I always keep a running mental list of all the mezcals I taste and read about that are made with magueys other than the agave espadin (which accounts for about 90% of mezcal production). For years, really the only one I would see beyond espadin, was the Del Maguey Tobala.
However, in the last few years, I have started to see other agave varieties pop up in mezcal such as madrecuixe and tepeztate. But I keep hearing there are about 30 varieties of agave that can make mezcal, so first I started wondering where they all are hiding (perhaps with the Knicks offense?), and then I wanted to know precisely which agaves can be used to make mezcal.
So let’s first tackle the varieties question. This should be a simple exercise. I mean, am I trying to oust protesters from Zuccotti Park? No. I just want to find an answer to a seemingly simple question. So, of course, I know I can just look it up on the Internet. I search “Varieties of agave that make mezcal”, hit search, and presto! But alas, it is not that easy. Lots of results, few hard facts, and no obvious list.
The problem is that there does not seem to be a comprehensive list anywhere of the agave varieties that are used to make mezcal. But there is an important fact that can be found in the NORMA rules that allow for essentially an expanding list of agaves that can be used to make mezcal.
Mezcal had its first modernized set of government regulations, called NORMA in 1994. A new NORMA was drawn up for mezcal in 1997 and revised in 2005. Under the new laws, all mezcal production must be certified in order to sell or export it. The NORMA lists only 5 of the common varieties of agave from which mezcal can be made, such as espadin and tobala.
However, the NORMA allows for other species of agave to be used to make mezcal: “Other agaves, provided that they are not used as the primary material in other governmental Denominations of Origin.” Ah ha! This explains why the exact number of agave varieties that can be used to make mezcal is a moving target. I have seen 16, 23, 28 and 30. Also, given that there are estimated to be upwards of 1,000 mezcal producers in 7 regulated states with over 200 known varieties of agave, I would bet that mezcal has been made with more than 30 types of agave. The vast majority of these producers are small palenques (essentially farms), so they use the agave that can be found right there.
That said, now I feel better knowing that the list continues to evolve, and it is not one set number. So I keep digging. But it is surprisingly complex. This is a confusing topic. I am researching. I am Google-ing. My head is swimming with botanistic (is this a word?) terms such as variety, kingdom, family, genus, species, order, division. Oh why was I texting so much during 10th grade biology? Wait a minute, we barely had calculators back then, and my wife could not even conceive of buying shoes online back then! But certainly, a degree in botany would be a plus right now. Also, depending on the source, the agave names may be in Latin, English, Spanish, or ebonics!
I keep looking. I see many varieties that keep popping up on multiple lists. Then, I find one list (source unclear) which purports to be the list of magueys used in mezcal production, and it lists 31 varieties. I start using this as my base and I cross reference this against other more limited lists that I find. So I add a few, subtract a few and I am left with a compilation of 34 agave species on my list. And it feels right to me given that mezcal can be made from any agave native to the region as long as that agave is not used “as the primary material in other governmental Denominations of Origin”. So for example, you will not see the Blue Agave (agave tequilana Weber var. azul) on this list because it is the primary material in tequila of course, which has a Denomination of Origin (“DO”). (confession: I am confused on this point because on Ian Chadwick’s site, he says that the blue agave can be used to make mezcal, though that clearly violates the above rule – and his site seems to be rarely wrong). But that all said, it would seem that mezcal can be made from almost any agave native to the states that have the DO. At any rate, the more I dig, the more I want to know, so I will continue to investigate. But for now, here is my list:
|#||Common Name||Agave Species||Seen in These Brands or States|
|1||A’hl mai||Maximiliana||None known|
|2||Ancho, Bravo, Papalote||Cupreata||Mezcales de Leyenda|
|3||Arroqueno||Americana||Hearsay says several brands|
|5||Caballo||Caballo||Mezcal Yuu Baal|
|6||Cenizo o Mezcalero||Durangensis||Mezcal El Mal Pais|
|7||Chato||Seemanniana Jacobi||Mezcal Yuu Baal|
|8||Chino Verde||Chino||None known|
|9||Cimarron, Mezcalero, Manzo||Salmiano||None known|
