There are around 1,200 Mezcal distilleries in Mexico. Most Mezcal is produced in small batches as the distilleries are small family-run businesses, passed on from generation to generation. These micro-distilleries don’t have large-scale equipment, and most parts of the processes are done by hand and under the close care of the person in charge of each specific step. For example, the only way to separate the heads, tails and heart is to have someone tasting the spirit constantly. They normally have two people doing this job to avoid them getting too intoxicated. It is these great lengths the workers go to that makes Mezcal production so interesting and unique.
Mezcal has the largest Denomination of Origin (DO). It can be made in nine states of Mexico, leaving out hundreds of traditional Mezcal producers, creating illegal Mezcal. The states included are Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luís Potosí.
Mezcal can be made from around 30 different types of agave plant, all providing unique notes for each Mezcal. All Mezcal needs to be made from 100% of agave. Mexico is a huge country, almost the size of Europe, which means the climate can be very different in the north compared to southern Mezcal regions. It’s like wine; the taste really varies based on the areas the grapes have grown in.
It takes five to twelve years for agave plant to grow, and some varieties can take up to 25 years. Before harvesting, the flower of the agave will be removed, making all the energy go into the heart of the plant. When the agave is cut (by hand), the only part used for making Mezcal is the heart. It is called piña because after the leaves have been removed, it looks like a giant pineapple.
First the hearts are cooked in pit ovens lined with stones. It is this underground roasting that gives Mezcal its smoky flavour. The fire is lit at the bottom of the pit, then a layer of rocks is added. The quartered piñas are placed in the oven when the rocks are hot enough. The pit is then covered with agave leaves and straw. Some distilleries use leftover mash from previous production for covering the pit, which will create more subtle smokiness. This will also help to avoid burning the hearts.
The roasting time varies depending on the season, with shorter roasting in the summer, longer in the winter. Normally it takes around four days. Roasting brings out the natural sugars from the agave hearts. If you ever get a chance to try roasted agave, I recommend you take the opportunity as it is delicious, and it will help you to understand the unique flavours of Mezcal (and Tequila).
When the roasting is finished, the agave hearts need to be crushed. The most traditional, and most commonly used, way is to use a stone wheel, which is turned by a horse, donkey or a tractor. A mechanical shredder is also commonly used. Ancestral mezcals are often crushed by hand with large wooden mallets.
The crushed hearts are then mixed with water and left to ferment in small wooden vats. Sometimes stone, concrete, steel or even animal skin is used for the process. The fermentation takes extra-long as yeast is rarely used to help the process. During summer the fermentation is faster. All the fibres that are left from crushing the hearts will be left in during fermentation.
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled twice in clay or copper pots. The chosen still will also contribute to the final flavour of the Mezcal. After the first distillation, the fibres are removed and the liquid will be distilled on its own the second time. The second distillation is necessary to increase the alcohol percentage. The right ABV of the final product is measured by eye. The skilled person will shake the spirit to create bubbles; it is by these bubbles that the person can tell (surprisingly accurate) alcohol levels.
Types of Mezcal
There are three categories of Mezcal.
Ancestral Mezcal is made the traditional way with pit-cooked agave, stone milling and clay pot distillation. The use of stainless steel is not allowed.
Artisanal Mezcal production prohibits the use of autoclaves, diffusers, and column stills. Crushing can be done with mechanical shredders, but stone wheel is also commonly used. Copper stills with swan necks can be used.
Modern or Industrial Mezcal allows modern production methods, using diffusers and stainless steel columns.
These three categories has six more classifications; Joven, Resposado, Añejo, Matured in glass, Abocado, Destilado con.
Joven (Blanco): unaged, straight from the still
Reposado: aged two to 12 months
Añejo: minimum of one year of ageing
Madurado in vidrio (Matured in glass): Storing in glass for 12+ months, usually underground to avoid variation in light, temperature, and humidity. This is to soften the flavour without lowering the alcohol content.
Abocado: flavoured or infused Mezcal.
Destilado con (Distilled with): A second or third distillation is done with other ingredients in the still itself. These may include anything from fruits, meat and herbs.
There’s also categories based on the type of agave used. Here’s few examples of the most common agave names you might see on the labels; Espadín, Tobalá, Tepeztate, Tobaziche and Arroqueño. As there are around 30 different agaves used in Mezcal production and some of them have different names in different states it can be confusing to recognise one Mezcal from another.
Let’s recap quickly – Factors that contribute to the final flavours of Mezcal
- The variety of agave used
- The region (climate, ground)
- Time of the year the production takes place
- Roasting (time, with or without mash)
- The still (clay, copper or mix)
- Maturation time
Overall all sounds pretty amazing, right? I hope this got you interested in Mezcal and you will brave trying some, neat or at least in cocktails.