In Mexico, mezcal is uniquely tied to the history and the culture. It is spiritual, romantic, mystical, traditional, and revered. It is served at births, weddings, funerals and everything in between.
In the U.S., mezcal is largely misunderstood, though we are trying to change that. In my youth (the bar-hopping good times of the late ’80’s) there was a bar in NYC called Lucy’s on the Upper West Side. It was a packed, raucous, meat-market (so I was told) that was always a scene. If you wanted a Lucy’s T-shirt though, you had to down a small bottle of mezcal that had a worm in it (I will get to the worm later). And this mezcal was DISGUSTING – the retching, burning, gag-inducing crap that you would only do when already well on your way, and your buddies were egging you on.
Unfortunately, most people, if they have any impression of mezcal at all, think of that nasty stuff with the worm. While you can still find this junk, today’s mezcals are nothing like that, and that’s what this blog is all about. As Eric Asimov, Food & Wine writer for the NY Times, said in 2010:
“Mezcal is one of the world’s great spirits: complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place.”
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Let’s review the basics of Mezcal (just the facts ma’am):
- Mezcal is the name given to all agave-based distillates. Therefore, all tequilas, for example, are actually mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila.
- Tequila, being a subset of the broader mezcal category, is made in 5 specific regions of Mexico and must be made with one particular variety of agave, the Blue Agave (aka, agave tequilano, the blue Weber, or century plant). The 5 regions are Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas
- Mezcal is made in 8 other regions of Mexico from as many as 16 to 30+ different types of agave (the exact number of agave types from which mezcal is made seems to be a bit of a moving target). The 8 regions are Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.
- Since 1995, mezcal has had a Denomination of Origin, which is an international recognition that for a spirit to be called “mezcal”, it must be made in the 8 designated regions of Mexico.
- Since 2005, Mexican law stipulates that mezcal must be certified to be sold and exported.
- Mezcal production is regulated by COMERCAM, an agency of the Mexican Government, while tequila is regulated by a different agency, the CRT.
- The majority of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca Mexico and made from the agave espadin.
- Most mezcals have a definitive smoky flavor which is driven by an artisan production technique which smoke the heart of the agave (the pina) in underground earthen pits.
- While there are around 1,500 tequilas certified for export, only about 60 mezcals are certified for export.
- The mezcal production process has been essentially unchanged for over 400 years.
That is a starter kit on mezcal. There are many other great resources on the web if you want to dig deeper. From time to time, I too will dig deeper, but for now, we leave it there. If you want more immediate depth, check out Ian Chadwick’s website at http://www.ianchadwick.com/tequila/mezcal.htm. It is full of great depth on the subject of mezcal (and tequila) even if some of the information is a bit dated. I don’t know Ian, but I think I like him….