The name mezcal has its roots in one of the ancient native languages of the area and translates as ‘agave (also known as maguey) cooked’. Although pre-Hispanic Oaxaqueños used maguey to make pulque (an undistilled alcoholic beverage), it seems that the real advances in mezcal production occurred when the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca; by bringing with them their knowledge of distillation processes.
Mezcal is a rich, handcrafted flavored drink that requires considerable attention to be produced. Mezcal production today remains more or less as it was when the Spanish arrived hundreds of years ago. Each “recipe” is transmitted from generation to generation within the families that care about its production; Because each family has its own approach to mezcal production, there are an enormous number of different flavors.
It is also in this way that the rich diversity of flavors and traditions are preserved for all to enjoy. Mezcal is normally served with white salt or worm salt (salt mixed with a cooked larva and ground chili), lemon or orange.
There are different types of maguey, and each produces a different version of mezcal; one of the best known, although it does not correspond exactly to the traditional definition of mezcal, is tequila. Simply put, tequila is actually a type of mezcal. The production of mezcal is regulated by the Official Mexican Standard NOM-070-SCFI-1994.
In excavations started in 1994 by anthropologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the town of Oaxaca, evidence was obtained to determine that mezcal was formerly obtained from the maguey plant (generally known for its use for making pulque).
In order to expand their research, university scientists developed, in 1998, the project La ruta del mezcal, through which they toured indigenous communities to identify the places where mezcal is produced in the artisanal way; they realized that it was still distilled in clay pots, and that they were dated around 400 BC.
Currently, mezcal has a Denomination of Origin, which protects the production of this drink in the states of Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. In 2018, the incorporation of the state of Aguascalientes, Morelos and the State of Mexico was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation. The states mentioned are the only regions in the world today that have the designation of origin called Mezcal.
Another approach refers that it is a drink that emerged during the colony, with the arrival of the stills. A curious fact is that many of the artisanal mezcals are distilled in what is known as the “Filipino alembic”. These stills came on Philippine ships, and coconut and palm beverages were distilled.
These Philippine ships reached the western coast of Mexico and spread their use. However, when entering the geography, coconut and palm were replaced by agave mead, and from there mezcal was obtained.
Types of Mezcales
It is possible to find a great variety of mezcals according to the type of distillation, according to the variety of agave or according to the fruits or herbs that are added to it; among them, worm, breast, white, miner, lemon verbena, scorpion, coffee cream and others.
When the plant reaches maturity (six to eight years), it is harvested and the leaves are cut, leaving only the heart or pineapple (it is so called because its shape is very similar to a pineapple), which is cooked and then it is ground.
Not all maguey species are acceptable: NOM 070 stipulates that they should be used exclusively: Agave angustifolia (espadín maguey), Agave esperima (maguey de cerro or raw maguey or ash maguey), Agave weberi (maguey de mezcal), Agave potatorum ( maguey de mezcal) and Agave salmiana. NOM 070 recognizes more than 20 varieties of agave to produce mezcal.
Each variety generates a mezcal with a different flavor. Mezcals are classified as ancestral, which are those that their elaboration meets certain requirements such as grinding with a mallet or taona and distilled in clay pots and the artisan class, which can be grinded with brush cutters and their distillation is in copper stills.
Types of Agave
Mezcal, like wine, is part of a plant (Agave in mezcal, Vitis vinífera in wine) but they have several types of it, mezcal can be made with approximately 14 different types of agave, there are wild agaves that, as their name suggests, these are agaves that are found in wild environments and not in fields like other agaves that have already been “domesticated”.
An example of these is the “Espadín” from Oaxaca, these types of mezcal are higher in prices because the producer uses more raw material to obtain the final product, therefore it is a unique product in quality, in addition, the taste is very different from a reposado or aged mezcal, these mezcals do not go through the barrel due to the high cost of production and because there is no point in assembling the complex flavors that they already entail. Sometimes they mix more than one type of agave in a bottle. These are called “assemblage” since it is the set of two or more types of mezcal in a bottle.
