Mezcal is considered by many people as the most authentic of all the Mexican distilled spirits.
Why ? Because unlike Tequila which is often exported in bulk, Mezcal can only be exported in bottle, and NEVER in bulk. Therefore it’s always properly controlled and authentic Indeed the majority of mezcales are bottled by hand and in small batches. This explains why it is generally much more expensive than Tequila. The word ‘Mezcal’ originates from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs meaning ‘cooked maguey / agave’.
People often wrongly refer to Mezcal as ‘Tequila with the worm’. This is not so ! Tequila is distilled in the 5 designated states whereas Mezcal is distilled in the Southern central states near the Gulf of Mexico, in and around the state of Oaxaca (pronounced WO-HA-KA ). Oaxaca is the most important producing states for Mezcal, which may also be made in other states (Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas).
Mezcal is produced from one of the members of the Agave family of succulents (not to be confused with the cactus family), also often called ‘maguey’ . The maguey plant (actually a Mexican-Indian name) has been cultivated in Mexico for millennia, depicted in earliest records by the indigenous Indians. The maguey plant over the centuries has been an integral part of the way of life and culture of the Indians of Mexico, long before the Spanish Conquistadors of Cortez arrived.
The Indians historically made a fermented beverage called ‘pulque’, which comes from the sap or juice of the maguey. Pulque when fermented, is a sweet beer-like drink. It was once considered by the Mexican Indians as sacred under the protection of Mayahauel, the Aztec goddess of the maguey plant and legendary foster mother. Pulque would be imbibed at religious ceremonies, but drunkenness was much frowned upon and severely punished, sometimes even by death.
The maguey plant fibres were used to make thread, string, and used for weaving. Paper was made out of its pulp. Hut roofs were constructed from its leaves and needles and hooks from its thorns; truly a plant central to the everyday lives of the Indians.
Today, it’s used apart from making Mezcal, especially for making fructose-rich Honey (miel de agave), fabric and more. Historically, pulque could be said to be the fermented predecessor of both spirits … Mezcal and Tequila.
The use of maguey to produce Mezcal dates from the Colonial Age when the Spanish applied the technique of distillation, to juice derived from roasting the heart of the locally grown maguey plant. They then would break it into loose fibres and mix it with water to make the fermented beverage = pulque.
It’s perhaps ironic the Spaniards learned of ‘distillation’ from the Muslim Arabs (around the time of the Moorish invasion of Spain in the 17th century). Even though the Spaniards banned the Indians from producing Mezcal, the art of distillation was soon learned by the Mexican indians. They adapted utensils they had on hand, using vessels of baked clay instead of copper stills.
Mezcal was used in religious ceremonies by the Indians and was considered a purifier of the soul.On drinking the fiery spirit, it was thought to rid the body of “evil spirits”. The Indian teachers called chamanes, or “men with knowledge”, were branded as witches by the Spaniards. That being said, the Indians were seen as the interface between man and the gods and were consulted about all matters including when to plant the Maguey. Mezcal figured greatly in the religious and cultural life of pre-columbian Indians.
During the Colonial Age, Mezcal was extensively traded through the exchange of products among the Indian groups from Central Valley to the High South Sierra Mountains. These were the area of origins of the Mezcal Export Trade.
Limited Mezcal production started in the 18th century, increasing especially during the Mexican Revolution. The demand grew as the South of Mexico increased its commercial and demographic links with the North, and eventually Mezcal exports slowly began to the US and further.
(Belonging to the Agavaceae family)
Latin names of different varieties of Agave, of which there are over 100, however only a relatively small number are authorized by law to be used to make Mezcal:
The Agave plant comprises thick and pulpy leaves ‘pencas’ that end in a hard spine, which originate from a central trunk, somewhat like a huge pineapple ! Occasionally it happens that an unfortunate rider is thrown from his horse on to an Agave plant – he would likely be impaled on the fearsome spikes – reminiscent of the punishment meted out by his Aztec ancestors.
When the Agave plant reach maturity, a long stem grows very quickly ‘quiote’ that measure from 4 – 5 meters in height, producing yellow and white flowers. The Agave reaches maturity in 6 to 30 years depending on the variety. In Oaxaca, where most Mezcal is produced, Agave angustifolia Haw, known locally as ‘Espadin’, is the predominant variety.
The Agave requires no irrigation, being perfectly adapted to these arid areas, where few other arable crops nor cattle could survive.
The average weight of each plant varies according to the area; one from the South Range may weighs up to 70 kilos and from the Central Valley 50 kilos, or less. High mountain agave, Tobala, are much smaller and weigh much less, although size is no measure of sweetness the source of the eventual spirit.
The agave may be grown in plantations in rows about 3.5 metres apart ,and the plants about 1.5 – 2 metres one from the other. This is much farther apart than found in the more fertile and less arid Tequila plantations up North in Jalisco province. The new budding plantlets (Hijuelos) are cut-off and separated from the 3 year old parent plants, and re-planted (known as “vegetative reproduction”).
If left uncut these would grow to maturity attached to the older plants, but are far less suitable in terms of their productivity and their vigour. It’s generally reckoned that the Agave will grow 1000 to 2000 per hectare and take around 8 years on average to mature. Each plant on average 50 Kilos giving approximately 5 litres of distilled Mezcal. These are generalisations as some agave will mature in 6 years, and other take 30 years!
Unlike Tequila, which is industrially produced from the Blue Agave, through steaming in sealed ovens, or stainless steel pressure cookers, the technique for making Mezcal differs. It remains true to the traditions used by the Spanish Conquistadors in the XVI the century, and remarkably little has changed.
