It’s only in the last five or so years that mezcal has become well known outside of Mexico. And within this fiery nation it was seen as the drink of miners and Mexican cowboys (charros) for many years, so not considered very hip.
Until now that is. And all because of Mexico City’s new cool kids on the street – mezcalerias. La Botica Mezcaleria has been credited for spearheading the resurgence of drinking mezcal, with this edgy (yet tiny) bar dedicated to the spirit opening in Mexico City’s La Condesa in 2005.
You’ll now find lots of mezcalerias sprinkled around Mexico City, and they are some of the best and most fascinating bars to drink in. Look out for them in the neighbourhoods of Roma and La Condesa – they are usually discernable by the bustle of happy locals and excellent music.
Before the Spanish arrived, locals drank pulque – a low-alcohol drink made from agave pulp. Desiring something stronger, conquistadors brought forth the distillery and, after much experimentation, mezcal was born.
Mezcal now has DOM (Domination of Origin) status, and has to be grown and produced in one of seven Mexican states to carry the mezcal name; Oaxaca is Mexico’s biggest mezcal producer.
What is it made from?
Mezcal is made from the heart (piña) of the agave plant (also known as the maguey plant). It can be made from one of 28 varieties (there are around 400) and must use 100% agave to be called mezcal.
What makes mezcal special?
The beauty of mezcal is that it’s often handmade by small, family-run producers who have been making it for generations. The agave hearts are stone ground then roasted, and the process allows for a natural rather than a chemical fermentation.
Oh and it tastes like nothing else on earth.
Mezcal is often described as smoky. And this is because of the wood fires used to roast the agave. But certain aficionados claim smoke is too broad a description and instead spout chili pepper, chocolate, ash, wood and fire.
And like wines, there are subtle ways to produce different tastes in a mezcal, and these depend on the variety of agave chosen and the process followed. A very slow, underground roasting of the agave releases flavours like walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin, brown sugar and caramel. Then, there are mezcals that haven’t been fully roasted, which produce a more citrus, green and floral taste. And natural fermentation brings forth the taste of banana, pineapple and dried fruits.
Intriguing, no? How a mezcal tastes is as unique as the bottle you are drinking.
And something important to remember: mezcal is made to be sipped. Shots are just a drink wasted.
What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila?
Tequila is a type of mezcal, but is made only using the weber blue (agave tequilana) variety of agave. It also has DOM status, and must be grown in the state of Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located. Agave is steamed to make tequila rather than roasted, uses a chemical fermentation and is often made in factories rather than being artisanal like many mezcals.
What’s up with the worm?
There are two trains of thought as to why mezcal contains a worm: one maintains it’s to do with flavouring; the other swears it is a marketing ploy for the gringos. No matter why it’s there, it is not well liked by people who take mezcal seriously, and a worm often indicates a cheaper and less refined mezcal. Plus it’s a little gross.
Will mezcal make me high?
No (although it may be another story if you scupper a bottle). The word ‘mezcal’ is often mixed up with the word ‘mescaline’, which is a hallucinogen found in some varieties of cactus, such as peyote.
Once tried, mezcal is an easy drink to embrace – a little like whisky or a fine wine. And while you may find a local drinking establishment that has embraced this fine spirit, there’s nothing quite like slowly sipping a glass in the country where it was born. Especially when that country is as bewitching as Mexico!
Have you ever been game enough to try mezcal during your tour of Mexico?
Feature image c/o Steve McClanahan, Flickr