WTF is Mezcal? BarChick's Guide to Tequila's Smokey Cousin

What the hell is mezcal we hear you cry? Well, good question...

This spirit is kinda like tequila’s crazy cousin. Some people say the kinda drunk it gets you is slightly loco. We say its the spirit you always want at a party.

Mezcal... that's the same as tequila, right?

Lol, no. The taste is so far from tequila it’s pretty mad to think they come from the same plant - but alas - they do. However, mezcal can be made from a load of different agave types, unlike tequila which can only be made from one.

Traditionally tequila did taste quite similar to mezcal, but now the industrialisation of tequila has made it taste nothing like it used to, so it's actually very easy to tell the two apart when you taste them.

Mezcal can be distilled from a variety of species in the maguey family (there are 14 different plants, and countless variations of them too!). Its earthy smokiness, making it unique from tequila, comes from the production process, when the 'pina', or heart of the agave plant, is generally baked in rock-lined pits in the ground. Like tequila, it's made from agave (technically, tequila is actually a type of mezcal), but where tequila can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can come from a number of different species of agave - usually a variety called Espadin.

You can get traditional/artisanal made mezcal like you can tequila, so you need to make sure you are getting the good sh*t and not the commercial industrial rubbish - lookout for “hand-made” or “artisanal” on the bottle and then you’ll know!

So how is it made?

Learning how mezcal is produced after spending so much time learning about tequila is like going from one extreme to the other. Although the process of making mezcal is similar to tequila in terms of the farming of the agave, that’s about it, as the palenques are far more rustic and traditional.

The men that make this epic liquid start from very young ages and then grow into the old experienced craftsman. When we hit up Mexico to get our mezcal geek on, it was clear that it is all about quality here rather than quantity. It is also very routine / habit-based as opposed to facts and figures. Lots of techniques are passed down generations rather than through best practices and manuals. Just like we'll pass our drinking skills down to our daughters.

Mezcal can be produced in eight states: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Michoacan. However, most mezcal on the market is from Oaxaca. It all begins with the agave plant which flowers only once in its lifetime before it dies. Brutal. They are only ready for harvest when the plant is seven to eight years old. Once the leaves have been cut off it’s time for the fire-pit. 

The piñas are thrown into a stone-lined pit for a good roasting. They need to get real hot first so a fire is started at the bottom before adding river stones on top. Although they don’t have to be from the river, it all depends on what is local to the area (some of these rocks can last up to 20 years - talk about recycling!)

Once red hot the piñas are cut up and placed in the pit and are then covered with leaves, mats and fibre to keep them insulated before being left for around 4 days. The cooked agave is sometimes sold in the market as a snack - the chunks are nice and sweet and it’s kinda nice to chew on (and we def chewed our fair share!)

Then it's time to crush the agave using a special grinding mill (known as a tahona) but these guys still use the traditional horse or donkey unlike many tequila companies who use tractors and machinery. YES, nice and authentic. (Heads up - when visiting it's respectful NOT to comment on the horse - don't say it looks cute / skinny / tired / old - you'll offend them... just pipe down and sip on the mezcal and everyone will be all the happier for it.)

Once they’ve had a good squeeze, what is left is moved over and placed into wooden vats with added water. It is then left to ferment for a few days (up to a week depending on temperature) and always with wild airborne yeast which makes it unique before it is time for it to be distilled. Mezcal is distilled twice, and the first distillation produces lower-grade alcohol. Then the fibres are removed from the still and the alcohol is distilled again. The second distillation is separated when it comes out of the still into heads, hearts and tails. These are then blended to get a consistent and higher grade of alcohol. And BOOM. There ya have it.

Perhaps the appeal of mezcal is its rustic, homemade character. With big companies not yet jumping on the bandwagon and mass-producing it in factories, mezcal is still mostly made by hand, in the manner it has been for over 200 years. It's owned by smaller producers, often families and the liquid in the bottle reflects that with full character, strong fiery and mineral flavours and lovely arty bottles.

Oh, and if you've heard it's served with a worm in the bottle, we're sorry, but that's only a gimmick to get frat boys to buy more… and to be frank, if it did have a worm in it it's probably sh*t, so put it down, step away and stick to the good stuff. You'll find our fave bottles here.