Describing mezcal as tequila’s smoky cousin is a gross oversimplification of one of the world’s most diverse spirits categories. While both are distilled Mexican beverages made from agave plants, the similarities beyond this are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the factors that set them apart.
Where tequila is produced in the state of Jalisco using only Blue Weber agave, mezcal production spans nine states and utilizes dozens of agave varieties. While aging is an important part of tequila production — and often equated with quality — it is an afterthought in the mezcal category and largely unfavored by the finest producers.
Mezcal’s rich diversity makes it attractive to spirits aficionados, but this very same factor sets a high barrier of entry for those exploring the category, and who may be hesitant to invest in that first bottle. To lend a helping hand, VinePair spoke with a range of mezcal-loving industry pros to learn everything there is to know about Mexico’s “other” agave spirit.
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The professionals we consulted included Susan Coss, a mezcal educator and co-founder of the popular blog Mezcalistas; Scott Rosenbaum, a spirits educator and strategist for importer-distributor T. Edward Wines; and Taylor Samuels and Shad Kvetko, co-owners of Dallas’s first mezcaleria, Las Almas Rotas.
How Is Mezcal Made?
During maturation, agave plants produce inulin, a chain of fructose molecules that cannot be directly converted to alcohol. Instead, the plants must first be roasted. This typically (but not always) happens in pit or stone ovens, adding the drink’s signature smoky notes. The hearts are then pressed to release a runoff juice, which is fermented using ambient yeasts, and then finally distilled.
There are three legally defined mezcal categories, as set out by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM): Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral. Each category dictates the methods and equipment producers can use to make the spirit.
Mezcal is the most industrial of the three, allowing high-tech equipment such as autoclaves and diffusers (for roasting), stainless steel fermentation vessels, and continuous column stills. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mezcal Ancestral production is limited to traditional and much more rudimentary processes. Roasting takes place only in pit ovens, while fermentation can be carried out in a range of vessels including wooden tanks, hollowed-out stone or tree trunks, and animal skins. Forget fancy copper or stainless-steel stills, Mezcal Ancestral distillation exclusively uses clay pots fueled by fire.
In practice, only a handful of commercial Mezcal producers are set up to make Mezcal Ancestral. Rosenbaum warns against the assumption that, just because the standards are much stricter, this category is in some way superior to the other two. Instead, the different levels distinguish purely between style rather than quality, he says.
In other words: There are good and bad examples to be found in every category.
Where Is Mezcal Made?
The CRM currently allows mezcal production in nine different states: Oaxaca, Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato. Upwards of 90 percent of the bottles exported to the U.S. come from Oaxaca, with Durango placing a very distant second place behind it. After that, the remaining seven states contribute around 1 percent of mezcal exports combined.
Types of Agave Used in Mezcal Production
Before exploring the different agave varieties used in mezcal production, all of our experts stressed the same point: Production methods play a much more important role in the spirit’s final profile than the variety of agave used.
Two producers could, for example, use the exact same variety but end up with completely different flavors in their mezcal because of the way they processed the raw ingredients. Other factors that also influence the final flavor profile include the ambient yeasts that carry out fermentation and the conditions in which the agave plants grew, from soil type to altitude. Much like wine, the beauty of mezcal is the spirit’s ability to express terroir.
Next, we also need to discuss the difference between species and varieties — a very confusing aspect of the mezcal category.
The agave genus contains some 200 species, of which 40 to 50 can be used for mezcal production (per CRM regulations). Each individual species may additionally contain a number of different agave varieties, which are genetically very similar, but not identical.
These varieties are often referred to using non-scientific common names, which adds further complications. In some instances, one variety may have a range of different common names across the country, while in others, different states may use the same common name but in reference to different varieties. In this article, we’ve listed the most commonly produced species and included the main varieties within that species.
Species: Agave Angustifolia
Often described as the “workhorse” variety, Espadín accounts for somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of mezcal production. Espadín is less fibrous than other varieties, making it easier to break down after roasting. It also has a relatively high inulin content, allowing for efficient alcohol production. Producers also favor Espadín because of the ease with which it can be cultivated and the relatively short time it takes to reach maturity (six to eight years).
Regular tequila drinkers may note a similar profile in mezcals made from Espadín. This is no coincidence: Agave Tequilana, better known as Blue Weber agave, is another variety of the Agave Angustifolia species.
