The Spirit of Mexico: A Guide to Mezcal

Roasted piñas of agave

Roasted hearts of espadín agave. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Freshly dug from their pit, the roasted piñas looked like the husks of ancient beasts. A ripe piña, the heart of the agave plant, can weigh 200 pounds, and after sweating it out underground for a week over smoldering stones, the interlocking wounds where the leaves were cut away had caramelized into brown scales.

One of the mezcaleros whacked a machete into a heart, flicked his wrist, and dug out a steaming chunk of agave for me to taste. "You’ll understand mezcal a lot better after you try this," said Francisco Terrazas, my guide to the Mezcal Vago palenque (distillery) in rural Oaxaca.

Fresh roasted agave tastes like grilled corn and singed tropical fruit, mingled with the desert breeze. But more than that, it tastes distinctly of Mexico, specifically the vast arid plains and sun-soaked hills of places like rural Oaxaca. Sampling agave this way, it becomes clear these tastes couldn’t emerge anywhere else. You are acutely aware that it’s the product of this land and the people that live there.

Agave roasting in Oaxaca

A chunk of freshly roasted agave. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Mezcal is a class of handmade agave spirits from Mexico that’s suddenly the apple of everyone’s eye. If you’ve set foot in a cocktail bar in the past 10 years, you’ve probably sipped the spirit in some elaborate mixed drink, or overheard a bartender holding court on the stuff as a seductive, smoky elixir.

And it is, but if you really want to understand why this once-obscure spirit poured for Cancun revelers on dares is all the rage these days, you have to understand it on its home turf. All drinks come from somewhere, and reflect the values of those that make them. But nothing captures a place and a people like mezcal, a spirit that Mexicans have been making the same way for hundreds of years. That is, with Herculean labor guided by intuition and hard-won experience.

This tradition is what drew me to Oaxaca. I’ve spent years winding down the rabbit hole of agave-based spirits, and Vago makes some of the best mezcal I’ve tasted. Plus, I never turn down the chance to ride in the back of a stranger’s pickup truck to taste something new and wonderful in the wilderness.

Here are some lessons from the agave road to help you understand what exactly makes mezcal mezcal, why some crystal-clear bottles will run you three digits at the liquor store, and how to navigate the spirit’s mysteries along the way.

What Is Mezcal?

glass-of-mezcal-poured-at-a-bar

[Photograph: Emily Dryden]

The world of agave spirits is so vast it doesn’t have a name. Mezcal is one class of those spirits. Tequila is actually a kind of mezcal, in the same way that Cognac is a type of brandy. And there are lots of spirits made from agave in a nearly identical manner to mezcal, but for various reasons don’t meet the government classifications, such as raicilla, sotol, and bacanora. Some of these distinctions come down to regional differences and nomenclature, or, just as likely, the Byzantine regulations of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, the government body that inspects and regulates mezcal production in the nine states in which it is sanctioned. But thanks to mezcal’s growing global popularity, you can find many of them in liquor stores these days right beside the mezcal and tequila.

How Is Mezcal Made?

Agave plants in Oaxaca

Agave plants in Oaxaca, Mexico. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

All tequila comes from a single variety of agave: the mild-mannered blue weber. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from dozens of agave varieties, and each has its own character, which may express itself completely differently depending on how the mezcal is produced and where the plants are grown. The Mexican states of Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas are permitted to call their agave spirits mezcal, and as climate, elevation, and soil composition vary, so too does the resulting spirit. As far as tasting terroir goes, mezcal is as pure an expression of place as a spirit can be.

Depending on the variety, an agave takes anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. Once it’s ready—a farmer and distiller’s judgment call as much as any biological marker—the hulking plant is harvested by hand. Agave is fully ripe right before it blooms, but by the time the flower stalk shoots up 10 or 15 feet into the air, the heart is spoiled and unsuitable for distilling. Try again in a decade or three!

Before agave can be harvested, its woody leaves must be hacked away with a machete to reach the heart of the plant, or piña, so named for its resemblance to a pineapple. But unlike the leaves of the aloe plant, which agave resembles but is in no way related to, the sap from agave leaves can irritate your skin. So mezcaleros wield their machetes with caution, and once the pile of mildly poisonous greenery is cleared away, they use their blades as makeshift shovels to dig the chubby piña out of the earth.

Once it's excavated, they repeat the process again—and again and again, over a hundred times just to gather enough piñas for a single batch of mezcal.

In modern tequila production, distillers convert agave starches into simple fermentable sugars by steam-roasting the piñas in fast, efficient ovens. To make mezcal, they dig a big pit. The principle is the same as a pig roast or clam bake: Light a large fire, heat rocks over it, then layer a hundred or more piñas over the rocks and cover it all with soil. This earthen oven slowly roasts the agave anywhere from a couple days to a week, and is the crucial step that gives mezcal its famous smoky flavor. Every mezcalero has their own roasting technique, and if they screw up the roast and burn the agave, that’s the end of that batch.

agave-being-pulverized-by-a-tahona

Chunks of roasted agave heart are pulverized by a tahona. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Assuming the agave isn’t scorched, the next step is to mash the piñas so they can ferment. The mezcalero starts by hacking the hearts into palm-size chunks with their machete—a size small enough to be crushed under a tahona, a big stone wheel pulled in a circle by an ox, bull, or burro. This is actually the high-tech approach for handmade mezcal; there’s also a method that involves sandwiching a piña between two pieces of wood and beating the hell out of it with a sledgehammer until the juice runs free. It’s up to the mezcalero to decide which method is best for any given batch of mezcal.

