What is Mezcal?


Maguey Espadin (Agave angustifolia Haw) for Mezcal production. Mezcal is a distilled spirit, and can be made from some thirty varieti...

Maguey Espadin (Agave angustifolia Haw) for Mezcal production.
Maguey Espadin (Agave angustifolia Haw) for Mezcal production.

Mezcal is a distilled spirit, and can be made from some thirty varieties of agave, or maguey. It is typically produced by farmers using a laborious and antiquated method, at primitive distilleries known as palenques, and sold or shared in villages to mark births, funerals, and everything in between. Contrary to popular belief, it does not induce hallucinations. Originally, “mezcal” was a generic term, like “wine,” for a spirit produced all over Mexico. Tequila, a two-billion-dollar global business, is just a style of mezcal; developed in the state of Jalisco, it is made from a single variety, the blue agave, using a largely industrialized process, and consumed on spring break in the form of slammers. Often mixed with other alcohols and enhanced with caramel coloring, tequila can also pick up flavors from the wood in which it is aged—sometimes spent whiskey barrels bought from the United States.
Traditionally, the agaves used for mezcal are roasted in an underground pit, wild-fermented in open vats, and distilled to proof, yielding a punchy, petroly, funky spirit that is thought to be a uniquely eloquent expression of terroir. Regulations allow the proof to fall between 72 and 110—but hard-liners hold that anything lower than 90 isn’t “real” mezcal. There is scarcely a serious cocktail menu in a major American city that does not feature a mezcal drink—at least three have been named for Lopez—and more and more restaurants offer lists of obscure varietals, at twenty to thirty dollars for a two-ounce pour, as if they were wines from the Loire. Lopez’s father, like many of his compatriots, is stunned by the turn in mezcal’s fortune. In his time, producers emulated tequila and did what they could to compete with it, adding a worm for flavor and to distinguish their bottle on the shelf. Now tequila companies are looking for mezcal and emphasizing the simplicity and rusticity of their product whenever possible. “We tried to sophisticate mezcal, but it turned out that people like traditional things the most,” he told me.
The mezcal boom coincides with the popularity of farm-to-table food, the rise of the craft cocktail, and the advent of the bartender as an advocate for environmental and social justice. Lopez told me, “Mezcal hits every magic word—artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family. It automatically became cool when knowing what you eat became cool. Tequila got to the point where it’s like Tyson chicken—that’s Cuervo. Now I want to know my chicken’s name. That’s mezcal.”
Mezcal’s ascent is both a victory for those who love it and a cause for concern. The grains for whiskey are planted and harvested each year; grapes are perennials. But most agaves—succulents, kin to asparagus—resist domestication. Espadín, one of the easiest to grow, takes up to a decade to mature, and each piña—the usable core, stripped of its spiky blades—yields only about ten bottles of mezcal. Prized wild varieties can take longer and yield less. Tobalá, a tiny, feisty plant that grows under oaks on high-altitude slopes and secretes an enzyme that breaks down granite, needs as many as fifteen years, and gives up about two bottles of mezcal per piña_._ Tepeztate ripens over a quarter century. The desire to consume a botanical time capsule is fraught; every precious sip both supports a traditional craft and hastens its extinction. “I truly believe mezcal will be big everywhere, because it’s delicious,” Josh Goldman, a Los Angeles bar consultant, told me. “Though there may be a subconscious thing going on—see it or eat it before it’s gone.”
Throughout its history, mezcal—which is, at heart, homemade hooch—has periodically been banned, restricted, penalized, and suppressed. Its new aficionados appreciate the outlaw status: the more illegitimate a mezcal is, the more legit it is. (A popular brand memorializes its cross-border-smuggling origin story in its name: Ilegal.) With so much mezcal in the marketplace, seekers must work harder now. One evangelist, who travels back and forth from Mexico with a suitcase full of esoteric mezcals, told me that his favorite distiller works in a village three hours on a bad road from Oaxaca City. He gave me a phone number but warned me that probably no one would answer.
At Guelaguetza, Lopez showed me a prized bottle, which she acquired at a tasting six years ago and had been nursing ever since. Only an inch or two was left. “It is everything you would want in a mezcal,” she told me. “It is from a wild agave. The batch was only forty litres. It was distilled in clay. It was macerated by hand. It was fermented in leather. Nobody had that.” She poured some into a jícara, the dried hull of a fruit, often used to serve mezcal, and offered it to me. It was tangy and slick, like a dirty Martini, with a whiff of neat’s-foot oil. “Mezcal doesn’t taste like this anymore,” she said. “You can’t order this anywhere. You have to go to these places. You have to drink it hot off the still.”
The sun was going down when I landed in Oaxaca City, a cluster of pastel plaster, flanked by mountains. Lipstick-red flame trees were in bloom, and the air was filled with the intoxicating smell of gasoline. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Zapotec people built Monte Albán, a monumental city on a hill outside town; they worshipped a bat god and a human-jaguar-snake god, who brought rain and lightning. The Aztecs overtook the region, and then Oaxaca fell to Cortés, but the geography made colonialism a challenge. Sixteen indigenous languages are still spoken, and town names tend to be half Spanish, half something else—the capitulation of some royal bureaucrat preserved forever on the map. Oaxacans practice a spunky form of Catholicism: in some villages, saints who fail to grant favors risk getting slugged by their petitioners. Eating psilocybin mushrooms is accepted as a spiritual rite; if that isn’t your thing, four glasses of the agave beer known as pulque will reportedly deliver similar results. Even in the city, the culture remains stubbornly rural. At Casa Oaxaca—where René Redzepi, Alice Waters, and Rick Bayless like to eat—Alejandro Ruiz serves the pre-Columbian food of his country childhood: local herbs, exquisite moles, crickets, worms. The society is so traditional, Ruiz says, that “our competition is mama.”
Mezcal is integral to life in Oaxaca. It is medicine and social glue. Spooked children have mezcal spat into their faces; rashy ones have mezcal rubbed onto their skin; fussy ones have it massaged into their gums. “Mezcal is a way to welcome you home,” Ruiz told me. “It makes you cry, sing, dance, hug the neighbor you just met an hour ago—and then your soul rests.”
If your eyes are burning, if you said something insincere, if you have a hangover the next day, you are drinking mezcal wrong. One enthusiast I met, a Colombian woman whose extreme version of a dining club involves hunting for the main course, told me, “You must kiss the mezcal.” Besides the jícara, the most popular vessel is a glass votive holder with a cross etched on the bottom. The first sip is mouthwash—harsh, disinfecting, functional. The second reveals the flavors. By the third, people are saying the word “magic,” and it’s not that embarrassing. After another round, your mouth is fresh; your cheeks have turned to wax. You can sleep to the sound of fireworks—because it’s Tuesday in Oaxaca City—and wake up cheerful to unsynched church bells and crazed birds.
Sale of Mezcal in USA
Sale of Mezcal in USA
Many Americans who have learned to drink mezcal learned from Ron Cooper, a Southern California artist who takes credit for the phrase “sip it, don’t shoot it.” Cooper’s first encounter was less than sublime. It was 1963, and he and a dozen friends from art school were camping on the beach in Ensenada. They spent every night at Hussong’s Cantina, drinking Monte Albán, an industrially made mezcal the color of lemon Joy, with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. “I was the fool waiting for the worm every night,” he told me, when I met him for dinner in Oaxaca City. He showed me a picture of himself at Hussong’s, flopped over, head on the table.



Mezcal and agaves: What is Mezcal?
What is Mezcal?
Mezcal and agaves
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