While some may be tempted to favor other, rarer varieties, each of the industry pros we spoke to warned against writing off Espadín, or thinking of it as less exciting. Rosenbaum said some of the “absolute best” mezcals he’s tasted are made from this variety, while Coss described it as the perfect agave for expressing the terroir in which it was grown.
Species: Agave Potatorum
Found in southern Mexico across Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and Michoacan, Tobalá is an incredibly rare variety that cannot reproduce asexually (unlike many other varieties that can propagate sexually and asexually). Instead, it relies on bats and birds to spread its seed. Tobalá takes between 10 and 15 years to mature and produces low-yielding piñas with a low inulin content. For this reason, the earthy, fruity mezcals it produces are often very expensive.
Species: Agave Karwinskii
Varieties: Cuishe, Baicuishe, Madre Cuishe, Barril, Tobaziche, Verde
Most commonly found in Oaxaca and Puebla, the Agave Karwinskii species contains a number of important varieties, with Tobaziche perhaps the most notable. Often harvested wild rather than cultivated, Karwinskii varieties are visually distinct, with a thick, baseball-bat-like heart developing over the 10-plus years the plant takes to mature. Karwinskii mezcals often contain herbal, mineral-rich flavor profiles. Kvetko describes them as having a “chalky” texture, akin to a high-cacao-content chocolate bar.
Species: Agave Americana
Another rare variety, Arroqueño is a visually stunning agave with leaves that can span as wide as 10 feet. In addition to its rarity, Arroqueño takes up to 25 years to reach maturity. It produces floral mezcals, with prominent “green” notes.
Species: Agave Marmorata
When it reaches maturity, Tepeztate sprouts striking yellow flowers at the tip of its quijotes (stems), but it can take as long as 25 years before this happens. Most commonly found in southern Mexico, in Guerrero and Oaxaca, this variety produces intensely flavored, spicy mezcals.
Species: Agave Durangensis
Typically found outside of Oaxaca, Cenizo is the most common agave used in Durango. It also appears in Jalisco, Puebla, and Michoacan. Cenizo grows at high altitudes — up to 8,500 feet — in cold, dry conditions. The flavor profiles of mezcals made using this variety vary significantly depending on the region in which they were grown.
Unlike tequila, aging is not an important aspect of mezcal production. Mezcal production has traditionally taken place in rural communities, and the cost of barrels is prohibitively expensive. But even now, when production is much more commercially focused than before, most mezcal enthusiasts argue that barrel aging only detracts from the spirit’s ability to showcase terroir.
This said, the same Joven, Reposado, and Añejo classifications found in tequila production also exist within the mezcal category. The aging periods required for each style are identical to tequila, and some larger-scale mezcal producers offer Reposado and Añejo expressions. They remain the exception rather than the rule, however.
Another much more common form of aging sees the spirit rested in glass containers before release. Known as Madurado en Vidrio, the term applies to any mezcal that’s been stored this way for over 12 months. Traditionally, this type of aging took place underground, but the CRM now allows it to occur in warehouses or storage facilities that experience minimal variations in light, temperature, and humidity.
Glass aging allows for slow oxidation, without the evaporation that would occur in barrels. The technique also allows the spirit to mellow slowly without taking on any extra flavors from oak.
Other Mezcal Styles
Traditionally made for special celebrations, Pechuga is a peculiar style of mezcal. A flavored, re-distilled version of the spirit, its name comes from the practice of including a chicken or turkey breast in the still during a second distillation. (Pechuga means breast in Spanish.)
As vapor passes through the meat, which is hung above the boiling mezcal, it infuses the spirit with full-bodied, earthy flavors. A range of other flavor-giving ingredients are also traditionally added to the boiling spirit, including fruits, vegetables, and spices.
Nowadays, there are no hard and fast rules as to what a pechuga can or cannot include. Celebrity chef José Andrés famously worked with Del Maguey to make Iberico ham pechuga, while vegan examples and mole poblano-infused versions are also available.
As pechuga recipes were traditionally handed down through family generations, Rosenbaum points out this style should be thought of as a “special,” but not necessarily the “best,” form of mezcal. Pechuga was never intended to be sold or commercialized, he says, though pricey versions are now available.