How It’s Made
Mezcal and tequila are often thought of as two different spirits, but they may be more related than you know. Mezcal is essentially any liquor made from the agave plant, and while tequila is a type of mezcal, it is made specifically from Blue Weber agave and has a different flavor profile from many of the other mezcals on the market.
Mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plants, but the majority of the spirit comes from Espadin agave due to the plant’s availability. Agave plants are typically harvested when they are seven or eight years old before the spines of the plant are cut off exposing the heart, also known as the piña because of its resemblance to a pineapple.
Piñas can weigh up to 220 pounds and are typically cut into halves or quarters before artisans place them in an in-ground fire pit containing rocks, wood, or charcoal. These pits are called palenques and are used to roast or char piñas for several days. This is a key part of the process and is one of the reasons why many mezcals carry a different flavor profile from tequila, which is baked in above-ground ovens.
Following the roasting process, the agave hearts are crushed and placed into wooden barrels to ferment. Water is added to the barrel in several stages, and after fermentation is complete, the spirit is either bottled or enters a stage of additional fermentation. Unaged mezcal is often referred to as joven or blanco, while its aged counterparts are called reposado (aged anywhere from two months to a year), añejo (aged one to three years), or extra añejo (anything aged over three years).
The end result of this process is a distinctively different spirit that is generally clear, light gold, or amber in color.
Mezcals on the Market
With craft spirit connoisseurs and creative bartenders always chasing new flavor profiles, mezcal has been rising in popularity throughout the States. Despite its growing popularity, mezcal can sometimes be harder to find and more expensive than other spirits, and classic mezcal cocktails are just now starting to make it on American menus.
In 2005, Mexico began regulating mezcal production, and the spirit can only be labeled mezcal if it is 100% agave and hails from one of seven states within Mexico – the most popular of which is Oaxaca, a state that is responsible for 90% of the world’s mezcal supply.
In the United States, some of the most popular brands of mezcal include Del Maguey, Fidencio, Pierde Almas, Ilegal, and El Buho.
These brands offer a variety of mezcals each with their own price points and unique flavors. Due to its method of production, many mezcals have a slightly charred flavor akin to peated whiskey, but some varieties on the market boast floral, fruity, or earthy notes.
How long the mezcal is aged can also impact its flavor profile. In general, a long maturation period is likely to result in a more mellow and rich flavor. Other factors that play a role include the variety of agave used, soil, topography, and climate. Each of these aspects, along with the production method, can impact the overall flavor of the mezcal.