I have spent a hefty amount of time surrounding by walls decorated with alcoholic splendors of all types. Definitively, there is an artistry and history attached to the craft of perfecting any spirit. One family keeps the recipe a highly guarded secret between father and son, never traveling together lest something happen and the recipe be lost forever. Another draws inspiration from a family legacy that draws far back into the past in which a great grand mother roasted agave in a smoldering pit in the ground.
It seems fascination at times grows and wanes around different products, their paths to production, and the folk-lore to which they are deeply attached. I find that when interest peaks, I end up talking in depth about a certain product. I am assumed to be the resident expert, and as such must become just that. From this I can surely tell you: Mezcal is about to make waves.
I have decided to put all of this extraneous information into a three-part guide– each tackling a different aspect of the spirit.
Parte Uno: History and Folklore
Here we get to discover the origins, myths, and legends that are associated with mezcal. What’s up with the whole worm thing? Where did the recipe come from?
Parte Dos: Todays Mezcal Aint your Grandmama’s Mezcal
Here we talk about the waves and trends of mezcal today. How has the drink changed over the years? Why the sudden resurgence? How does mezcal influence the culture of today?
Parte Tres: Drink it up!
Here we get to talk about some of the better- and lesser-known names in mezcal. What are the flavor profiles? Is all mezcal made equal? How can you flex your mezcal-knowing muscle next time you find yourself in front of a wall or glistening bottles? This is the part where I get to make up and share some cocktails that will wow any mezcal-curious crowd.
Orale! Let us begin.
Mezcal is made from the agave plant, most widely the variety espadin. This variety of the plant takes up to eight years to reach the desired maturity, though some other varieties take up to 25 years. Mezcal, like tequila, must come from Mexico. This reality is rigidly protected by NAFTA as part of a trade agreement.
Please, if you take away one thing, let it be to never ask if a tequila or mezcal is made locally. And please, pretty please, do not insist that you prefer a locally made tequila or mezcal. Unless you are asking these questions in Oaxaca or Jalisco, the answer is no, as it rightfully should be.
Legends attribute the agave plant with many healing properties and mystical symbolism.
In Mexico, Mayahuel, an Aztec goddess of fertility and nourishment, is often represented
by the agave plant. Legend has it that Mayahuel was being held captive by the highly feared Tzitzímitl, out of jealousy. Tzitzímitl would demand human sacrifices in exchange for light. Quetzalcoatl, the god of redemption, was angered by this and sought to find and destroy the evil woman. Upon reaching the heavens, he found Mayahuel sleeping. Instantly in love, he forgot about exacting his revenge and instead swept Mayahuel away to a different realm where they could express their love for one another. Once it was discovered that Quetzalcoatl had stolen her away, Tzitzímitl sent demons to chase them down. To escape the demons, they held each other closely and transformed into a tree. The demons destroyed the trunk of this tree, leaving only the sharp branches.
Quetzalcoatl, injured but alive, buried the pieces of what was left of his love, Mayahuel. The plants that grew from the broken pieces of her spilled out her blood, a sweet nectar that filled the plants. Quetzalcoatl drank the liquid and it gave him great solace. From this point on, the sweet nectar from these new plants continued to be extracted and consumed in rituals.
The Birth of a Spirit
Before agave was associated with intoxication and tradition, Aztecs used the plant to produce goods and facilitate important rituals. A comparison can be drawn to today’s understanding of hemp and its varied industrial uses. The agave nectar itself has evolved from its original usage as a fermented beverage that was almost exclusively consumed by nobles, religious figureheads, and the elderly.
“The fermented beverage, ‘pulque’, had a sacramental and medicinal value, and was not drunk for pleasure; it is believed to be the predecessor to both Tequila and Mezcal. The fibers of the plant were used for producing cloth; the pulp was used for producing paper; the leaves were used for hut roofs; the thorns were used for needles and hooks; and the plant was used to make Miel de Agave (Agave honey) and syrup.”
