Mezcal is a distillate made from agave, an iconic plant of Mexico. It’s one of the world’s most diverse and complex spirits, and although it has recently been gaining popularity, it is still often misunderstood. Mezcal plays an important role in the culture of the places where it’s made. In Oaxaca, where the great majority of mezcal comes from, it’s not just a drink, but forms a part of community identity. It’s consumed in celebrations, but also used in rituals and for healing purposes. Here’s what you should know about this special beverage including its history, the different types of mezcal to look for, and where to sample it on a trip to Oaxaca.
History of Mezcal
Mezcal has a long history in Mexico. Until fairly recently it was believed that the distillation process didn’t exist in Mesoamerica before the Spanish invasion in the 1500s. New research has shown, however, that ancient Mexicans were distilling agave as far back as 400 B.C. Distilled drinks were not as common as fermented drinks and were probably reserved for special occasions and religious rites. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs): the terms “metl” and “ixcalli” together mean "oven-cooked agave."
Before mezcal and tequila were regulated, spirits made from agave anywhere in Mexico were traditionally referred to as “Vino de Mezcal.” Until the 1940s, tequila was marketed as "Vino de Mezcal de Tequila," taking its name from the town where it was made, Santiago de Tequila in the state of Jalisco. Surging to popularity in the mid-1900s, tequila received its Denomination of Origin from the World Intellectual Property Organization in the 1970s and from that time forward has been protected by law and must be made within a specific region and with one particular type of agave, the “blue agave” (Agave tequilana weber) in order to be labeled and sold as tequila.
Meanwhile, mezcal continued unregulated for another 20 years and gained a reputation as tequila’s outlaw cousin. It was in effect a drink of the common people in Mexico, produced in small batches in family-run distilleries and made from many different varieties of agave. It was generally frowned upon by Mexico’s upper classes and sometimes referred to as “aguardiente” (“fire water”). Mezcal was awarded its Denomination of Origin in 1995. Production was initially limited to six states, but has since expanded to include communities in 11 different Mexican states, although more than 70 percent of mezcal is made in Oaxaca. Unlike tequila, mezcal isn’t limited to one type of agave. Mezcal makers can take their pick of dozens of varieties of agave, though the most commonly used is the Agave espadín (Agave angustifolia).
Since tequila rose to popularity earlier and was in great demand, it was made on a larger scale, and the production methods changed over time, becoming more industrialized. Mezcal, on the other hand, is still usually made in small batches using traditional techniques. This is the basic difference between mezcal and tequila.
Flavor Profiles and Production Methods
It is sometimes said that mezcal is a pure expression of place. There are many factors that influence the taste of the final product, and a lot of it comes down to where it’s made and who made it. Of course the type of agave used is important, and Oaxaca has an advantage here—being the most biodiverse state, there are many agave species to choose from! Agave espadín is cultivated, but mezcal is also made with wild varieties, including cuish, madrecuixe, tobalá, tepeztate, and jabalí. Mezcal may be made from just one type of agave, or it can be an “ensamble” which is made with two or more.
As with wine, when sampling mezcal, terroir must be taken into account. The climate, elevation, and soil composition where the agave is grown will affect the flavor profile of the mezcal, as will other factors such as how mature the plant is when it’s harvested, the type of oven used, how long the agave is cooked and fermented, and the water source used.
There are three different production methods for mezcal: industrial, artisanal, and ancestral. Less than 10 percent of mezcal on the market is considered to be produced using industrial methods, manufactured with modern machinery. Most mezcal is produced in a way that is called artisanal, which is mostly handmade. A tiny percentage of mezcal is made in the ancestral technique, which uses no modern machinery and instead of copper stills, it is distilled in clay pots (it will say "en barro" on the label). Although this method is much more laborious, it adds a smooth, mineral quality to the mezcal.
How to Drink Mezcal
In Oaxaca, mezcal is traditionally served neat and at room temperature, often in a small glass called a “vaso veladora” (a “candle glass”) which originally contained a candle. Once the candle burns down, the excess wax is cleaned out and the glass is used to serve mezcal. A fine mezcal is meant to be savored so that you can detect and appreciate all the flavors, and should never be gulped as a shot. That said, mezcal cocktails are gaining popularity, particularly with people who find hard liquor difficult to drink, and though it’s not traditional, you can certainly enjoy a “mezcarita” (mezcal margarita), a mezcal mule, or any of the fanciful inventions of your friendly mixologist.
Where to Try Mezcal in Oaxaca
On a visit to Oaxaca, you should visit a mezcal distillery. In Spanish these are called “palenques” (not to be confused with the archaeological site of Palenque in Chiapas). There are a great many palenques that you can visit on the outskirts of Oaxaca City, where you can see how the process of how mezcal is made. In town, there are several bars and tasting rooms where you can take your time sampling a few different kinds.
- In Situ: Sometimes referred to as “the cathedral of mezcal,” this bar is owned and run by Ulises Torrentera, who has published several books on the subject. Here you can find the greatest variety of mezcals to sample.
- Mezcaleria Los Amantes: The Los Amantes mezcal brand operates a tiny mezcal tasting room in the center of town. This is an eclectically decorated spot with two long benches on either side of the room as the only seating space. There’s often a musician with a guitar seated in the corner, playing for tips.
- Cuish: This brand works with several small producers and has two tasting rooms in Oaxaca. The original on the south side of town has two floors and also serves food, but the one on the north side of town only serves mezcal.
- Mezcalerita: This bar has a casual vibe and is popular with a younger crowd. The roof terrace is a nice spot to sit and enjoy a drink in the evening. They serve not only mezcal, but also local craft beer and pulque, and they also serve snacks..
- Mezcalógia: A cozy, friendly bar with a daily special of a creative cocktail combination.
Book a Mezcal Tasting
Upon first sampling mezcal, some people find it has a very strong and smoky flavor. The smokiness comes from the way mezcal is made. Because the agave is roasted in an underground pit, it tends to maintain a smoky flavor that you don’t find in tequila. However, you can find some mezcals that are very smooth and don’t have that smokiness, so if you don’t like the first mezcal you try, don’t assume that you don’t like mezcal. You just haven’t found the one you like yet! This is why doing a mezcal tasting can be very helpful. The person offering you the tasting is knowledgeable and can recommend a mezcal for you based on your particular tastes.
Mezcaleria El Cortijo and Mezcaloteca offer tastings by reservation, and offer you a good opportunity to learn more about the drink and will help you find your favorite. When doing a tasting, it's a good idea to take notes because after a few samples it can be hard to keep track!