|11||Cirial o Cuishe||Karwinski||Espíritu Lauro|
|16||Espadin||Angustifolia||90% of Mezcals|
|17||Espadin Silvestre (wild version)||Angustifolia||None known|
|18||Cerro, Bruto, Cenizo||Inaequidens||Made in State of Michoacan|
|19||Jabali||Convallis Trel.||None known|
|20||Madrecuixe||Madrecuixe||Fidencio, Pierde Almas|
|21||Maguey de Mezcal||Weberi Cela||None Known|
|22||Maguey Mezcalero||Agave Salmiana Ot.|
|23||Do-ba-daan (Mexicano)||Rhodacantha Trel.||Pierde Almes|
|24||Mexicano Pence Angosta||Mexicano||None known|
|25||Mexicano Penca Larga||Mexicano||None known|
|26||Mexicano sin Espinas||Angustifolia||None known|
|27||Pelon Verde||Angustifolia||Mezcal Yuu Baal|
|29||San Martin||Karwinski||None known|
|30||Sierra Negra||Americana L. var||Mezcalero|
|33||Tobala (Amarilidáceas)||Potatorum||Del Maguey, Wahaka|
Now I have done the best that I can, but I am certain this contains errors. It’s not me, I promise (well, maybe it is me, but I would need more than a Mezcal PhD to fix it). For a peak at the complexity of this issue check out all the species of agave on Wikipedia. This is further complicated because mezcal has been around for about 500 years and I am fairly confident that the genus, species, and variety issues weren’t really worked out back then. So people use the historical names, common names, and slang, and these things are in the common lexicon of mezcals and therefore that’s what they put on the bottle.
You see in the above table that there are many varieties of agave where I am unaware of a brand that has used this agave to produce mezcal. I am confident that if you showed this list to knowledgeable mezcal producers, owners, and aficionados in Oaxaca (and the other mezcal producing states) that many more of these agaves would have known brands associated with them. But speaking for what I see in the U.S., I doubt I have missed many, though perhaps a few.
Oh yeah. One variety of agave that I did not mention is the famed green agave. Why this egregious oversight? Because there is no such thing you moron! (not you, but you know who, because he created this god-awful mezcal).
Back on point, one other thing I should mention which I see frequently on labels or in mezcal articles, is the term “silvestre”, which simply means “wild”. These agaves typically grow in the wild (though some are now being cultivated). Agaves like tobala, madracuixe, and tepeztate are all wild, among others. So “silvestre” is a generic term you will often hear people using when discussing special or unique bottlings of mezcal.
So that about wraps up this looooonnnnggg post. Though I spent a lot of time on it, I know it is not perfect so if you have corrections, please send them my way. Also, there is a guy named Gentry who wrote the book on agave species. You can buy it on Amazon, though it is definitely academic in nature. Anyway, if you can add anything to my first cut at this list, please let me know. In the meantime, drink mezcal from any agave you can find!
(Note: Credit to Ian Chadwick’s The Blue Agave Forum for the NORMA facts, among others)
Great list. My question, which I’m trying to answer since discovering the agave plant produces mescal, is which agave plant species within Australia can be used to produce Mescal.
We have loads of them, tonnes in fact, growing all over, wild. If I could convert just what’s in my neighbourhood, I’d start my own multi million business.
Find a local botanist and see what they say. But if you can produce alcohol from any of those agaves, you can’t call it mezcal. It is internationally protected and must be made in Mexico. Good luck!
To create mezcal there are a lot of things to consider, Oaxaca Mexico which is the state that produces the most Mezcal and the state where most agaves a.k.a magueys are found is nearly 2,000 meters above sea level and this plays a huge role when the fermentation process is happening because the sugars and minerals are different compare to an agave that’s grown at sea level. Mexico has the best climate and sea levels to process mezcal.
As of now (July 2021) agave distillates are produced outside of Mexico. I know of two of them: 4th Rabbit and Leonista. Both are produced in South Africa from local agaves, namely the Karoo variety, which doesn’t exist in Mexico.
We sell 4th Rabbit as a ‘proof of concept’ product, but to be honest, it’s only vaguely reminiscent of actual mezcal.
I guess my point is, there’s a whole lot more to making mezcal than just finding compliant agave plants. Geography and biology both have a lot to do with it, and in any case, just like the two South African entrepreneurs have discovered, the true secret to mezcal is a closely held one that is passed down from generation to generation within mezcal-producing families and communities.
