All tequilas are mescal, but not all mescal are tequila.
This best explains what mescal is and how it differentiates from the more popular tequila. Mescal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave, while tequila is made from a specific type of agave: Agave tequilana, also known as blue agave, agave azul, or tequila agave.
The term mescal originates from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which means “oven-cooked agave”, describing the main characteristic of this drink based on how it is made. Pit ovens set on the ground are used to cook the piñas (the heart of the agave plant) for as long as three days. After the piñas are roasted, these will be crushed and mashed, and then mixed with water and fermented in vats or barrels. The liquid extracted is then distilled, bottled, and sold.
The indigenous people of what is now Mexico drink pulque, a drink made from the agave plant. When the Spanish came and ran out of brandy, they distilled pulque to have a higher ABV and the result is mescal.
Mescal has been recognized as an Appellation of Origin As per the standards set by Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) in 2014, all mescal should contain 100% agave. This means the mixto mescal will be out of circulation as soon as the stocks still available on the shelves of liquor stores are bought. Mixto mescal refers to mescal that contains only 80% agave.
Mescal is popular in Mexico, and it is also fast becoming popular in the US and around the world. Last year, Forbes reported that mescal recorded an important milestone after it was able to surpass for the first time the $100-million mark in sales when it hit $105 million.
- Mescal is considered as the cousin of the more popular spirit tequila.
- Mescal is a result of two distillation processes. The spirit bottled after the first distillation is called ordinario.
- There are an estimated 330,000 hectares of agave plants dedicated to the making of mescal in Mexico.
- There are an estimated 9,000 producers of mescal in Mexico today.
- While all tequilas are mescal, putting a worm in a bottle is a mescal thing, not tequila. It is called mezcal de gusado. So if the bottle says it is mescal, the worm is appropriate. While not illegal, a worm in a tequila bottle is simply stealing from the identity of mescal. The worm we saw inside the bottle is the larva of the moth Hypopta agavis.
- Oaxaca holds the annual International Mezcal Festival celebration.
Mescal Buying Guide
Before buying mescal, it is good that you know how to distinguish one type from the other. In terms of content, mescal comes in two forms – those which contain 100% agave, and those mixed with other ingredients to produce an interesting flavor, and the ingredients vary, like fruits like pineapple slices, red bananas, apple, and plums; herbs; sugar; and spices like cinnamon and cloves, while the distillation process even includes chicken, duck, or turkey meat. Regardless, the mescal will be categorized depending on aging – white mescal (unaged), dorado or golden which contains coloring, reposado and añejado (aged two to nine months), and añejo (aged for a minimum of 12 months, some aged for as long as 18 months to three years). In terms of how it is produced, the three categories are mescal, artisanal mescal, and ancestral mescal.
Mescal Production & Farming in Texas
A spirit qualifies as mescal if it is produced in any of these Mexican states: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. This is why there is no Texas-made mescal. However, there are Texas-owned businesses bottling and selling mescal from Mexico. An example is Susto Mezcal. This is a Texas company based in Austin. The mescal they sell is exported from Oaxaca, Mexico. The majority of this company is woman-owned.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals:
Additives such as coloring agents or flavoring ingredients (i.e. insects, fruit, herbs, honey, etc.) are used to affect flavor and color. By law, additives can be used in making mescal so long as it comprises just 5% of the entire bottle. Ammonium sulfite is another additive used in making mescal. This is added to fermentation to prevent high acid levels. Ammonium sulfite is another additive used in making mescal. This is added to fermentation to prevent high acid levels.
Mescal comes in a wide variety of bottle shapes. Each brand of mescal has unique packaging. This way, it is easy to remember and pick from a shelf your preferred brand of mescal. While most of the bottles used to sell mescal look similar to the bottles used by other spirits, some mescal bottles stand out because of their unique look. One example of Clase Azul Mezcal, made in Durango, Mexico. It is all black save for the colorful top. The bottom part is bell-shaped, and overall it looks like a cross between a pepper mill and an oversized bishop chess piece. This custom-made mescal decanter is hand-crafted by artisans belonging to the Huichol culture.
As with other spirits, mescal is good for sipping neat or for mixing when making a cocktail. Good quality mescal is good for sipping, but if you buy cheap mescal, don’t be surprised if the quality is not the same. This is best used for cocktails since mescal is a great base ingredient for different cocktails.
The natural congener found in mescal gives the spirit its flavor. Exposure to low temperature (i.e. freezing or chilling) dulls the flavor of mescal. This is why it is recommended that you don’t refrigerate mescal. Instead, put it in a dry, cool place where the temperature does not fluctuate considerably. Do not put it where it is directly exposed to sunlight for a long period of time. Do not store it where children and minors can reach and take it.
Make your own Fresh Mezcalita
There are drinkers who enjoy the neat taste of a spirit without any other ingredients to dilute or change the flavor. There are others too who enjoy drinking something that offers a variety of flavors. The fresh mezcalita does that. The natural taste of mescal blending with the citrus flavors of orange and lime juice plus the spicy and salty flavor from the salted rim of the glass makes fresh mezcalita a truly enjoyable drink.
This recipe yields one glass of fresh mezcalita
- Mescal, 1 1/2 ounces
- Orange juice, 2 ounces
- Lime juice, 1 ounce
- Orange liqueur, 3 teaspoons (you can use simple syrup or agave nectar instead)
- Orange bitters
- Lime wedge
- A mix of salt and chili powder for the glass rim
Step 1. Make sure the lip or edge of the glass is wet for the salt to hold. Use a lime wedge to moisten it. Tip the glass over and dip it in salt.
Step 2. Mix the mescal, orange juice, lime juice, orange bitters, and the sweetener of choice in a cocktail shaker. Shake well.
Step 3. Pour it in the salt-rimmed glass.
Step 4. Drink and enjoy