What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, dating back some 500 years. The word mezcal comes from the Náhuatl words metl (maguey / agave) and ixcalli (cooked) and is the term used for any distilled spirit made from agave.
Tequila, therefore, is a mezcal. In fact, it was first known as Vino de mezcal de Tequila (wine of mezcal from Tequila). However, tequila can only be made from one type of agave, the Agave Tequilana Weber, known as the Blue Agave. By contrast, mezcal is estimated to be made from between 35-40 agave species, giving it far greater breadth and variety of flavour than tequila. The success of tequila has seen intensive cultivation of the Blue Agave, resulting in a monoculture which has made it more prone to disease and homogenised the flavour too. Most tequila is also made in large factories, using highly industrial processes like shredders, autoclaves and even diffusers and is only required by law to contain 51% agave sugars.
Artisanal mezcal, however, is made in small batches, from 100% agave, according to time-honoured methods.
Making it is a skill that’s passed down from generation to generation, like a closely guarded recipe. Mezcal has been at the heart of notable events within the indigenous communities for centuries, from births and weddings, to funerals and other spiritual events. As a result, Mexicans consider mezcal part of their cultural heritage and a source of tremendous family pride. As the popular saying goes: “Tequila is to wake the living, Mezcal is to wake the dead.”
DENOMINATION OF ORIGIN (DO):
The concept of a DO originated in France, based on the belief that the cultural attributes and terroir of a particular place directly influence the food or drink produced there and that deserves to be protected, e.g. Champagne, Comte. DOs can now be found across the World, with both Tequila and Mezcal protected by DO status. Mezcal has been, and continues to be, made across Mexico, but there are currently 9 States (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacan, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango, Tamauilipas) within the official DO, established in 1995. Only they can legally call their agave distillate mezcal. Those outside the DO must use the term ‘destilado de agave’. Over 90% of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, making it the undisputed epicentre of the mezcal world.