Old Tom. London Dry. Genever. If these were species of a genus gin, then tequila is a species of the genius mezcal. Mezcal, although experiencing a resurgence in recent years, never gained the popularity of tequila. Perhaps it was marketing, or perhaps its the Mexican spirit that was first discovered by its northern neighbour, but sales of tequila outweigh those of mezcal innumerably. It’s funny then that mezcal is the more diverse variety of spirit.
The Craft Gin Club is in Mexico this week so instead of gin we're sipping tequila and mezcal. After we've tasted our fair share we're writing articles about the Mexican Moonshine in our Trading Gin for Tequila series!
The term mezcal comes from the indigenous language nahautl’s word mexcalli meaning “cooked maguey”, maguey being another term for agave. As with any liquor or food, there are different varieties of mezcal depending on the species of agave used, the manner in which the plant transforms into spirit and the region where it is produced. Just as certain species of grapes populate certain regions of France, certain species of agave grow in certain regions of Mexico.
First, let’s look at the region. Tequila is made primarily in the state of Jalisco with small border regions of the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Nayarit also allowed to produce tequila. Mezcal hand hails from seven different states of official denominación de origen. The main mezcal producing state is Oaxaca, but recognized mezcal producing regions can be also found in Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Guerrero. Other regions also use the same mezcal-making processes but are not officially recognized.
Next, the species of agave. Tequila is also limited to one plant, the blue agave or agave tequilana, explaining why the regions in which it can be made surround Jalisco. Mezcal’s regions grow a wide variety of agave and 28 of them can be officially used to make the spirit.
As for distillation processes, those differ as well. The maguey hearts, or piñas (pictured in the banner image), begin their journey to tequila in above-ground ovens. These oven began as steam-operated brick kilns during the Industrial Revolution which have since evolved to the more stainless-steel one used today. The steaming method used for tequila, which cooks the agave heart in 12 hours, is largely industrialized.
On the other hand, mezcal production still follows traditional methods. The piñas cook in a wood fire-powered cone-shaped oven dug into the ground. The pits are lined with stones and hermetically sealed by earth and palm leaves or straw. The stones heat up as the wood fire burns and the agave hearts that rest upon them cook for several days before they are ready for the next distillation step. This difference in process is crucial to the distinction between mezcal and tequila for the way in which mezcal is made gives it a smoky flavour completely absent from the steam-cooked tequila.
Both tequila and mezcal are traditionally double-distilled but mezcal is known at times to undergo a third distillation transforming the drink into pechuga. During this third distillation, vapors seep through fruits and grains which will vary depending on the recipe. What does not vary is the main ingredient - a chicken breast - known in Spanish as a pechuga.
So next time you cook up a Sunday roast chicken, be sure to accompany it with a glass of triple-distilled mezcal and remember that you’re not drinking tequila.