Like queso, chalupas, and other quesos before them, The most prolific spirits in Mexico were influenced by American cultural norms.
You’ve heard of the concept. There’s Tequila first, which is typically drunk in a shot, accompanied by lime and salt to soothe the taste. Then, mezcal, which was once a worm-infused gift from a shop selling gifts in Cancun, is currently on the menu at every trendy bar and only described using the hackneyed word “smoky.”
Both agave-based drinks have been devalued through marketing experts in the U.S. marketing machine. Traditionally, connoisseurs of the art of Tequila and mezcal have their roots in a long-standing hand-crafted tradition that dates back to the past, providing sophisticated flavors affected by things like geography, age, and the manufacturing process.
If you’re planning to have a taste of the stateside or even south of the border, You owe it to yourself to take agave in stride with a bit of understanding.
What is the difference between mezcal and Tequila?
The most significant distinction is that mezcal can be produced out of 50 different varieties of agave – either blended in a group or separately distilled; Tequila can only be made using mezcal of the Blue Weber variety. At a fundamental level, the term “tequila” is a legal designation for one kind of mezcal. (Think of whiskey’s relationship with bourbon. )
Mezcal and Tequila’s process of making and tasting are also different. The Tequila Blue Weber is steamed. However, the agave used in mezcal is generally baked, which gives its distinct smokey flavor.
What is Agve?
Agave is an herb that thrives in dry and hot conditions. A plant with spiky leaves that resembles the crown of a pineapple and is more genetically related to an onion or a head of garlic than it is a cactus. Emma Janzen, author of Mezcal The Story Craft, Cocktails and History of the World’s Most Artisanal Spirit, as well as the editor of digital content at Imbibe.
The entire family of agave spirits that were produced throughout Mexico were initially referred to as vinos of mezcales. The 1800s saw pockets of production began to emerge in the vicinity of Tequila within Jalisco, the Mexican State of Jalisco, in which Blue Weber was abundant. With the growth of output, the spirit gained its own identity distinct from mezcal and soon became the most popular agave liquor at the time.
Mezcal is only recently becoming a sought-after spirit. According to MarketWatch, the mezcal market is expected to grow at a pace of around 22 percent annually from 2018 until 2022. In addition, the global market for Tequila is projected to grow by 4 percent a year between 2019 and 2025.
In the United States, the majority of Tequilas sold in stores are controlled by multinational corporations, and the amount of mezcals sold on the mass market is growing also. If you’re wondering if the bottle is made by hand as it appears on the label, Janzen suggests you look for the official NOM (Norma Official Mexicana) number that appears on the bottle by using an app such as Tequila Matchmaker or in a database such as Mezcalistas which provides information regarding the distillery. Labels of quality mezcal contain additional art-related indicators, like names of particular mezcalero.
Tequila: How should you be aware of
Have you ever placed a bottle of vodka in the freezer to ease its sting? A high-quality tequila should not burn you. However, it requires an eye for the top brands.
The first thing to look for on the label is the words “100 percent agave,” because it’s legal to create Tequila by adding other sugars that aren’t agave (typically the sugar cane). These are the bottom-shelf varieties, also known as mixtos, and they only need an agave content of 51 percent.
Tequila’s distinctive origins result in more consistent flavor across bottles. In the process of production, a Blue Weber agave plant is cut down to its core and then steam-cooked to extract the juices. As with champagne, mezcal and Tequila are able to legally be referred to as such if they’re produced in certain areas. Tequila production is only available in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan.
Different kinds of Tequila
The last two varieties are aged in barrels reposado over at least two months and Anejo for at least 12 months. The wood in the barrel darkens the spirit until it turns a golden color and softens its more pronounced flavor notes.
Blanco will be the drink of aficionados. The newest of all, it offers the best agave flavor without any alteration by time or storage container.
Mezcal: What do you need to be aware of
Nowadays, well-made mezcal is free of any insect at the bottle’s bottom. (Decades ago, long before it became popular, a preserved worm showed that the drink had a high level of alcohol.) It’s a drink with a rich and long-standing hand-crafted tradition. Beverage that was traditionally consumed in Mexico for major events such as weddings, childbirths, and funerals.
When Tequila’s Blue Weber is steamed, mezcal’s agave is usually roasting (often in charcoal pits), and then it is transformed into those signature smokey notes. When done right, the smoke is just a part of the other flavors.
The language has diluted the richness of the drink. Smoke is certainly a characteristic; if it is overdone, it could be an indication of mezcal made poorly. (Some industrial brands even add fake smoke.) Her book Janzen discusses mezcal’s flavor characteristics that range from anise and grilled cheese to vanilla and asparagus.
Others are infused with non-agave ingredients. One called”pechuga” (“breast” from Spanish) has been “made when a finished mezcal is redistilled with local fruits, grains, and nuts, and a raw chicken or turkey breast is hung over the still, cooking in the emanating vapors,” says Eater.
Since it is made from a variety of agave plants, the flavor of mezcal is a lot different. The broad spectrum of taste can make mezcal special. The flavors are influenced by a variety of varieties of agaves and their manufacturing processes in addition to the concept of terroir, which is typically used to describe a wine that describes how the taste of the grape (or, in this case, an agave plant) can be affected by various the soil’s composition, temperatures and weather.
Where did mezcal originate from?
The production of mezcals is restricted only to states like Oaxaca, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guerrero, Puebla, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan.
Different kinds of mezcal
Mexican government officially separates mezcal distillers into three distinct categories. The three categories must be listed on the label in order to identify the spirit contained in mezcal that is certified.
Ancestral mezcal is created in the same manner as it has been for centuries without modern technology (that is made by hand and then distilled in clay vessels instead of copper tanks or stainless steel stills). The artisanal version is somewhat more automated, whereas industrial production puts the traditional handicraftsmanship out the window completely.
The best mezcal you can purchase within the United States
Espadin is one of the most sought-after mezcal agave, and it’s the one you’ll encounter most often within the United States. Janzen suggests seeking out Neta Espadin ($100, artisanwineshop.com), a newer import she says is “making waves with agave lovers everywhere for its exceptional quality.” That said, she also advocates for branching out to try brands made with other varietals once you’ve properly primed your palate.