Mezcal, a name taken from the Náhuatl word mexcalmetl, is a
Mestizo drink, a combination of the indigenous pulque and
the distillation process introduced by the Spanish. Some say
that it was Cortez who brought the technology of distillation to
Mexico when he landed in 1519. Others say that the indigenous
peoples already had a way to distill the pulque.
The magueys existing in the state of Oaxaca
vary from the giant pulque maguey, maguey silvestre (wild),
maguey tobala (which makes one of the rarest mezcals). Tobala
maguey grows only in the highest altitude, shadowed by canyons.
The pinas are only cut one month out of the year and the Mezcal
is usually entirely consumed during the village's patron saint's
fiesta. It is not for the faint of heart, yet once tasted,
you'll look for excuses to taste the wonders of this ancient and
The most commonly used plants are the maguey
espadin (sword), tepestate (horizontal), larga (long) and
sometimes a larger variety of maguey azul. The Agave is not a
cactus. It was once classified in the same family with Lilies
and Aloes. Today it is classified in it's own family, Agavaceae,
which consists of more than 120 species.
The pinas ( or hearts ) are placed in a
rock-lined conical pit (palenque) about twelve feet in diameter
and about eight feet deep. They are covered with many hot rocks
that have been heated in a wood fire. A layer of the leaves or
fiber from the plant covers them, followed by woven palm-fiber
mats (petate) and finally a layer of earth. They bake this way
for two or three days, absorbing flavors from the earth and the
The pinas are removed from the pit and placed
on the ground inside a ring of stone about twelve feet in
diameter. In the center is a vertical post connecting an axle to
a huge vertical circular millstone. This stone wheel is pulled
around and around the circle by burro or horse to crush the
The crushed maguey is then placed in wooden
vats that hold about three hundred gallons. Then about 5%-10%
water is added. The mash (tepache) is left uncovered to ferment
naturally with nothing other than its own yeasts for from four
to thirty days.
The mezcal solids and liquid (tepache) are
then transferred to a copper or ceramic (de olla) still which
holds about twenty-five gallons. A copper "sombrero" is placed
on top and the mix is slowly heated by wood fire, vaporized and
condensed. The fiber is cleared out of the still and the "punta"
the clear alcohol from the first distillation is placed back in
the still and the distillation process is repeated. The
resultant liquid is mezcal.
We often refer to Tequila as Mezcal light.
Tequila is a form of Mezcal made in an area near the town of
Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Tequila is made from the blue
agave, Agave tequilana. Tequila only needs to be made
from 51% agave, the remainder usually being corn or cane sugar.
Of course, there are 100% agave tequilas as well.
To worm or not to worm
The worm is an agave worm, or gusano.
There is a lot of folklore surrounding the worm, with rumors
that the worm is hallucinogenic, or a source of great heroism,
or an aphrodisiac. In any case, the eating of the worm is often
made into a ritual of machismo. However, the worm isn't
particularly traditional; it's is really a modern marketing
There is a high reverence for this magical
liquid and its ceremonial, social and medicinal uses among the
villagers. There is obvious pride regarding the mezcal's power.
There is also great disdain for the "cheap," diluted, chemically
altered liquid sold commercially.
The way mezcal affects one's palate and the
way it warms the chest, throat and mouth are quite different
than any other alcohol.
Some mezcal terms:
blanco - white tequila, aged less than 2 months
reposado - rested - aged for between 2 months and year
añejo - aged for more than a year