Mescal (or mezcal) would’ve remained a cheap local rotgut, if not for its resurrection 20 years ago. Dating back 500 years, mescal has become a trendy alternative to tequila, with heady artisanal mescals made all over Mexico. Smoky, smooth and deeply flavored, mescal has gained a cult following while government regulations established standards to boost international sales.
The difference between tequila and mescal? If you’re looking for caramel and smokiness, mescal kicks tequila’s butt. If you’re a spring breaker looking to get drunk – read no further. Tequila comes only from Blue agave. Mescal can be made from over 30 varieties of agave (Espadin is the most common).
Agaves used for mescal mature 7-9 years old; for tequila 5 years. By Mexican law, tequila is manufactured mostly in the state of Jalisco. Mescal with official AOC labels is made only in Oaxaca (the state is by far the main producer), Guerrero, Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.
The best mescal is made in small batches at family-run palenques while tequila is mass produced.
Both are made from the giant pineapple-like piña (heart of the agave). Cooking the piñas for tequila involves steam in industrial cookers; for mescal they are roasted in palenques or hornos (underground pit) to obtain a smokiness.
The tough agave fibers are mechanically shredded for tequila; crushed in a tahona stone mill for mescal.
Sugar and coloring are added to tequila’s fermentation process while most mescal is pure. Both undergo two to three distillations, (mescal traditionally in clay but in order to meet rising demand mainly in) copper stills. A manufacturer is allowed to make wither tequila or mescal – never both.
More On Mescal
The agave for mescal is harvested at seven or eight years old. After the plant’s spiny paddles are lopped off, the piñas – the largest weighs 50 kg – is roughly chopped then heaped in a large pit lined with lava-rock and mesquite logs then buried in earth and smoked.
The dark-roasted results are heaped in the channel of a large tahona, a grinding mill, then crushed under its mule-drawn stone wheel. The process is not as simple as it sounds – a Master Mezcalero with a pitchfork mixes the roasted agave as it’s crushed, for even and exact degree of pulping.
The fibrous amber tinted mash, mosto, is blended with no more than natural spring water in large wooden vats and left to ferment under a canvas cover. I snuck shards of this addictive treat from the distillery I was touring – it tastes like smoky, carmelized sugar cane.
Fermentation time depends on the weather – the warmer, the faster – from two weeks to a month where the natural, and in some cases added, sugars ferment into alcohol. Under Mexican law, Class 1 mescal is 100% agave (using any or all permitted agave varieties) while Class 2 contains a minimum 80% agave and maximum 20% other sugars. Mosto is then distilled two to three times in alambiques, copper stills, where vaporized alcohol is refined into 80 proof mezcal.
Marketing and tourists falling in love with the region have boosted sales. Mescal makers report up to a 400% hike in demand, mostly from the USA. And like any good thing, its is threatened by its success. Unlike grapes for wine or sugar cane for rum which can be harvested up to twice a year, agave for mescal takes up to eight years to mature.
The agave plant lives up to 30 years with a neat trick of sending itself a funeral bouquet. It flowers only once from a tall shoot, then it is promptly harvested before it dies.
To complicate things, rare and wild varieties resist domestication. The government needs to police laws protecting wild agave while mescal producers must improve crop sustainability by planning and planting in advance.
It seems inevitable that scarce resources and rising demand will begin forcing prices to unaffordable levels. Traditions that created such an outstanding liqour have also created its biggest headache.
The cultivation of the Espadin Agave for 95% of all mezcal production, has decimated the gene pool for agave. Not only habitats for other varieties have shrunk – the average weight for piñas hasfallen from 200 kilos half a century ago to only 50 kilos today. Change is a-coming, in one shape or another, for mescal makers and fans.
Buying and Tasting Mescal
Class 1 and 2 mescal are sold at various levels of maturity. Mescal blanco or joven is unaged or aged up to two months; reposado is aged between 6 – 12 months; añejo is aged for at least a year.
Mescal is also sold as cremas de mezcal , mild liquers (18 – 22% alcohol) flavored with chili, fruit or nuts (strawberry, pistachio) and a host of other oddities (chocolate) . I found the colored, flavored and sweetened liquers awful-tasting and pointless. And forget buying anything with gusano, it’s larva found in agave plants not a worm, in the bottle. This was an an early marketing ploy, now disparaged, to distinguish mescal from tequila.
If you’re curious – yes, you can still find worm-in-a-bottle mescals- con gusano – because mescal makers shouted murder when the government attempted to ban the practice. You can even find mescal bottled with a whole scorpion (non-poisonous of course) for shock value.
Mescalarias, mescal bars, are a new trend and offer tasting menus. Guererra is a rising star making mescal rivalling and some claim surpassing Oaxaca which still remains the largest producer with the most publicity. So how does mescal taste? Pure and smoky, it’s is nothing like tequila. The slow artisanal process of stone milling and pit roasting imbues incredible depth, character, smoothness and flavor. Sip it neat at room temperature – the best way to savor its complexity. And forget that worm in a bottle – the early attempt to market and set mescal apart from tequila is now decried as ruining the purity of its flavor.
Purists are religious about mescal. Aging mescal, if it’s done at all, should be in the bottle rather than in wood casks to avoid muddying the characteristics and purity of eight year’s worth of flavor the agave has absorbed from the soil. These guys are pretty serious – a jolly bartender in Oaxaca turned scary silent when I wondered aloud if mescal crushed in a tahona pulled by a mule tastes different from one using a horse.
The wide variety of agave used – some claim over 50! – plus differences arising from craftsmanship and micro production, climate and soil, results in mescal brands with highly distinctive characteristics and flavor.
Part of the fun for connoisseurs is hunting down the most rustic and obscure farms making home-brews from rare agave varieties. As a side note the government wisely turns a blind eye to non-commercial brewers.
Several “wild” agave mescals are so highly sought after that producers are now cultivating these varieties such as the rare, small and slow-growing Tobala Agave plant that flourishes on shady mountainsides. Tabala mescal is prized for intense sweetness and earthiness. Cultivated agave varieties used in mescal include the Espadin, most common in Oaxaca, and De Cerro, Bruto, De Mezcal.
Another type of mescal, the Minero, is defined by triple distillation and its high quality rather than type of agave used. The craziest-sounding, and most unusual, is the Pechuga. I seriously regret not accepting a taste in forest near Cuajimoloyas, but hey it was offered at 10 am in the morning in the middle of a mountain hike during one of the worst storms to hit the region. To make Pechuga, agave mulch is fermented with apples and plums, distilled twice then a piece of turkey is hung within the alambique for the third distillation.T