It consists of five steps:
The core will then look like an enormous pineapple (therefore its name “piña”) weighing 25 to 60 Kilos and it is cut from the plant leaving only a stump behind. The heart of the Piña gives the best juice. The “piña” will be cut lengthways into halves and thrown into a clay oven which effectively is an eight-foot wide hole dug in the ground, made with fireproof bricks and preheated with wood.
The whole will be covered with maguey leaves, fireproof stones and clay and then left alone to roast for 2-7 days. This braising gives Mezcal its particular smoky taste and flavour.
Finally, a stone wheel (tahona) is drawn round and round by mules / “burros” which grinds the cooked fibres of the maguey in order to separate the pulp from the fibre. Nowadays tractors may be used to walk the tahona around the crushing pit,as diesel fumes are considerable preferable to ‘donkey fumes’ around the crushed fibres !!
The crushed agave fibres are then macerated in vats containing water. With the help of the local airborne yeasts, the fermentation begins and lasts several days producing a “beer like juice known as ‘mosto’.
The fermented liquid is then distilled through a double copper still , ‘coming over’at 43% – 46% and then broken down with water to chosen drinking strength (40% normally).
Most domestic Mezcal is distilled twice and for export markets where a higher quality is required, such as Mezcal Lajita it is distilled three times. This is to eliminate any impurities, especially methanol and excesses of copper which are commonly found in some Mezcal. The Mezcal is then left to mature normally for at least a minimum of 3 months to over a year (as in the case of Mezcal Lajita.)
As an interesting side-note, it may be mentioned here that in some species of maguey plant an ‘innoque worm’ makes its home. The worm known as the “gusano” is really a grub or larva of the “night-butterfly” which originates from a small egg left by the butterfly upon a young maguey plant.
At birth, the larva burrows into the heart of the maguey where it is protected from outside predators, growing to maturity.
Once mature, it transforms into a chrysalis and then into a butterfly, unless we find it first and put the larva into a bottle of Mezcal Lajita ! (Mexican-indian Name: Chiniquil or Michicuil, Latin name: Cossus Redtembacheri.
This “red worm” known colloquially as the chinicuil is collected from June to September from the heart of the Agave plant. The collecting is very hard and difficult as the worm must not be damaged in any way, otherwise the Mezcal would become cloudy! The right climatic conditions of heat and humidity are awaited when the worm leaves the plant and may be collected. Ideally they are collected in the rains when the “worms” come out on their own.
Actually there is a shortage of worms, which are much prized in the local restaurants for cooking in Oaxaqueño recipes. The ‘infecting’ of the Agave is a natural process, which could not be artificially enhanced. It is vital that just this particular larva is used as the innoque gusano is especially valued and regarded as pure and nutritious, and CLEAN.
Once a year the gusanos are laboriously collected and preserved in barrels of Mezcal ,until ready for bottling.
The gusano has been eaten as a part of the local cuisine since the pre-hispanic age and is valued for its taste and aroma, and (now we know) of the richness of its proteins. Hence it is not surprising that it is added to some Mezcal for added flavour, and that certain extra “je ne sais quoi”!
It is possible to obtain blanco Mezcal which is traditionally bottled without a worm, (arguably for the less adventurous!), however the vast majority of buyers expect the worm to be present Dietary Data of the worm: – (for the weight conscious!) 58.3% protein and 30.16% fats / oils. Locally the worm is fried and eaten with tomato and chilli sauces inside tacos and burritos etc.
The state of Oaxaca is the main producer and widely regarded as the Home of Mezcal. It is also produced in other Mexican States including Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, & Zacatecas. The province of Oaxaca covers 93.000 square km. (4.7% of the country).
The weather changes from very humid to dry, from hot to medium temperature with summer rains and high drought for half of the year. Its temperature varies from 12C. to 35C. with rainfall of 40 – 80 cm p.a. Of the total land surface, only 13,6% is used for agriculture (1,267,460 hectares). 118,692 hectares are irrigated leaving a great potential for future maguey plant cultivation which is one of the few plants that adapts itself to the semi-arid climate of Oaxaca.
MEZCAL : Magic and Mystery – Mezcal spirit distilled from agave, is comparable as other fine distilled spirits such as “Cognac is to wine” or “Malt whisky is to beer”.
It is a strong spirit normally 40% – 45% alcohol by volume and it has been alleged to contain a minute quantity of an alkaloid (mescaline), well known for its pharmacological hallucinogenic action.
In the period before the Spanish Conquistadores in Mexico, the Agave worm (Cossus Redtembacheri) was (and still is) much used in the local cuisine as a cooking additive. Among many natives it’s regarded as an aphrodisiac and a great luxury and a delicacy. Certainly due to their scarcity they were expensive and this added to their prestige and demand. In Oaxaca, at the time of “giving birth”, women will drink a small dose of Mezcal as an aid to endure the ordeal of childbirth due to the fact that the majority of women still practice natural childbirth.
In the Oaxaca area, diabetics take a small glass of Mezcal each morning before breakfast – just ONE glass ! The effects produced after drinking Mezcal are regarded by many Mexicans as a tonic. Furthermore, it is known medically to affect the vasodilation of the blood vessels and thus regarded locally as a kind of Mexican Viagra !!
Under European law one would be unable to confirm or encourage this idea, or endorse such claims!
E N D S.
Copyright. by Dale L. Sklar, M.Sc. 18th July 1997, revised Jan 2021