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.

What's the best way to drink mezcal?

In Oaxaca, Mexico they drink their mezcal as a shot, with a plate of ground up, fried larvae, chili peppers and limes. We personally prefer it as a smoky cocktail ingredient. Lucky for us, it's getting more and more popular in bars (people have caught on just how epic this spirit is) and you'll find it chilling on plenty of menus.

Hacha

London's first dedicated Agaveria, this is the place to come if you're looking for a world-class Mezcal. They have a rotating "Agave List" of 25 bottles (from tequilas to raicilla and of course, mezcal) which sits on one long shelf behind the bar; industry faves, a few newcomers and a couple of rare bottles that even the most seasoned agave drinker might not recognise. They weave their way in and out of the cocktail menu or are paired with flavour enhancers to compliment the notes of the spirits. Just ask Deano for his mezcal recommendations, but def make sure you try out their Mezcal Mirror Margarita for a smokey taste of the UK's best cocktail.

Doña

This basement bar is pinker than a blushing flamingo at a Pride parade. Expect the vibrancy of Mexico and the sexiness of a 1920s Harlem jazz club, in a scarlet basement bar in Stokey that specialises in Mezcal. You've found our happy place. This place is headed up by Lucie Massey (the brains behind Cuppa Gumbo & Slap Ya Papa) and agave enthusiast Thea Cumming, the mega babe founder of Dangerous Don, a wicked mezcal which mixes two of Mexico's most beloved treasures (and BarChick's fave things): mezcal & coffee.

Mezcaleria at Wahacca, Charlotte Street

Think all chain restaurants are the same? Wrong. Upstairs in the Fitzrovia outpost of this colourful Mexican restaurant chain is where you'll find the Mezcaleria. Craving tacos with your mezcal? This is where it's at. Here you can order a shot of Pechuga, a mezcal that has been redistilled with wild fruits, grains and, of all things... a raw chicken carcass! It's a carnivorous ancient process - apparently the fats from the chicken balance out the drink's fiery intensity. Hey it's mezcal, the other white meat!

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.