History of Mezcal
What exactly is mezcal, where did it come from and how do you drink it?
Mezcal is one of those spirits that comes with a reputation that precedes it. It drives you insane, people say. Or it’s only real mezcal if there’s a worm in it. Or it makes you hallucinate and see faces coming out of the walls. Let’s get down to it: what is mezcal, really?
WHAT IS MEZCAL?
Mezcal is a lot like tequila, in that it’s a distilled alcoholic drink made from agave. A common misconception is that mezcal comes from the same source as mescaline, hence the idea that it has psychedelic qualities. The name “mezcal” actually comes from “Nahuatl mexcalli”, meaning “oven-cooked agave” – and no, mezcal will not make you any crazier than you already are.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Its story began around the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, in the early 1500s. Agave plants were sacred in Mexico at that time, and appeared in mythology and religious ceremonies. The Spaniards arrived in Mexico with distilling techniques, which they applied to the agaves of Oaxaca.
Mexicans call mezcal “the elixir of the gods”, and say that it originated when a lightning bolt hit an agave plant, cooking the heart of it and releasing a magical liquid. Over time, mezcal was used for medicinal purposes, in religious and social ceremonies, and of course, as the backbone of the economy of the Oaxaca region.
Mezcals are an Appellation of Origin. This means that to be certified as a mezcal, the spirit in question must be produced using a certain technique, and must come from a specific area of Mexico: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla or Zacatecas.
HOW IS MEZCAL MADE?
Mezcal production still follows the same basic pattern as it did all those hundreds of years ago. The agave plants are allowed to mature and are then harvested, by cutting out their hearts, or piñas, with a machete. The piñas are then cooked in pit ovens, made by digging a hole, filling it with smouldering wood, setting the piñas on top and then covering the whole pit with mud. This cooking method is what gives mezcal its signature smoky flavour.
The cooking process lasts around three days, in general. After this, the piñas are extracted, and mashed and crushed, generally using the traditional method involving a horse-drawn stone wheel, then left to ferment in large barrels, with the addition of water.
The resulting liquid is later distilled in clay or copper pots, then redistilled to increase the alcohol content – mezcals can reach an alcohol content of 55%. Mezcals that are bottled immediately after distillation are known as “joven”, or “young”. Others are aged in wooden barrels: “reposado” or “añejado” mezcals are aged from two to nine months, while “añejo” mezcals are aged for at least 12 months.
WHAT ABOUT THE INFAMOUS WORM?
This is a very good question. Not all bottles of mezcal contain a worm; for those that do, it is added during the bottling process. There is no real consensus on the purpose of the worm. Some see it as a marketing ploy, while others insist that it adds flavour.
The point that everyone agrees on is that the worm isn’t actually a worm. Instead, it’s a moth larva, of the species hypopta agavis, which are moths that live off of agave leaves.
HOW DO YOU DRINK MEZCAL?
In Mexico, mezcal is typically drunk straight, sometimes accompanied by sliced limes, lemons or oranges. These are often sprinkled with “worm salt” – a mixture of ground chili peppers, salt, and ground fried larvae.
Nowadays, mezcal is seeing itself added to more and more lists of cocktail ingredients. Bartenders around the world are incorporating it into their menus, and mezcal margaritas and sunrises are starting to become fairly commonplace.
Mezcal Unión Uno is an entirely artisanal, handmade mezcal made with Espadin and Cririal agave in Oaxaca Mexico. Subtlety sweet, earthy and herbaceous, it makes for a wonderful cocktail ingredient.
Koch El Tobalá is an artisanal single-agave mezcal from San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca. It is produced from Tobalá agave – a rare variety known as ‘The King of Agave’, that takes up to 12 years to mature, and which has a light, sweet, and floral profile. This astonishing mezcal is perfect for sipping neat.
If you really want to discover mezcal in the most authentic way imaginable, you need to get yourself over to Oaxaca for the International Mezcal Festival. Once a year, tourists and locals alike fill the streets of Oaxaca de Juàrez, trying out mezcals from all over the region and having a pretty awesome time as they do it.