drinking it. 


Step 1  Grow and harvest the agave

It all begins with the versatile agave plant, which depending on the type, can take anywhere from 7 to 40 years to grow. Unlike tequila, there are dozens of agave species that can (legally) be used to produce mezcal. The most common of them is espadin (which happens to be most closely related to blue weber, aka tequiliana).  In our examples for this lesson we'll mostly be referring to espadin, which is the easiest to cultivate and the fastest to mature. It's also the easiest on the wallet and a great base for mezcal cocktails. 




When these agave plants mature, they will ideally be at the peak of their sugar production, much like a wine grape. Taking an agave out of the earth is a huge pain in the ass. Basically you assault the plant with an axe or machete until it surrenders itself from the soil. 

An often underappreciated role is that of the jimador, a farmer who oversees the harvest. They will determine when the agave are mature, harvest the plant, and then trim their leaves until only the heart or center of the plant, called the piña, remains. The role of the jimador is also important because that shaping will affect the flavors that go into the mezcal. While they make it look quick and effortless, you'd be mistaken to think it. 

Now we have a piña, but we still have even more work ahead, because that thing is heavy! They use trucks for hauling large loads of piñas, but burros and horses also come in handy for areas that can’t be reached by vehicle. Agave is grown in all sort of hard to navigate areas. 



a hot oven, ready to receive the agave! a variety of agave types will go in this roast from Mezcal Union


Step 2  Cook the Agave

Mezcal is typically made by first roasting the agave piñas in large underground ovens like the one above. (This is also not an uncommon way to see goat prepared in Oaxaca. Move over Big Green Egg!) This process can take several days and up to a week, and can contribute to a smoky profile.  This method of cooking is one of the major differences in style as compared to the more modern methods of tequila production, such as steaming. 




Step 3  Smashy smashy!

After cooling, the agave is then mashed or crushed. Some traditional methods include a horse drawn tahona (a large stone wheel) or by hand using heavy wooden mallets, but producers can use just about anything, including axes and woodchippers.  


a large fermentation vat, called a tina, the crosses are there as a blessing to protect the batch


Step 4  Ferment 

The mashed cooked agave (pulp and juices) is then fermented. The most commonly found vessels are wooden, open top vats, and the agave is allowed to ferment using natural yeasts. Fermentation depends on the temperature and can last anywhere from 5 days to a couple of weeks. 


collecting the tails (colas) at Real Minero



Step 5 Distillation

Now comes final step, distillation. Whew! What a lot of work it's taken to get here! Distillation equipment will vary, but typically it will be double distilled (with a few exceptions) and heated using direct heat/fire, with no dials, thermometers or other modern bells and whistles. Mezcal distillation is largely an intuitive process using the knowledge passed on from generations past. 

Once distilled, the spirit is either bottled immediately or rested in glass.  Mezcal is not traditionally or even commonly aged in wood, as that sort of barrel aging occurs mostly for the American market and palate with tequila, however barrel aged mezcals do exist and seem to be popping up more now with the popularity of mezcal in the US. 





Step 6  Sip and Ruminate

Holy crap, that was a lot of info, and you know what? That's just the tippity top of the iceberg, mi gente! Want to learn more? Stay tuned for a 201 follow up that talks about agave varieties, wild vs cultivated, traditional vs ancestral, and more!

Or sign up for one of my virtual agave spirits classes and we can deep dive in whichever direction you like! For more info, check out my new virtual classes page







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