Mezcal is the broad name for distilled alcoholic beverages made from the juice of the agave plant. There are many species of agave plants that grow throughout Mexico, all with their own flavour profiles. As with wine, each species will take the flavours of where they are grown.
The most famous of Mexico’s agave distillates is tequila. But for a mezcal to be called tequila it can only be made from one species of agave, the Blue Weber agave, and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Tequila is recognized as a Mexican designation of origin product in more than 40 countries.
HOW MEZCAL AND TEQUILA ARE PRODUCED
Agaves are not cacti, but in fact belong to the lily family. They are grown in fields or in the wilds and are looked after by farmers called ‘jimadors’. On average, they take 7-12 years to mature to sufficient ripeness for harvest. When it is time, the agave is cut at the base of the root, killing it and the ‘pencas’ (long spines) are shaved off with a long handled sharp hoe. What is left is the heart of the agave which now looks like a big pineapple so they call it a ‘piña’. The piñas are then chopped into quarters and taken off to the ovens to be cooked or roasted. A big difference between mezcal and tequila is how the piñas are cooked. For tequila they are generally baked in brick ovens and for mezcal they are generally cooked with fire in an underground stone lined pit lending a deep smoky flavour. Once cooked, the sweet juice or aguamiel is extracted from the piñas, the juice it is fermented naturally or a propriety yeast is added, it is then distilled to obtain a strong clear alcoholic beverage that can be drunk straight away.
A Mezcal or Tequila that has not been aged is called BLANCO, if aged from 2 months to a year is called REPOSADO and if aged for longer than 1 year to 3 years is called ANEJO, any longer time is EXTRA ANEJO.
HOW TO DRINK MEZCAL AND TEQUILA
In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila or mezcal is neat, without lime and salt. It is popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—sweet, sour, and spicy drink typically made from orange juice, tomato juice and hot chilli. Equal-sized shots of tequila/mezcal and sangrita are sipped alternately, without salt or lime.
Another popular drink in Mexico is the bandera (flag, in Spanish), named after the Flag of Mexico, it consists of three shot glasses, filled with lime juice (for the green), white tequila/mezcal, and sangrita (for the red).