Like wine or beer, mezcal is a blanket term. In its broadest definition, it’s any distilled spirit made from the agave plant, which is known in Mexico as a maguey. Mezcal is meant to be sipped neat in small cups, but in the hands of a trustworthy bartender, a mezcal cocktail is a winning situation. Today, we’re digging into how it gets made. 

The Agave Plant

Agave is a succulent native to Mexico. There are roughly 30 different varieties of agave that can be used to make mezcal. They grow in the wild and on farms, and take seven to 20 years to mature. The most well-known maguey is the blue weber agave, because it’s used to make tequila. You read that right—tequila’s a type of mezcal. Excluding tequila, the majority of mezcal is made from the espadin agave plant because it’s high in sugar and matures quickly.

Mezcal Production

Mezcal’s distilled from the heart of the agave plant. The piña, as it’s known in Spanish, looks like an oversized pineapple. It can weigh up to 300 pounds and takes very difficult labor to harvest and transport. Once it’s pulled from the earth, the leaves are removed and the piña gets roasted to release its natural sugars.

Fermentation occurs when cooked agaves are mashed to a pulp and combined with water and yeast. After sitting for days, those sugars turn into alcohol. The liquid is then run through a still at least twice to refine it into a drinkable spirit.

There are industrial mezcal producers (often companies owned by Americans), but most mezcals are made in rural areas by Mexican families who don’t have access to expensive machinery. Farming, harvesting, and distillation processes have been passed down for generations and distillers, known as mezcaleros, have found creative ways to fabricate the equipment they need for mezcal production. A hole in the ground can be an oven, if you put your back into it. Need portable fermentation tanks? Rawhide will do. Want a mezcal with a fuller mouthfeel? Make your still from clay pots. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Types of Mezcal

Not all mezcals have a smoky flavor. The smokiness comes from the traditional method of roasting magueys in a pit covered with firewood and rocks. However, some mezcals taste bright and delicate, while others are herbaceous and viscous. Flavor varies based on the varietal, age, and terroir of the agave plant, as well as the water and production process.

The most produced type of mezcal is the ensamble. This is when a mezcalero takes different species of agave and roasts, ferments, and distills them together to balance flavors. There are also mezcals made from a single type of agave, and blends that mix mezcals after distillation.

Then there’s pechuga. Loosely translated, this means “breast.” The term refers to the animal breast, usually chicken, that’s hung over the still to impart savory flavors. Pechuga is made in small batches for special occasions like festivals and weddings. If you can find one, it’ll cost you a pretty peso.

Once distilled, mezcal’s stored in food-grade plastic or glass, and ultimately bottled joven (unaged). When it comes to alcohol content, the range will be 40–55% ABV, a little stronger than your average vodka or scotch.

Reposado and anejo mezcals aren’t as common because barrel-aging imparts flavors that detract from the natural taste of the mezcal. Besides, outside of the state of Jalisco where tequila’s made, oak barrels aren’t readily available in Mexico. Only tequila gets that treatment. 

Regulations and the Law

This wouldn’t be a proper article about booze if we didn’t address liquor laws and the quasi-illegal shenanigans surrounding their enforcement. The Mexican government relies on four “independent” companies to regulate mezcal. The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) is the biggest and most influential.

Many traditional mezcaleros ignore the CRM’s regulations because they view it as a pay-to-play system, which they either can’t afford or don’t want to endorse. Additionally, the CRM limits mezcal’s Denominacion de Origen (DO) to 10 of the 32 Mexican states. Oaxaca is probably the one you’ve heard of, but there’s also Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacan, Puebla, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Sinaloa, and Zacatecas. The result is that some of the most authentic, family-owned distilleries make “agave spirits” because their mezcal can’t legally be called mezcal.

Shopping Tips

My three rules when shopping for mezcal: (1) Celebrity brands overcharge and underdeliver; (2) glass is hard to come by in rural Mexico, so elaborate bottles aren’t good mezcal, they’re good marketing; (3) the label should be transparent about who, what, where, when, and how it was made.