What is Mezcal?

Jul 6, 2020

Experiencing a Taste of Mexican Culture

When exploring new locales, it’s so important to get to know the culture. Many authentic experiences that allow you to uncover a place and its people revolve around culinary discoveries. This could not be truer when exploring Mexico. During trips to Mexico to meet with the artisans helping us craft the homewares for Wanderluxe Home, discovering their culture was important to us. This included trying all the food and drink – especially Mezcal!

Mexican gastronomy is part of what makes the culture so rich. Food is a way they share stories and history. It’s the way families still come together over a home-cooked meal. We learned that Mexican culinary staples center around their roots. Some recipes even date back to Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Corn tortillas, cheese, pork and beef, beans, salsa, fruits – all these current Mexican cuisine staples were such hundreds of years ago. But it’s not only the culinary delights that are a part of its history. Mezcal is also a product of the early history of Mexico and has since grown into a famous global household staple.

As we traveled, talked with locals, and visited museums, we got to know more about the history and production of mezcal. It was eye opening and delicious. Did you know that tequila is actually a form of mezcal, not the other way around? As we dove in we learned just how important this traditional liquor is to their culture.

A Brief History 

There are two stories to how mezcal came to be.

The first is the ancient Aztec fable. The agave plant was always sacred to their culture. The story goes that one day, a lightning bolt hit an agave plant and mezcal came to be. Because of this tale, they call it “elixir de los dioses”, or elixir of the gods.

The other story claims that mezcal was born after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. In the early-1500s the Spaniards conquered the area that is now Oaxaca. They brought with them many supplies including alcohol, but after running out, naturally they needed a replacement. At that moment the Spaniards taught the Aztecs distilling, yielding the first mezcal.

Regardless of the true birth of mezcal, it has always played a special part in Mexican culture.  You can’t go to a celebration, from weddings to funerals, without sipping on a little mezcal.

What is the Difference Between Mezcal & Tequila?

While both mezcal and tequila come from the palm of agave, there are many differences between the two liquors. Tequila is actually a variety of mezcal, many compare it to how scotch and bourbon are both varieties of whiskey.

While tequila has traditionally been the more popular beverage, in recent years mezcal’s popularity has been rising. The main importer of mezcal is the United States with the cocktail culture in the U.S. rising since the mid-2000s. With the ever-growing popularity of craft beverages, bartenders began to experiment with the lesser known mezcal. Since then, it has captured the taste buds of many and has become a staple on many cocktail menus across the globe.

Mezcal has an earthy, smoky flavor, due to the distilling process which we’ll explore later. Whereas tequila is slightly sweeter and not smoky at all.

Simply put, there are three main differences between tequila and mezcal:  

The Agave:

Tequila is only made with blue agave, whereas mezcal is produced from over thirty different types of agave.

The Distilling Process:

They distill tequila in copper pots, whereas they distill mezcal in clay pots below the earth.

The Region:

Mezcal is mainly produced in Southern Mexico in the state of Oaxaca, whereas tequila is mainly produced in states North of Mexico City like Jalisco. 

Now, let’s dive a little deeper into how they’re made!

The Process 

To produce tequila and mezcal, you use the piña or the center of an agave plant. While the process varies depending on the producer, region, and type of agave, there is a standard process most follow.

The Varieties of Agave

While there are hundreds of species of agave, only thirty are used to produce mezcal as we mentioned above. The species that are able to produce mezcal have a high enough sugar content to produce alcohol. To make tequila they can only use Weber blue agave, which is what makes it unique.

The flavor profile of the agave is what creates the flavor differences in mezcal.

The Distilling Process

First, the producers harvest the agave and extract the mature piña. Then, they cut the piña into quarters and roasted in pits with coals and rocks to extract the juices and make it sweeter. This method is only used to produce mezcal. For tequila, the piñas are usually steamed to avoid the smoky flavor produced when roasting the piñas.

Then, they crush the piñas. The traditional method which most small producers still use is a horse-driven stone grinding mill which turns as the horse walks in circles around the grinder. Some may do the milling by hand, while mass producers may use more modern machinery.

