Over the last few years, the Mexican spirits industry has grown with an incredible ferocity that has brought out not only tons of new Tequila brands, but a growing US appreciation for Mezcal and other agave-based alcohol.

In a general sense, every spirit distilled from agave is considered a mezcal, but from there it gets more complicated.

Agave Farming

Agave Farming

Photo by Rudy Prather

Agave has been distilled since at least the 1500’s, but likely was in production much earlier. All over the country, distillers make spirits from agave that would locally be called Mezcal, but in a legal sense the name is more select. In the 70’s through the 80’s Tequila began to experience its first international stardom, and all over the world anyone who could grow agave began trying to cash in on the trend. It was then that Mexico pursued and acquired a Designation of Origin (DO) that secured Mexico’s hold on the name Tequila. As the industry and international interest has grown the DO has expanded and additional protections were enacted for Mezcal and a few other regional iterations like Bacanora and Sotol.

What makes mezcal so unique and interesting? Simply put, Agave. The agave plant is incredibly unique and will be getting its own post later this month. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that there are thought to be over 200 species of agave, only a handful of which are used in spirit production. Most officially named mezcal is made from Espadín, Tobala, Arroqueno, and madrecuishe, each add their own flavor to the final product.

Agave Farming

Agave Farming

Photo by Analuisa Gamboa

Once agave is harvested it’s often roasted in an earthen pit oven, which is part of how it gets its smokey flavor. The pits are lined with rock, fired by wood, and covered with additional rocks to create a slow and steady roasting process. Some producers will cook their agave in above ground ovens made of brick. More industrial producers may also cook their agave in stainless steam ovens using steam, which is most often used for tequila.

After roasting, the agave is cut crushed to release the juices and sugars. This is done by hand with wooden mallets, using a stone wheel pulled by horse or donkey, or using a woodchipper. Once crushed, the pulp and juice are moved to open fermentation tanks where they can gather wild yeasts before moving to distillation. Part of what makes many traditional mezcals so unique is that there is a higher level of congeners than what is found in many other spirits.

While Mezcal will almost always have some smoke thanks to its roasting process, smoke should not be the only flavor. Common flavor notes can include green pepper, earthiness, herbs, citrus, florals, tropical fruit and more. With its complex flavor, Mezcal is perfect to drink alone, but it also makes for a surprising and delightful swap in many classic cocktails. One of our favorites is a Mezcal Negroni!

Mezcal Negroni

Ingredients:

  • 1 oz. Mezcal
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
  • Orange Twist for Garnish

Preparation: Add all liquid ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Express an orange peel over the top of the drink and drop it in as a garnish.