Types of wild agave:
Tobalá: Small wild agave with thick leaf also called “Papalometl”, these agaves give a mild mezcal in attack and easy to taste, excellent for people who are entering the world of mezcal, they can be found mainly in the Mixteca and in some places in Puebla.
Cuishe: Elongated and thin-leaf wild agave, these agaves once clean to be baked are elongated in shape very similar to the trunk of a tree, they give a mezcal with a strong flavor and incredible aromas where its aroma of maguey and the same honey water, these mezcals have complex flavors but excellent aftertastes where we can obtain different flavors depending on whether it was the first type (madrecuixe, bicuixe). They abound mainly in Oaxaca.
Coyote: Small agave with black spines and thick reddish leaves, this type of agaves gives a unique mezcal in flavor and aroma, strong flavor and lasting intensity, excellent for people who are in love with mezcal to include in their personal cellar. We can find them in the Mixteca, in Michoacán and Puebla.
Tepezate: Elongated leaf small agave, these agaves give a mezcal with a strong flavor and long-lasting aroma, where the alcoholic and intense flavors of the maguey abound, excellent mezcal to taste, we can find it mainly in Oaxaca.
Papalote: Small thick leaf agave, it may have other names depending on the region, also called “Cupreata” these agaves are slightly sweeter and softer compared to others, they give a mixture of rich and light flavors where the sweetness of the agave abounds. , we can find them in Puebla and Mixtec areas.
Cenizo: small thick leaf agave, from this type of agaves we obtain a mezcal rich in aroma and strong flavors, this type is found in the areas of Durango and Zacatecas, it can even be used to make Pulque.
Estoquillo: Small agave with an elongated leaf, we obtain a mezcal with strong flavors and long-lasting aromas, a balanced mezcal but with a marked intensity, mainly sweet flavors due to its large amounts of sugars, we can find it mostly in Tamaulipas.
Mexican: Elongated and large agave, we obtain a mezcal balanced in aromas and strong flavors, this agave is mainly found on the top of the mountains and due to its beauty it bears the name “Mexican” it can be found in the Mixteca but mainly in Oaxaca.
Difference between mezcal and tequila
A variety of mezcal is tequila, a drink that gets its name from the town where it is produced (Tequila (Jalisco)) and whose process has been fully industrialized, a situation that generates the great difference between tequila and artisanal mezcal. Unlike mezcal, tequila can only be made from the Tequilana Weber agave, a blue variety, while in mezcal all the agave species found within the area with designation of origin can be used as raw material mezcal.
Place of Origin
In Mexico, different liquors are produced and consumed that make the residents proud and give identity to the regions, and in Oaxaca it is mezcal. Like tequila, mezcal comes from a variety of agave, and its process is completely artisanal. In the vicinity of Oaxaca it is possible to visit factories that guarantee to have a very personal touch in each variety of their drinks.
The espadín, arroquense and tobalá agaves are three of the species that, fermented and distilled, produce as many varieties of mezcal. Sprat and arroquense are products of the crop, while tobalá is a wild agave that is the most common in the production of mezcal. Unlike tequila, which is only made with blue agave, mezcal varieties are made with a mix of different agave families.
The peasants wait patiently for the stalk to grow, as it will take about seven years for the plant to mature. The process begins when the farmer separates the pineapple from the stems, leaves and roots that surround it. Once the pineapples are obtained, they are cooked and then ground. The resulting bagasse is left to settle in large, fragrant vats.
Already here, the process requires calm and patience to wait for the bagasse to ferment; at this point, the liquid passes into the stills. This is the moment in which the artisan develops his particular way of endowing the future mezcal with its characteristic flavor. In the preparation of the authentic tobalá mezcal, it is essential that the process takes place in clay pots.
Finally, it should be noted that there are different varieties or types of Oaxacan mezcal: reposado, añejo, minero, “pechuga”, and “gusanito”.
Mezcal has a strong aromatic flavor of sweet, earthy and smoky citrus notes. Tequila too, but with a tendency to be neutral.
