What is Mezcal?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Mezcal

The Spruce Eats / Maxwell Cozzi

Mezcal is derived from the agave plant, a genus comprised of some 200 species. Out of those, mezcal can be made from 40 to 50 species. As a result, it's a very diverse and complex spirit, both in flavor and history. Mezcal is native to Mexico, where it’s been enjoyed for centuries, though production has evolved over time. Consider this your ultimate guide to familiarizing yourself with mezcal.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Agave
  • ABV: 35-55%
  • Calories in a shot: 90
  • Origin: Mexico
  • Taste: Earthy, herbal, floral, citrus, or smoky, depending on variety
  • Aged: 0-3 or more years, depending on variety
  • Served: Traditionally sipped neat in a shot glass

How it's Made

Mezcal begins with a maguey plant, a member of the agave family which in Mexico. Although agave grows in most states in Mexico, only 9 states can legally produce mezcal, including Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

Both wild and cultivated varieties of agave are ready for harvest when the flower sprouts, shooting about 10 to 15 feet into the air. When this occurs is a true test of patience, since agave varieties can take anywhere from 6 to 70 years to mature. After the leaves (pencas in Spanish) have been hacked away, the heart of the agave (the piña), is sent to a mezcalero, or mezcal distiller.

Roasting the piñas is the first item in order, so the mezcalero builds a fire in a large, conical pit in the ground. When the blaze turns into a smolder, the piñas are added to the pit, covered, and allowed to cook for up to a week. Once roasted and ready, the piñas are ground into a pulp. If the mezcal is either an artisanal or ancestral variety, this will be accomplished with a tahona, a large stone wheel driven by livestock, or with a mazo, a wooden mallet wielded by hand.

The pulp is then transferred to wooden barrels, where it’s left to ferment in the open air for 4 to 10 days. This strays from the usual, strictly-controlled conditions common to many other fermentation processes. But as mezcalero, Armando Isidro of A Medios Chiles distillery puts it, this step is one of the most important for imparting the mezcal with its unique character.

The ferment is then distilled 2 to 3 times. If it’s artisanal, it will be distilled using copper pots but if it’s an ancestral variety, it will be distilled in clay pots. This yields a far lower volume, but some prefer the earthy flavor the clay imparts on the mezcal. As for aging the mezcal, it can be bottled and sold directly after distillation, which qualifies it as joven. If it’s aged from 2 months to 1 year, it will be labeled as reposado. Añejo is aged from 1 to 3 years, and extra añejo is aged for any period of time over 3 years. 

Taste

The taste of mezcal varies depending on the variety and how the spirit is made. For example, espadín tends to have a light, herbal flavor that sits well with many palates. Tobalá is more complex than espadín, exhibiting floral, sweet, and even spicy notes.

Contrary to popular belief, mezcal does not necessarily have a smoky flavor because this characteristic is dependent on how the piñas are roasted.  

Types

Between 40 and 50 agave varieties are used to make mezcal. Not all of these varieties are available in the United States. That said, you’ll readily find espadín. Tobalá, arroqueño, tepeztate, and many cuishe sub-varietals are rarer, but also available in the U.S.

How to Drink

Traditionally, this spirit is served in a shot glass and sipped, either with or without food. Another iteration is to pair a shot glass of mezcal with sliced oranges and sal de gusano, which is a seasoning made from salt, chile, and ground, toasted worm (the kind that lives inside the agave plant). Mezcal is also featured in cocktails, so you may seek it out in a craft cocktail bar or mix your own.

Mezcal vs. Tequila

This is a common conundrum since both mezcal and tequila have similar origins. Tequila is in fact a type of mezcal, but it is strictly made from the blue agave species. Also, legal standards indicate that it needs to be made from 51% agave, whereas mezcal must be made from 100% agave. To learn more, read our deep dive on the difference between mezcal and tequila.

Where to Buy

Mezcal is typically available at standard wine and spirits shops, though selection may vary. Scan the QR code on the bottle to check if the mezcal is authentic, as well as to learn who makes and owns it.

It’s important to support Mexican made and owned brands not only to maintain the health of local economies but for the quality. As the spirit has become popular in the U.S., large brands and people with no connection to the land or its people have been trying to market indifferently-made versions. Mezcal produced by mezcaleros grounded in history and tradition is often imprinted with a deep level of expertise and artistry.

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, the labels Viejo Indecente, A Medios Chiles, and Macurichos all produce high quality mezcals from Mexican-owned distilleries.

Cocktail Recipes

To make a cocktail with mezcal, it’s best to try the spirit by itself first. This will help you decide if it should be light and fruity or deep and complex. 

Mezcal

Getty Images / Starcevic

Mezcal Cocktail

Getty Images / Simon McGill

Mezcal cocktail

Getty Images / Alfredo Martinez / Contributor

Mezcal

Getty Images / Matthew Micah Wright