Mezcal, a spirit distilled from the agave plant, descends from a drink called pulque made by the Aztecs in Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century, they brought their knowledge of distillation methods, and mezcal was born.
Mezcal is primarily made in Oaxaca, which is why bottles of mescal are typically labeled “Mezcal de Oaxaca.” The drink, made from the core of the agave plant (called the pia), has a strong, smoky flavor.
Mezcal versus Tequila
Many people confuse mezcal with tequila, perhaps because both of these Mexican liquors are made from the agave plant. However, mezcal predates tequila by some time. In fact, the term “mezcal” was once the generic term for drinks brewed by the Spanish.
Tequila, which was made after mezcal, was originally known as mezcal de Tequila, a name derived from the region where it was made. Some time in the 1950s, this was abbreviated to tequila. The main difference between tequila and mezcal is that tequila is made specifically from the blue agave plant. Therefore, tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not a type of tequila.
While tequila is made from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from a wide variety of the agave plants that grow in the Oaxaca region. Most mezcal is made from the espadin agave, but using other varieties means that you can have almost as many types of mezcal as you can wine.
The production process for mezcal also differs from the production of tequila. Unlike mezcal, tequila is manufactured in large stainless steel vats in modern factories. Mezcal, on the other hand, is still produced the traditional way: the agave is roasted in underground wood fired pits and distilled in small copper stills. Mezcal is distilled once (tequila may be distilled several times) and is bottled at source.
True mezcal is 100 percent agave spirits, making it a much purer drink than tequila, which typically only contains around 51 percent agave spirits.
The Mezcal Worm
Many bottles of mezcal contain a worm. The worms, which may be white or red, live in the agave plant and are harvested by hand during the summer. They are stored in mezcal and added to the bottle near the end of the manufacturing process. The worm is edible and is sometimes sold for food in Mexican markets.
The traditional way to drink mezcal is to knock it back in a shot glass and, if you”ve reached the end of the bottle, chase it with the worm. However, you may choose to drink it with lemon juice, soda or water. Several cocktails also feature mezcal, such as the mezcal margarita and the mezcal martini.
For the mezcal martini, all you need to do is shake mezcal, ice and olives in a martini shaker, strain and enjoy.
To make the mezcal margarita, pour about two ounces of mezcal, one ounce of triple sec and two cups of limejuice into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime and enjoy!