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 can be made from around 30 different types of agave plant, all providing unique notes for each Mezcal. 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 seven to twelve years for agave plant to grow, and some varieties can take up to 20 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. The crushed hearts are then mixed with water and left to ferment in small wooden vats. The fermentation takes extra-long as no yeast is 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 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’s so much flavour in Mezcal already, it is rarely left to mature, but saying that, there are separate categories for aged Mezcal.
Basically, on the label you will see Type I, made with 100% agave, or Type II, which is considered as mixto and made with minimum of 80% agave.
Joven: aged for less than two months
Reposado: aged two to 12 months
Añejo: minimum of one year of ageing
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.