Agave species (maguey)
Mezcal is made from Agave vivipara variety “Haw”, and has more sugars and is larger. In Zacatecas, both blue agave (region of the canyons of Juchipila, Jalpa, etc.) and Agave salmiana (southeast region, Pinos and Villa Hidalgo) are used. For tequila, only Tequilana Weber agave, a blue variety, is used.
Elaboration Process of MEZCAL
The production of mezcal is artisanal and therefore varies from region to region. However, a more or less homogeneous process is determined that follows the following stages:
Cultivation and harvest
The process begins with the cultivation of the maguey. The sowing takes place in the most diverse lands, and its cultivation is within what is now known as organic agriculture, since no artificial products are used in it. The agave takes between 8 and 10 years to be “at its peak.”
Selection of the most suitable raw material
For generations, mezcal agaves have been selected from wild plants and have been improved. The grower has to verify its good condition so that they cut it.
Cut the pineapples
Later, the leaves and roots are cut until the center of the maguey is exposed, this form of the maguey is commonly known as “pineapple”.
Transfer to the palenque
The transfer of the pineapples to the palenques or mezcal factories is done in carts pulled by oxen or cargo trucks, depending on the amount and type of land where the collection has been made. The palenques are generally located near the plantations where they find the necessary resources to process the pineapples such as firewood and water. It should be ensured that they are roofed and that they have a cement floor.
Then comes the cooking of the pineapples. Before putting them in the floor oven, the pineapples are chopped with blows of the ax to facilitate cooking. The oven can be of two types and varies depending on its use. We generally see them lined with refractory stone, they are located in places where mezcal is produced in large quantities, they are mainly found in the municipalities of Tlacolula, Yautepec and Ejutla.
The oven had to be preheated until the stones show a red-hot color, then the pineapples are placed, covered with bagasse and then with earth. Baking lasts approximately three days to achieve full cooking. At the end of this phase, the agave changes from white to caramel, which is an indication of a good cooking, since it has been achieved “that the carbohydrates or starches contained in the pineapples are transformed into sugars.
It is generally carried out in an Egyptian mill, consisting of a cement well with a central post and a stone wheel that turns by the traction of a beast of burden controlled by a person. The cooked agave is also crumbled and crushed to obtain the musts that will be used for fermentation.
The musts are transported to oak or oak wood vats that can hold up to two thousand liters. The fermentation process has two fundamental elements: water and temperature. The time it takes to ferment will depend on the latter; that goes from three to five days. Natural fermentation allows microorganisms to act freely and break down carbohydrates to convert them into ethyl alcohol.
You can help the process without altering it, alternately pouring hot and cold water to support the microorganisms. However, it has been observed that some mezcaleros use ammonium sulfate to shorten fermentation times to increase their production. This form of fermentation is called accelerated, but “mezcaleros say that the taste of mezcal changes if any substance is added to accelerate fermentation.
At the end of the fermentation process, the cooked musts called “tepache” are passed to the alembics to carry out the distillation. This is done with bagasse and with equipment made of copper, clay pots, reed or quiote; depending on the region, customs or productive capacity. The mixture is heated in the alembic, evaporates and slowly condenses through a coil that deposits its contents in a container.
It is the last phase of the process, for this the mezcaleros standardize the product through various methods such as homogenization and stabilization of the mezcal. First there is the adjustment of the alcoholic degree, which according to the NOM of mezcal should be between 36 and 55% alcohol by volume.
This is done according to each producer. Some mezcaleros use a reed pipette and a small container where they pour the mezcal, they observe the formation of bubbles that is made and depending on the size of these “pearls” it is determined whether the mezcal is of good quality or not. Other modern means for the homogenization of the product is through laboratory tests that allow the distillate to be given the same graduation through various methods of dilution, filtration and settling.
Thus, “a pure, persistent, bright and full-bodied young drink” can be obtained, ready to be packaged according to the producers’ brands. Packing plants have diverse characteristics, from manual to semi-automatic packaging.
These help to carry out an adequate quality control of the mezcal; However, there is also bulk mezcal, which is more for local consumption, or also small producers that do not have registered trademarks and pack their mezcal in glass or black clay containers completely by hand.
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Guided Tours in OAXACA
Flights & Hotels in OAXACA
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