Once crushed, the producers mix the piñas with water and leave the mixture to ferment. As we mentioned earlier, they ferment tequila in copper pots, whereas mezcal is typically fermented in clay pots or wooden barrels.

After the fermentation process, producers distill mezcal typically twice before being bottled as a final product or left to age.

Fun fact: The piña can weigh upwards of 200 pounds!

The Final Product

There are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing mezcal and tequila.

On every bottle of mezcal you’ll find the producer, the region, and the type(s) of agave used. Tequila won’t always have this, as mezcal is more strictly regulated.

The final product for tequila and mezcal varies slightly depending on how long it is left to age.

Tequila blanco or mezcal joven age only a few months. Reposado, añejo, and extra añejo are distinctions that apply to both tequila and mezcal. When left to age less than a year, it’s called a Reposado, between 1-3 years is called añejo. You can also find extra añejo which is left to age for over three years. To age mezcal they use oak barrels, and typically the longer a mezcal it is left to age, the smoother the final product. These distinctions will be right on the bottle.

To taste the difference we recommend doing a tasting whether you’re traveling or at a local bar that serves up flights!

What’s with the Worm?

The worm is a moth larva found in the agave plant called gusano de maguey. The moth grows in agave and before it hits metamorphosis they harvest it with the agave plant.

While some think there is a lot of symbolism behind the worm at the bottom of the bottle, there really isn’t. It’s believed that it was just a marketing stunt that originated in the 1950s. They say that a purveyor found one in the bottom of a bottle and thought it enhanced the taste.

While many think there is a worm in every tequila bottle, that’s not the case. A true tequila will never have a worm in it, just mezcal. So if you see a tequila with a moth in it, walk the other way!

Where to Explore Mezcal & Tequila Culture in Mexico

Any bar or restaurant you walk into in Mexico has a wide selection of tequila and mezcal to taste. Our carefully curated list has the best spots we came across while exploring and following tips from locals!

Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal in Mexico City

When you get off the plane in Mexico City, one of your first stops should be Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal. The museum hosts an incredible display of culture and celebrates Mexican heritage and history. They offer tours and tastings, exhibits featuring agave, tequila, mezcal, mariachi culture, and more.

When you’re done exploring the exhibits, head to La Cantina or La Terraza on site. La Cantina is a quaint little bar filled with bright colors where they have plentiful options to sip on. La Terraza is the museum’s restaurant which serves up small plates and big views on the rooftop.

Favorite Bars in Oaxaca City

Mezcaloteca | Reforma No. 506, Ruta Independencia, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico

Make a reservation for a tasting here! They have experts who will teach you about 3-5 mezcal selections. From how to taste to where it comes from and the process – it’s a truly unique experience.

Mezcalogia | Calle de Manuel García Vigil # 509, Ruta Independencia, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico

This quaint little bar produces their own house mezcals that are utterly delicious. They have an international staff, which is unique for the area. Most of their team came for a visit, fell in love with the city and the culture and never left!

Mezcalería In Situ | Av. José María Morelos 511, Ruta Independencia, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico

In Situ is the Mezcalería with the largest collection of mezcals in the world. They have over 180 types of mezcal that you can try. You may have to go back more than once!

Mezcalería Los Amantes | Calle de Ignacio Allende 107, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, 68005 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico

Los Amantes is one of the most established brands of mezcal. Enjoy a tasting surrounded by traditional distilling tools and unique décor!

We loved exploring all these spots and chatting with the locals. There are so many hidden spots that produce their own artisanal mezcal that are so fun to discover for a true taste of Mexican culture.

Traveling with Mezcal & Tequila

When researching our first trip, we came across a Mexican adage about this important elixir that played true during our journey.

They say, “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.” Which means, “For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.” (Source)

Pro Tip: Leave some extra space in your suitcase or plan to get a case to check with your baggage. Visitors to Mexico cannot ship their liquor purchases to the United States. So, you have to check it when you travel home. During our last trip we checked a case of mezcal to enjoy when we returned home, no issues at all!

Mezcal is an integral part of Mexican culture. It is such an important piece of the culture to uncover if you’re traveling or learning more about this magnificent country from afar!

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