Mezcal is incredibly complex (not to mention long and backbreakingly hard) to make and even harder to get right. Even in Mexico, the vast majority of mezcal is average at best and those that know how to make the best kind won’t share their know-how.
But hey, go ahead and try. You never know, maybe you’re sitting on a gold mine!
I’ve been keeping a list of different agaves I’ve tried. When possible I’ve included the species name.
Espadin (agave angustifolia)
Cuixe (agave karwinskii)
Bicuixe (agave karwinskii)
Madrecuixe (agave karwinskii)
Arroqueno (agave americana oaxacensis)
Tobala (agave potatorum)
Jabali (agave convallis)
Coyote (agave americana)
Verde (agave karwinskii)
Azul (agave tequilana)
Sierra Negra (agave sierra negra)
Tepextate (agave marmorata)
Lechuguilla (agave univittata)
Lechuguilla (agave inaequidens)
Cupreata (agave cupreata)
Tobaziche (agave karwinskii)
Salmiana (agave salmiana)
Papalometl (agave potatorum)
Angustifolia (agave angustifolia)
Barril (agave karwinskii)
Mexicano (agave rhodacantha)
Cenizo Sotol (dasylirion cedrosanum)
Cenizo Mezcal (agave durangensis)
Chino (agave cupreata)
Raicilla (agave maximiliana)
Bacanora (agave angustifolia)
Cimarron (agave salmiana crassispina)
Pata de mula (agave americana)
Blanco Sotol (dasylirion leophyllium)
Colorado Sotol (dasylirion wheeleri)
Potosino (agave salmiana)
Serrano (agave americana)
Belató (agave belató)
Sierrudo (agave sierrudo)
Largo (agave karwinskii)
De lumbre (agave lumbre)
Cirial (agave karwinskii)
Del Rayo (agave americana oaxacensis)
Dobadán (agave dobadán)
Pichumetl (agave pichumetl)
Alto (agave inaequidens)
Doba-yej (agave angustifolia)
Pulquero (agave americana oaxacensis)
Lamparillo (agave lamparillo)
Criolo (agave angustifolia)
Amarillo (agave rhodacantha)
Lineño (agave angustifolia)
Bruto (agave inaequidens)
Tequilero (agave tequilana)
Bronco (agave salmiana)
Ancho (agave cupreata)
Espadilla (agave angustifolia)
Papalote (agave cupreata)
Delgado (agave angustifolia)
Henequen (agave fourcroydes)
Tripón (agave karwinskii)
Castilla (agave americana oaxacensis)
Holy crap! That is one impressive list. I am going to have to compare this to ,y chart/list in the new book. I am certainly missing some of these. Of course, I may have them by another name which is just one more of mezcal’s mysteries!!
Im currently growing several different types of Agave in Spain including mapisaga and Salmiana which don’t seem to be high up on many lists I’ve seen. I would like to play it quite safe and grow Espadin angostifolia but can’t find where to buy the seeds from. We’re not at altitude here but are in a citrus and wine region. The citrus part of that is no longer functioning economically so this experiment might be a great alternative to leaving the oranges on the trees. If this idea is flawed please feel free to jump in. It’s been a lot of effort so far.
[…] include one or more of the dozens of types of wild agave allowed for mezcal production (the website MezcalPhD lists more than 30 types of agave plants known to be used in mezcal). The plants are roasted in […]
The center column in that table is fairly baffling. Some of the words in that column are parts of a scientific name, some of them are common names in Spanish or the like. So, perhaps this will be helpful… in that center column, the following are (partial, and poorly formatted) scientific names:
Salmiana Ot. (also misspelled as “Salmiano”)
Karwinski (misspelling of karwinskii)
Mexicano (misspelling of mexicana)
Americana L. var.
Tequiliana (misspelling of tequilana)
And the following are -not-:
Oh good, I can make italics. So, a brief discussion of formatting and presentation of scientific names. Each species has a binomial, a name made up of two words. The first word is the genus, the second the specific epithet. The genus should be capitalized. The specific epithet should be all lowercase. Both should be italicized. For instance, the species referred to as “Angustifolia” above should be: “Agave angustifolia“. “Angustifolia” on its own is neither a common nor scientific name of any plant.
