If all tequila are technically mezcal, the opposite is not true. Originally all the alcohol produced from the agave juice was called mezcal. The distinction between the two spirits has been made since the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution made it possible to cook agave hearts (pinecones) in steam ovens. A technical improvement rapidly adopted by the majority of producers in the state of Jalisco, who will abandon the traditional cooking method (ovens dug into the earth) to the mezcal producers of Oaxaca.
The mezcal market is still largely based on domestic distillation. Produced within the farms, some of which are more than 2000 meters above sea level (San Louis del Rio), the production of mezcal is naturally in the continuity of agricultural work and rarely exceeds 400 liters per month. The number of mezcal producers still using ancestral methods is estimated at around 500. After 2005 each distillery, regardless of its size, has a NOM, an identification number placed on the label that allows to identify the origin of the product.
Seven states in Mexico are authorized to produce mezcal: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango and Tamaulipas. The constraints related to the typography of places (mountains, poor soils) limit the cultivation of agave, which cannot be so intensive except in the state of Jalisco. The cultivation on the terrace is the most used and, for the rarer varieties, the yield per hectare does not exceed 400 agave plants. If a single agave variety, the Tequilana Weber Azul, is legally permitted to produce tequila, mezcal can be produced from different species grown in the states; however the variety called Espadin dominates.
In the state of Oaxaca the mezcal Espadin represents almost 90% of the cultivated plants, which exposes the local farmers to the same risks as those of Jalisco: the cultivation of a single cloned variety without truce, causes the weakening of the plant genes and favors the proliferation of diseases and insects (caterpillars). Agave growers run the risk of losing the work of many years in a few months. In order to remedy this, many of them favor diversity and select other varieties.
Mexican brandy born from the fermentation and distillation of the juice of the agaves grown within the seven states authorized by law. There are many varieties of mezcal: espadin, tobalà, tobaziche, cenizo, papalometl. The 100% agave mezcal are distinguished from the mixed ones processed starting from at least 80% of agave juice. These two categories must necessarily be bottled in Mexico in order to benefit from the Mezcal denomination.
Once uprooted from the ground, the agave is stripped of its leaves to uncover the heart: the pine cone. A 70-pound pine cone will produce about 10 liters of alcohol. Cut into two or four, the pine cones are placed inside the ovens (palenques) dug under the ground: conical in shape, measuring more than 3 meters in diameter and 2.5 meters deep, these ovens are tiled with stones that are preheated for 24 hours before depositing pine cones. Covered with the fibrous remains of agave still damp from previous cooking, the pine cones are buried under a mass of palm leaves, agave and earth, then left to cook for 2 or 3 days. Once cooked, they are discovered and left to rest in the open air for a week.
A first spontaneous fermentation then develops. The pine cones are then ground in a stone mill operated by a donkey or a horse. The pulp, the juice and the fibers are mixed with water (about 10%) to produce a sweet liquid.
The fermentation liquid thus obtained is poured into a wooden cuve. Then a second natural fermentation begins which can last from one to four weeks. The mezcal is then distilled twice, exceptionally three times. Distillation is generally carried out in copper stills (introduced by the Spanish) or in ceramics (introduced by the Chinese). The must is poured into it with part of the fibrous residues of the agave. At the end of the first distillation, the still is emptied of its contents before a second distillation is made.
Traditionally, mezcal is left to rest in ceramic jars. But always more often, the stainless steel cuves tend to replace them. The introduction of the stems is relatively recent (1950) and for the most part they are ex-bourbon drums. The ex-sherry stems are used for special cuvées.
The are two main types of mezcal: 100% agave and mixed.
100% agave: mainly originated from handicraft productions and products in very small quantities, the 100% agave are processed starting from a single variety of agave ("single agave") or from the mixture of numerous varieties ("blend of agave"). The 100% mezcal cannot contain other added elements.
Mixed: mezcal processed starting from a minimum of 80% of agave juice and 20% of other juices, often extracted from sugar cane.
Abacado: more commonly known under the name of "blanco" or "joven", this mezcal is colorless and comes directly from the alembic.
Reposado & Madurato: mezcal aged from 2 to 11 months in oak barrels or in very large barrels.
Añejo: allowed to age at least 12 months in oak barrels of a maximum of 200 liters, however, this mezcal can wait several years before being bottled.
Minero: this historical category was created for the employees of the gold and silver mines of the colonial period. The mezcal Minero was then more expensive and considered the best. Its production does not depend on a particular agave variety, it was more often originated from a triple distillation. At the time, only a miner could afford this alcohol.
Pechuga: put to macerate in a cuve with fruit (apples and plums), the mezcal then undergoes a third distillation. Particular point: a chicken or turkey breast is suspended above the cuve or inside the still, to extract the fruity dominant.
Mezcal Cream: recently authorized by the law, Mezcal Cream is not necessarily produced from milk or cream, as its name might suggest. Its peculiarity? Its composition based on fresh or dried fruit and spices is the nearest to liqueurs.
Gusanito: or “little caterpillar”. In the traditional production of mezcal, this insect, which can devastate entire fields, is left to macerate on the bottom of a bottle. The red caterpillar devours the heart of the pine cone, while the white caterpillar prefers its leaves.
The mezcal is to Mexico as the Islay malts are to Scotland: the expression of a territory and of a very specific way of production. Both thus offer a naturally smoky character, which they share in the field of tasting. A tasting which, as far as mezcal is concerned, tends to democratize, thanks to the inspiration and creative talent of many mixologists.
Due to the different varieties of agave used and a still largely traditional production system, mezcal offer a prodigious range of aromas and flavors. Beyond the unique character of each mezcal, aging in oak barrels has come to bestow and enrich the aromatic palette of this brandy.
Whether "blanco" or "añejo", a mezcal is savored pure, at room temperature for the aged versions, or slightly cool for the "blanco" versions. The CRT has developed a "tulip" glass suitable for tasting tequila and mezcal, but INAO glasses remain appropriate.