From there, the mashed agave pulp gets shoveled into open-air wooden barrels to ferment for four to 10 days, with the exact time determined by the weather, the agave variety, the intensity of the roast, and the mezcalero’s judgment. Again, there’s no rulebook here; you just have to sniff the wind and know.

Agave fermenting for mezcal

Agave ferments in an open-air barrel. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

During my visit, the batch in the barrels was fermenting in two stages: a "dry" ferment of just the pulp and its juices followed by a "wet" ferment with added water. If the fermentation process was stopped there, you’d have a lovely beer-strength drink called pulque, which tastes delightfully refreshing on the palenque but, by the time it makes its way to the city, continues fermenting into something downright funky.

Before distillers had access to metalsmithing technology, they used clay jugs. Some still do today (look for "en barro" or "distilled in clay" on the label), and though the method is hardly efficient, it adds a smooth, mineral, tongue-drying quality that’s quite complementary to some mezcals. Other mezcaleros use copper stills instead. If a mezcal brand is truly proud of the product in their bottles, they’ll usually tell you which method they used on the label.

Lopez distills most of his mezcals twice, though some palenques opt for three distillations. Like everything else in mezcal, each step is an opportunity for a mezcalero to leave their mark on the product. One of Vago’s most popular bottles is Lopez’s Elote, for which he takes the unusual step of adding toasted corn to the ferment during the second distillation to infuse the spirit with a nutty caramel character.

Mezcal still in Oaxaca

Mezcal drips from still. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Finally, you have mezcal. That is, assuming its acid, methanol, and aldehyde levels fall within the numbers dictated by the Consejo Regulador, and they’ve approved the methods of production. And one more thing: unlike most whiskies and brandies, which are diluted with water after distillation to a uniform 40% alcohol by volume, the best handmade mezcals are bottled at full strength to preserve the integrity of the agave flavor, which is good news for us drinkers, but another cost mezcal distillers must swallow to make their product right.

This is how Lopez does it, and as a point of pride, most premium mezcal brands include details about the production process right on the label. But it’s far from the only way mezcal is made. Regional differences in agave cultivation and processing abound, and as the mezcal industry gains (profitable) traction across the world, some of the industrial technologies that have come to define tequila production are creeping their way onto palenques, such as mechanical shredders to crush the piñas into pulp and steam-pressure autoclaves to cook them. Generally speaking, fully handmade mezcal remains the best mezcal on the market; there are just too many variables in mezcal production to preserve its finer nuances on an industrial scale.

Which isn’t to say that handmade, traditional mezcal is the only mezcal worth drinking. If you haven’t figured it out by now, making mezcal by hand is literally backbreaking work, and if developing technologies make life easier for the people who make these tasty spirits, you’d have to be heartless to deny them that option. As of now, most industrialization in the mezcal business benefits larger companies rather than small producers, since that’s where the bulk of investments tend to go. But as global demand for mezcal balloons, these technologies offer the little guys an opportunity to add scale to their business while improving their quality of life.

Some Mezcal Terms to Know

[Photograph: Emily Dryden]

I’m not going to list a bunch of agave varieties or production regions to seek out; there’s just too much variation between bottles for it to be useful. Instead, here are a few key terms to know and look for on a bottle.

Espadín

The vast majority of mezcal comes from just one type of agave—the friendly, easygoing espadín. It has a short growing period—just eight years or so—and a relatively high yield per plant. Unlike most agave varieties, it can actually be cultivated by farmers. And, critically for the booming mezcal business, it’s the most sustainable choice for making mezcal. Once you uproot a piña, that’s it—the plant’s done, with no chance to reproduce—and growing demand for mezcal has stripped Mexico’s wild agave stock to dangerously low levels. In many ways, the future of mezcal will be written by the efficiency of espadín cultivation.

That said, using espadín comes with a trade-off: compared to mezcal made from wild agaves, espadín can taste a little...basic. Which is okay—it’s a clean canvas for a mezcalero to show off all their skills, plus it works nicely in cocktails. As mezcal nut Noah Arenstein, director of operations and head bar man at Madre Mezcaleria in Brooklyn puts it, "a lot of people pooh-pooh espadín, but it’s popular for a reason. It makes really good mezcal with a balanced sweetness and often a pronounced herbal note. In the right hands, these are some of my favorite mezcals around."

Wild Agave

These varieties have proven resistant to cultivation, which makes for more expensive mezcal, but they also lend amazing flavors and textures to a distillate. I’m talking mouthwatering feta, stinky blue cheese, ripe peaches, buttered popcorn, horseradish, white pepper...you get the idea. Some common wild agaves to try: cuish, madrecuixe, tobala, Mexicano, tepeztate, and my personal favorite, jabali.

