Many of us are more than familiar with Mexico’s rowdy, national agave spirit: tequila. This beverage has had a long and illustrious history in Mexico and really has gained significant popularity in the United States in its 100% agave form as a sophisticated and refined liquor meant for casual sipping and savoring. However, since we all know tequila so very well, Mexico’s other, proud national drink tends to get lost in the shuffle and overshadowed by its famous sister beverage. Mezcal, which is enjoying a rise in popularity of its own in the United States, is immensely distinct and refined in its own right, with just as much history and authenticity as tequila.
Mezcal – The Other White Meat
These two beverages, even though both are made from the Agave plant, have a great many differences that set them firmly apart from each other and give each their own special flavor, allure, and personality. First, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say very generally that all tequila is essentially mezcal, but certainly not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal, in a way, is almost a blanket term for any beverage distilled from the maguey, or agave, plant. However, mezcal does differ in a great many ways. First off, the vast majority of mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but production is not limited to this area and spills into other regions as well. Tequila, in strict accordance with Mexican law, is only made in the state of Jalisco, but occassionally is made in other surrounding areas. Tequila also can only be made from agave tequilana Weber, or blue Weber agave. The pinas are extracted from the mature agave plant (which takes 7 years to mature) and are then steamed or baked in an above-ground oven before being crushed to extract the precious juice used for distillation. Tequilas are also distilled twice, and even three times in certain cases.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from a wide array of different varieties of the agave plant, including tobala and other maguey plants. The main point is that mezcal is not as confined to regulations as tequila and therefore is not as straightjacketed by specifics as its famous sister beverage. Once the pinas are extracted (don’t forget to wear gloves because pruning the agave plant of its spear-like, razor sharp spikes is a bit of a daunting task), they are not baked or steamed, but instead roasted. The hearts of the plant tumble into a rock-lined pit where they are roasted over glowing charcoal and covered with palm and dirt. This special process of roasting the pinas gives mezcal that extremely smokey, harsh, and almost signature barbecued taste that some may find slightly intense on the first go-around. The roasted agave hearts are then crushed to extract the juice, and then distilled only once.
As mezcal’s worm finally turns and it erects its own pedestal next to tequila as a worthy and tasty delicacy with just as much heart and soul as its close brother, this beverage is finally coming into its own as a refined, premium spirit worthy of thoughtful enjoyment. Once again, it is generally a lack of information that dissuades people from trying new things and branching out, and the need to be well-informed is a hallmark of the Millennial generation. As we move closer towards the exposure of many more excellent beverages that have remained unnoticed or underappreciated, it’s important that mezcal gets its deserving place on the shelf as a delicious and enjoyable spirit.
By Max Stein
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