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, that means 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 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 essentially the other way around, though the rules are more complex now that mezcal has its own DO. However, the explanation below is the most straightforward for those getting ready to embark on an agave journey. Let's take a look at the exciting world of this smoky, centuries old spirit.  

Ready for school?!

What is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a distillate made from the agave plant that's typically produced using traditional methods, lending 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 to be approved.

While tequila is basically a type of mezcal, it would be a misnomer to call it that. Though the term mezcal, as I first was introduced a decade ago, was used more as catch all for any Mexican made agave spirit that was not tequila, modern regulations and changes in cultural consumption have given each category their own unique rules and domains and adjusted the perception of what the category encompasses. 

The state of 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. One of the key differences between tequila and mezcal, besides geography and agave varietals, is the intense, hands-on production process that goes into making it. We'll take a closer look at those steps below.  

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 certified 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 is. 

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. We're talking about over 400 years of knowledge! 

Once distilled, the spirit is either bottled immediately or rested in glass.  Mezcals, unlike tequila, are not as 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

Wow, that was a lot of info, and you know what? That's just the tippity top of the iceberg, mi gente! Want to keep exploring? Taste different varietals, try a flight of espadin, read a book like Emma Janzen's guide to Mezcal 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 virtual classes page


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