Ensemble

Like Scotch whisky, mezcal comes blended and unblended; unlike Scotch, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. Single-variety mezcals are just that: made from one type of agave. If you want to get a sense of how different varieties express themselves in the bottle, go for this. Ensembles are blends, combining the attributes of various agaves for a more complex bottle. This is particularly nifty for cutting a primarily espadín distillate with a small amount of wild agave, which can make for a tastier spirit at lower cost than purely wild bottles.

Joven, Reposado, and Añejo

These terms refer to whether or not a mezcal was aged in oak after distilling. Joven, or "young" mezcal, is clear and unaged like an eau de vie. Reposado is "rested" in oak for more than two months but less than a year. Añejo is aged for one to three years, and extra-añejo ages for longer than that.

This is a gross simplification, but...stick to joven. As Arenstein puts it, "the joy of agave spirits is tasting the agave itself," and the best mezcals on the market never see a wood barrel. There’s just too much going on in a quality mezcal to sully it with the muting qualities of oak.

Our Favorite Bottles of Mezcal

[Photograph: Emily Dryden]

Of course, there’s more to mezcal than one wee guide can contain, but the best way to learn about the spirit is to taste as much as you can. I’ve picked up some favorites over the years, included on the list below, but in the name of journalism, I headed to Arenstein’s bar for a tasting session of 30 mezcals. This is a small fraction of the 200 or so agave spirits he’s acquired, many of which aren’t even distributed in the US.

Arenstein’s first lesson is a big one: the true test of a mezcal is how it tastes neat. Agave spirits don’t "bloom" with water the way whiskey does, and in Mexico, mezcal is meant to be sipped from small clay cups or glasses, not shot or mixed. He also cautions against expecting consistency. Since mezcal is about as artisanal as spirits come, flavors and quality can vary wildly from batch to batch. A brand’s espadín bottling one year could come from a totally different producer the next. To make things even more complicated, "the bottles themselves will sometimes drink differently day to day, though in a way that’s hard to quantify scientifically" Arenstein says, and he goes on to describe some of the experiments he’s running on how different mezcals develop in a bottle over time. "It’s hard to say with any certainty—we just don’t know enough yet—but something definitely happens."

All of which is to say: any given mezcal is ephemeral. Accept that your favorite bottles will eventually disappear and enjoy them while they last.

Del Amigo espadín: This is Arenstein’s well mezcal, and it packs a lot of quality into a digestible price tag. It’s fresh and easy-drinking with a bright twang, bold smoke, and base salinity that make it great for mixing.

El Silencio espadín: Another affordable bottle, though not on Madre Mezcaleria’s menu. Mild smoke, sweet fruit flavors up front, and a fatty body that transitions to a clean finish. Eminently mixable and a solid introduction to the category.

Cruz de Fuego Tepextate: A 100% wild agave mezcal that doesn’t break the bank. It’s exceptionally fragrant with notes of pine, white pepper, green chili, and other fresh vegetables. The smoke is delicate—a great reminder that mezcal is about a lot more than smoke—and the body is light and refreshing.

Vago Elote: A unique espadín with toasted corn infused into the mezcal during the second distillation, made at the palenque you see in the photos above. You don’t notice corn so much as a savory nutty richness that brilliantly complements the roasted agave.

Derrumbes San Luis Potosi: Little mezcal makes its way beyond the borders of San Luis Potosi, and this one is especially unusual. For environmental reasons (namely, not much firewood), the state is exempted from the government requirement to roast mezcal-bound agave in wood-fired pits. The piñas in this bottle were roasted in an above-ground oven, and consequently have no smoky flavor whatsoever. Instead, an extra-long ferment yields an impressively tangy spirit that suggests a lemony, feta-strewn Greek salad more than a typical mezcal. If you want to see just how unique and varied agave spirits can be, try this.

Vago Ensemble en Barro (2017 bottling): A small batch, so get it before it’s gone (look for the red label, not tan). This ensemble cuts espadín with small amounts of three wild varieties, all distilled in clay for a bracing mineral taste and soft, round texture. Gorgeously complex with a strong core, but never overpowering.

Rey Campero Jabali: Everything from Rey Campero is excellent, but this bottle is especially remarkable. Jabali is a pain to grow and a bigger one to distill, so it’s rare to see a pure jabali bottle on the market. Every time I taste this, I pick up on something new—hints of orange rind or cacao nibs or fresh flowers. Its real standout quality is how those flavors hit you in waves, with an engaging acidity and resounding body that leaves you tasting it long after it’s gone.

El Jolgorio Barril (Gonzalo Hernandez bottling): Another producer to keep an eye on (look for the modern-art label designs). Before sipping this, a drinking buddy looked around to see where the buttered popcorn came from; that’s how strong and distinct the aromatics are in this wild agave mezcal. At around $130 a bottle, it’s a super-premium pick for special occasions, but that buttered popcorn aroma develops into an astonishingly complex sipper. Drink it slowly, and let it take you where it wants to go.