When Spanish conquistadors moved through the region, they introduced the process of distillation. This changed the fermented drink pulque into the distilled drink mezcal. “The word ‘mezcal’ itself most probably comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which is a combination of the words metl and ixcalli, and literally means ‘oven cooked agave’.(Toomas Gross)”
Today, the spirit is primarily produced in Oaxaca (though recently the market has spread to some other cities in Mexico because of increased demand). Since its induction mezcal has served as a symbol of solidarity. Oaxaca continues to be home to a predominantly indigenous population, and this culturally unique place in Mexico allows the tradition of mezcal making to remain preserved.
We, the Zapotecs of the Sierra, are strong and tough like mezcal. We do not get sick, we do not give up because we have mezcal. It is like the blood in our veins
Additionally, the religious differences between Protestant and Catholic populations and their views on consumption can serve as a demarcation. Some refer to the Catholic custom of celebrating saints as encouraging drinking, while protestant traditions often discourage drinking. In this way, if one is offered a drink of mezcal and refuses it, a clear religious line may be drawn.
From Plant to Spirit
The hearts of the agave plant are harvested by men wielding large sheaths. The hearts cannot be harvested using a machine, and thus the process of making agave has no choice but to remain the same over many years of production. After harvest, the hearts are
roasted over wood in large pits surrounded by stone. This process gives mezcal its differentiated flavors. The earthiness and smokiness begin to form and become varied through this process and the specific types of wood preferred by the distillery. Once the roasting is complete, the plants are smashed and fermented. The crushing process is performed by a horse drawn wheel before the plants are fermented in wooden containers that remain open rather than being sealed to allow airborne yeast to facilitate the fermentation process. Today, some distilleries use certain chemicals to push the fermentation forward. This is less common, however, than production without the use of chemicals. The pulp is then separated from the fibrous pieces that remain before being distilled two to three times to remove impurities. Often the liquid is run through sand and charcoal to clean and purify the mash and produce a clean consistent product.
This is one of the most commonly debated aspects of mezcal. I am often asked why I cannot offer a variety of mezcal that includes a worm. The answer is simple and two-parted: First; because that is not actually a worm you see, but a caterpillar that is commonly referred to as a maguey worm, and second; it is because I cannot offer a variety of mezcal that is low-quality enough to need one.
The first worm-sighting came around the 1950’s when Americans began to discover and import mezcal. To better market to tourists, Gusano Rojo (the company attributed with the first introduction of the worm) began placing a single insect into the bottom of each bottle of mezcal post-production. This brilliant ruse was intriguing to a new American market “[appearing] both exotic and traditional, and [giving] dudes a testing ground for their masculinity. (Alexandra Ossola)”
The worm is added at the end of the production process, when the liquor is bottled. It’s called a maguey worm, but it’s actually a caterpillar, with red and (less desirable) white varieties added to mezcal. It’s also commonly used in Mexican cuisine, served fried in tacos or sometimes raw. If you’ve been around enough mezcal, you’ll start to notice that it’s only the low-end bottles that still have the worm floating ominously at the bottom.
There is some room here for further testing and investigation. In my humble opinion, this is a continued effort to play off a misconception as something with deep and curious roots. There are those who still claim that the worm is an aphrodisiac, express-route to drunkville, or proof of a high alcohol content. These are all claims that have yet to be proven, despite years of testing. The truth is that a worm (caterpillar) lets a guy making bad-quality mezcal sell it to tourists at a phenomenally high fare.
There you have it! The unique and evolving creation that is mezcal.
In our next episode: after discovering mezcal’s past, it is time to enjoy the present and understand what has changed over the years. We take a look at what has caused mezcal to re-enter the limelight and discuss some of the ways mezcal continues to play an important role in daily life and Mexican culture.
For Further Reading and Addition Information:
P.S. The featured photo is not my own. A link to the site can be found here