Today on the Booze Nerd, I want to talk about another spirit that, like Absinthe, has an aura of mystery and myth surrounding it: mezcal. The first I heard about this “Mexican moonshine” was whispered promises of potency and the mystical visions that eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle would bring. Even mere talk of this spirit brought an illicit thrill to my curious palate.
In the meantime, I sampled plenty of tequila (and for a long time, had decided it wasn’t really for me. I learned this in college, btw. Tequila 101). Until very recently, I had all but forgotten about mezcal. However, my recent forays into scotch-tasting led me to questing for other smoky spirits.
Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila.
Mezcal is the quintessential Mexican spirit, distilled from roasted and fermented piñas, or the hearts of agave plants. The agave grows nearly all over Mexico, and contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus, but a succulent, like the aloe plant. One particular variety, known as the blue agave, is the source of Tequila, a regional mezcal first brewed around the late seventeenth century.
The agave is known in Mexico as the maguey, and in popular myth was associated with the goddess Mayahuel, an ancient deity of fertility and rebirth. The sticky, honey-like sap of the maguey was thought to be the goddess’ blood, and could be fermented into a potent, mucilaginous beverage known as pulque. (The trickster god Tlacuache gave this secret to humans after he learned to make it himself). Pulque was a sacred drink, and its use governed by ritual and tradition, often in connection with the harvests.
That’s not to say it was hoarded only by the priests! On special feast days, everyone was permitted to drink as much as they wanted. Intoxication was thought to bring you closer to the gods, after all. Tezcatzontecatl, Mayahuel’s consort and the god of drunkeness (naturally), had 400 children: each one a rabbit who represented a different type of intoxication!
After Spain colonized Mexico, this rustic drink gained the attention of the Spanish, who were desperate to find a replacement for their dwindling supplies of wine and booze from the Old World. Grapes and other fermentable crops were grown in Mexico, but strict
legislation and tax codes prevented the colonists from brewing hooch in the traditional methods. But the King of Spain didn’t care at all about the indigenous agave plant.
Mezcal originates mainly from the state of Oaxaca, but in the 1750s, Don José Antonio Cuervo was granted land by the king to grow agave and produce “mezcal wine.” The first recorded distillation took place in 1758 in a little town called Tequila. In 1958, “The Champs” recorded their own homage to the Mexican national beverage, also called “Tequila.”
Roasted And Rustic
Everything about distilling mezcal remains largely rustic, even in an age of massive stainless steel vats and gas-heated boilers. Mezcal production is highly localized, with each remote village responsible for its own distinct flavors and techniques. The key words to remember with mezcal are “hand-crafted.”
The hearts of the agave plant (piñas) are harvested when the plant’s about eight years old, and then slow-roasted in stone lined pits for three days. This is where mezcal picks up its characteristic smokey flavor. By contrast, Tequila is made from piñas that have been baked or steamed.
After roasting, the hearts are allowed to ferment for a few days before being crushed by a horse-drawn millstone. The pulp and juice is then left to ferment in open-topped containers for a few more days. After that, the mash is transferred to a pot still (often made of simple clay or sometimes copper).
Generally, mezcal is only distilled once (versus tequila, which is distilled twice) and the palenquero (or distiller) will know when the process is complete by blowing into a pipette of mezcal and judging the size of the resulting bubbles.
Mezcal is often sweetened and flavored with combinations of sugar, plaintains, pineapple, plums, nuts, bark, and even rice. One particular style of mezcal called Pechuga is distilled with a chicken breast suspended in the mash!
The result of these regional variations is a product which can be tricky to classify. Some mezcal is smooth and smokey, perfect for sipping as you would any fine scotch, and other local spirits are more akin to “white lightning” moonshine of backwoods Kentucky.
Either way, you’re in for a treat.
The Worm Turns
There is a moth called the Hypopta Agavis, which likes to lay its eggs on the agave plant. Somewhere in the 1940s, this gusano, or “worm” became inextricably linked with mezcal when some enterprising bottlers began including a gusano to prove the mezcal was authentic. A marketing ploy, to be sure, but soon the worm became a symbol of mezcal’s potency. Eat the worm and you might gain a little of the agave’s power. Eat the worm and you might even see a vision from the spirits…
It’s a good story, and has sold a lot of mezcal to curious gringos eager for visions from Mayahuel.
Mezcal is sweet and fruity, smokey and complex. Unfortunately, gimmicks and “moonshine” associations as a cheap drink have clouded this fine spirit’s true cultural heritage and reputation as one of the world’s best drinks.
Oaxacan Angel (recipe by Dave Kupchinski)
- 2 oz. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
- 1 tsp agave nectar
- 1/2 dash Cardamom Bitters