So, that allows us to correctly format many of these names, where only a specific epithet is given:
Maximiliana -> Agave maximiliana
Cupreata -> Agave cupreata
Americana -> Agave americana
Durangensis -> Agave durangensis
and so forth.
However, what then do we make of something like “Convallis Trel.”? Well, the first word there is the specific epithet. “Convallis” should be “Agave convallis“. But what about “Trel.”? This is an abbreviated form of the name of the person who formally named Agave convallis in the scientific literature, William Trelease. Those who described species, “authorities”, are usually listed, at least once, in formal usage but can usually be safely omitted otherwise. The authority is not italicized, and should be capitabled. You could write either “Agave convallis” or “Agave convallis Trel.” “Convallis Trel.”, however, is neither a common nor scientific name of any plant.
Seemanniana Jacobi -> Agave seemanniana Jacobi, or just Agave seemanniana
Salmiana Ot. -> Agave salmiana Otto, or just Agave salmiana
Rhodacantha Trel. -> Agave rhodacantha Trel., or just Agave rhodacantha
and so forth.
There are a few here that remain confusing–“Weberi Cela” (“Cela” is not an authority, but I do not know what it is) and “Americana L. var.”–but I’ll not bother dealing with those further at this point…
More good work on your part. Keep the contributions coming!
The center column is fairly baffling because I was early in my research! I have learn a lot since. See my next post on this subject HERE. And then I really pull it all together for a large chapter in my book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! It’s available on Amazon!
Thank you for your contribution!
An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who was conducting
a little homework on this. And he actually bought me breakfast simply because I discovered
it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about
this issue here on your web site.
Glad you enjoyed it and filled your belly too! Thanks for reading!
[…] reader of this blog, you know that I find this stuff to be very interesting (see my post “How Many Agave Varieties Can Be Used To Make Mezcal?”). Agave taxonomy here we come! Agave taxonomy is not the art of stuffing a dead agave and mounting […]
Hola, I was in DF recently and I had Blue Agave Mezcal, can’t for the life of me remember where. I also was up in Hidalgo and had some silvestre varietals… again, the names escape me, but they were unlabeled bottles and delicious. It’s a tangled web, and basically with some endless streams it seems. right now I’m staring at a Mano Negra Joven, it’s so delicious, I’ll have to crack it open again really soon.
Well Del Maguey makes a blue agave mezcal, but many do. As for your mezcal travels in general, take a note or two. Put the brand, the agave, etc into your iphone so you remember what you enjoyed! Keep on drinkin’ mezcal! Thanks for reading….
Does Sotol aka desert spoon fall into the Mezcal listing from Hacienda de Chihuahua?
Yes it does. Sotol is not technically a mezcal, but close enough! Hacienda is excellent sotol. See my prior post for more: https://www.mezcalphd.com/2013/10/mezcal-tequila-sotol-bacanora-raicilla-pulque-and-more/
As well blue agave tequila produced in Oaxaca will be called mezcal.
Correct. Oaxaca is not a tequila producing state in the DO, so if produced with the blue agave, it is either mezcal or a destilado….Thanks!
[…] reader of this blog, you know that I find this stuff to be very interesting (see my post “How Many Agave Varieties Can Be Used To Make Mezcal?”). Agave taxonomy here we come! Agave taxonomy is not the art of stuffing a dead agave and […]
[…] Luis del Rio Azul, a mezcal made with the Blue Agave, and its goooooood. See my previous post on How Many Agave Varieties Can Be Used To Make Mezcal for a lengthy, and some say fascinating (maybe that’s just me) discussion. But know that […]
one of the best resources I have found is called: “Mezcal. Arte Tradicional. Artes de Mexico” I believe it is available on Amazon. Definitely worth checking out. I keep a copy with me pretty much all the time.
Thanks for the reference! If it is bilingual I am in! Please advise.
I believe it is…at least the copy I have is. The first 3/4 of the book are in Spanish, but the last few pages translate it into English.
Great! Thanks for the info.
I learned a lot about mezcal!! What you wrote Is very interesting and very easy to read and understand.
Glad you like it. I’ll keep writing, and you keep reading! Drink mezcal.