Mezcal 101: What is Mezcal? And Our Favorite Mezcal Cocktails
Tequila’s toasty, agave spirit cousin is finally taking its turn in the spotlight
Even if you’ve never tasted tequila, you’ve certainly heard of it.
Songs have sung its praise. And pop culture has put it on a pedestal for decades.
But when it comes to Mexican-inspired craft spirits, there’s more to life than just working with blue agave.
Because there’s more than 270 recognized species of agave plants in the world. Plus a number of natural hybrids. And from that overwhelming variety, we get all the smoke, spice and flavor of the agave spirits category known as mezcal.
So, what is mezcal anyway?
Before we get to talking about what mezcal is, let’s start by explaining what it is not. Mezcal is not tequila.
Real tequila is made from 100% blue agave, which is a close relative of the aloe plant. More specifically, the blue agave used to make genuine tequila must be grown and harvested in the Mexican state of Jalisco, or a smattering of other local municipalities in the surrounding area.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from a number of other agave plants.
Agave plants can take up to eight years to mature before they’re ready to be turned into mezcal.
Agave plants that don’t need to be grown exclusively in Jalisco.
While the majority of the world’s mezcal comes from the state of Oaxaca, it can also me produced in the following areas of Mexico: Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, Durango, San Luís Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas.
So based on state of origin and agave plant options alone, the mezcal category has plenty to offer in the way of variety when it comes to distilling agave spirits.
How Is Mezcal Made?
It all starts with ripe agave plants. Plants that can take eight years or more to reach maturity. And weigh anywhere in the neighborhood of 80 - 200 pounds a piece.
The term mezcal comes the Aztec “metl ixcalli”. Which translates as “oven-cooked agave”.
But the ways in which agave gets cooked to create mezcal are quite a bit different to how it gets cooked to make tequila.
Once harvested, the agave plants are stripped of their spines, exposing the hearts, or piñas.
Before it can be made into mezcal, agave plants must be stripped of their spines.
Where agave piñas for tequila are cooked for shorter periods of time in more conventional ovens, agave hearts roasted to make mezcal are either buried in smokey, earthen fire pits and then covered, or placed in above ground masonry ovens and left to bake for anywhere from three days to two weeks.
This is where mezcal picks up the signature, smokey and spiced aspects of its flavor profile.
But mezcal isn’t all char. This unique cooking process can also lend different floral, fruity and earthy notes to these agave spirits.
Once sufficiently roasted, the plants get crushed and mashed into a pulp, where the juices are extracted.
The juicy pulp is then mixed with water in large barrels, clay pots or other open vessels where the agave’s rich sugars begin to release, and spontaneous fermentation begins.
After fermenting in open containers for several days, the liquid is then twice distilled in a direct fire still.
The first distillation, known as ordinario, results in a product with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 37.5%, or around 75 proof.
A second distillation helps raise the final ABV of the finished product.
It’s during these distillation phases that mezcal producers can also add fruits, herbs and other ingredients to the blend in order to create different and exciting flavor varieties.
Enjoying Mezcal: Mezcal Drinks & Mezcal Cocktails
Traditionally, mezcal is consumed young. Which is to say straight from distillation with little to no aging.
However, mezcals aged in the barrel are not unheard of.
For those who find the char-forward flavor of mezcal too overpowering at first, barrel aging can really help mellow out an agave spirit’s naturally smoky palate.
Mezcal is easy to enjoy clean and cold, taken in small sips with a little water on hand to help cleanse the palate and stay hydrated.
But there are plenty of ways to make simple mezcal drinks that help bring its different flavors and aromas to light.
Just mix a splash of mezcal with honey, simple syrup, ginger beer or fresh lime juice over ice for a magical mezcal drink experience.
Mezcal also works as a wonderful substitute in cocktails that classically call for tequila such as traditional recipes like the margarita or the smash.
But for an extra-special mezcal cocktail experience, try out one or both of these exceptional mezcal cocktail recipes.
Mezcalitas featuring Mezcal Villasuso
Mezcalitas include orange juice and a spicy taijin rim that make the mezcal shine.
Fresh orange juice helps make Mezcalitas, one of the most popular mezcal cocktails. The acidity of the juice complements Mezcal and is rounded off nicely with a spicy Taijin rim.
Get the Recipe >