Usually, alcoholic drinks make one glibber and more uninhibited. In this case, I can honestly say the opposite. A quick weekend trip to Oaxaca has resulted in opening me to the many wonders of Mezcal. A complex subject with a long and amazing history, Mezcal remains a mystery to so many that partake, including the idea that it is a type of Tequila.
In reality, the opposite is true. Tequila is a Mezcal, not the opposite, at least in general terms. Mezcal is typically the term used for anything made from the family of Agave plants while Tequila is specifically produced from Blue Agave. Yet the story is much more than this.
What I have learned with this first introduction is simple, but I wanted to share it as it has left me eager to return to Oaxaca for more tasting and touring. Oaxaca is the center of Mezcal world, producing approximately 90% of the entire world’s supply. Eight additional Mexican states can also produce Mezcal: Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla.
The word Mezcal originates from Aztec language loosely meaning Nahuatl "oven-cooked agave". This being the method of producing the alcoholic product from the Agave or Maguey plants. While Tequila is produced from cooking Blue Agave hearts in an oven, Mezcal is produced in much more artisanal methods including roasting the hearts of any of over 30 agave varieties on an open fire or in an earthen pit which produces the more pronounced smoked complexities. Once cooked, the hearts are often crushed in a traditional horse-driven stone wheel method.
It is at this point the fermentation process is initiated in wooden barrels. Once fermented, after an appropriate number of days depending upon weather, the mash is ready for distillation. Artisanal varieties are produced in traditional style stills made of copper, clay, or even mud. No modern machinery for true Mezcal! The distillation process typically used two cycles, at which time the finished product is blended to achieve consistency and final taste, before being bottled.
So, is the Mezcal now ready to drink? Traditional producers and purist would say this is the finished product and ready to drink in respectful moderation. With over 500 years of history and being primarily a ceremonial drink, Mezcal purist have strongly held beliefs that I am eager to learn more of. On the other side, aged product is in the market, as well as flavored, and there are modern believers in the characteristics attributed to these further steps.
With that said, I personally am fascinated by the history and tradition this product holds. Oaxaca is one of the financially poorer states in Mexico, yet they are rich in traditions and beliefs that have produced one of the fastest growing products in the alcoholic drink world.
While in Oaxaca, I encourage you to visit In Situ Mezcalaria (http://www.insitumezcalaria.com ) and learn from true experts. In Situ has a personally curated collection of over 180 bottles Mezcal and a story for each one of them. I can’t imagine a better place to start your Mezcal educational and tasting journey! Cheers!!