Many of our favorite Mexican spirits come from the agave, a dinosaur of a plant with a family that includes over 200 currently recognized species.
With a history of human use dating back 12,000 years, the agave is a truly unique plant with a long histroy. Belonging to the Asparagaceae class, there are about 102 taxa within the Agave family that are used for food and beverage production.
The earliest record we have of humans using agave comes from archeological evidence found in the Guitarrero Caves dating back 12,000 years. Hunter-gatherer groups were using ancient agave, although we don’t have a full understanding of how it was used. Because agave is a natural product that decomposes quickly, it’s hard to have a full picture of how long it’s been used, especially to brew spirits. We do know that agave was already being domesticated in 600 CE by Mayan farmers, and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th-century agave spirits were being brewed. Many accounts suggest that mezcal and agave spirits were not brewed until after Spanish colonizers arrived, but most likely, they were produced long before and were simply not well recorded.
One of the many unique things about agave interesting is the way it grows. To start, agave takes anywhere from six to 100 years to mature; most wild species take longer, while domesticated versions are often ready to harvest in six to eight years. This is one reason agave spirits are so unique; they require a significant time investment before they even make it to fermentation. There are three ways that the plants reproduce – creating clones around the base called hijuelos, seeds, or small clones that fall from the top of the mother called bulbils. These different grow methods are each unique for different reasons. To grow an agave from seed creates a genetically unique plant, which makes them less susceptible to disease but harder to grow and cultivate. In order to produce a seed, an agave plant must complete its full life cycle, adding time to the already long period before harvesting. On the plus side, agave grown from seed allows for new varieties to develop, leading to new flavors. Most farmed agave is grown from hijuelo clones as they are the easiest to work with. Bulbils clones are similar to work with but are far rarer to find, making them not a viable option for farming.
As far as plants go, the agave is incredibly useful. The fibers in the leaves can be used to make a range of products, including rope, sandals, construction materials, fuel, and textiles. The stems can be used to make needles and small tools. The hearts are what most know; the sweet flesh can be eaten or used to make a range of spirits, including pulque, mezcal, bacanora, and raicilla.
Different types of agave can produce different flavors in spirits, which are often called different names despite all being mezcal. Mezcal itself is a protected name and can only be used on spirits made in a few regions and from 30 specified types of agave. Most of the Mezcal on the market currently is made in Oaxaca from espadin. Bacanora is another mezcal with an appellation and can only be produced in the state of Sonora from pacifica agave. Raicilla can be made from a wide range of agave, which means the flavors can vary dramatically based on the batch. The flavors present can range from sweet and fruity to funky, earthy, musty, vegetal, herbaceous, and more. In short, if you’ve tried a mezcal you don’t like, keep trying.