Tequila Might Be Mezcal, But Mezcal Is MUCH More Than Tequila...


Apr 28, 2006


The Bottom Line Mezcal is the basis of tequila, yet taken by itself, it can be so much more complex, variable, and sophisticated. Here's the straight story...

Visiting Oaxaca is an eye-opening experience. It's a thoroughly Mexican experience, but the regional culture is so powerful and so deeply in-grained that in some respects, it demands an entirely different kind of mind-set than the rest of the country. Oaxaca is to Mexico like Acadian Louisiana is to the United States --- a place with its own identity, its own flavors, its own music, and its own rhythm and soul. It's a place that's at once alien, yet quintessential.

Oaxaca is a gastronomical fantasy world, where the flavors and smells of kitchens and dining rooms is outside the experience of most visitors. The moles are bigger, bolder, and blacker than in the rest of Mexico. The chocolates are shockingly intense and often as not, punctuated with an essence of cinnamon or caramel. The coffees are an earthy orgy on the tongue. And of course, there's the subject at hand: mezcal.

Mezcal is the heart and soul of drinking in Oaxaca. Mezcal is to Oaxaca what tequila is to Jalisco or wine is to Napa Valley California.

Even though I pride myself on being somewhat aware of what alcoholic beverages are what, until I actually set foot in Oaxaca, I had no concept of just how intense the mezcal tradition really was.

Like most folks who grew up in the United States, I really had only a minimal exposure to mezcal --- mostly involving college parties at which bottles of Monte Alban mezcal were boldly presented along with challenges to "eat the worm". It's little wonder that most of us come up with an image of mezcal being a rough drink guaranteed to invoke more headaches than the U.S. tax code.

The stereotypes couldn't be more wrong.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is a drink of amazing variability and complexity. It is the province of artesanal craft producers who distill on miniscule scales and where regional and seasonal differences can be as significant as they are in the world of fine wines.

But enough intro, let's cut to the chase and talk about what mezcal really is and how it is related to tequila.


The Tequila Connection...
Tequila is mezcal, but mezcal is not necessarily tequila.

If you're familiar with scotch, you'll understand the point easily enough. In the world of whiskies, scotch, bourbon, rye, etc. are all types of whisky (or whiskey, depending on your alcoholic religion), but not all whisky is bourbon, or scotch, or whatever. In cars, sedans, coupes and station wagons are all types of cars, but not all cars are station wagons (thank God!)

Spirits made from fermented agave juices are all types of mezcal, and that includes tequila, as well as regionally known styles like sotol and raicilla that most people would never have tasted unless they found themselves a guest in a particular area of Mexico.

With the attention paid to artesanal tequilas over the past several years, there's a lot of people in the international community who've tasted a lot of tequilas, and who understand the basic language of tequila. Many of the terms used to describe tequilas are also used on bottles of mezcal, including aging descriptors like reposado and aņejo.

Before I delve too far into the tasting and sensory sides of Oaxacan mezcal, let me address a few of the myths of tequila and mezcal....


Disspelling the Myths...
1. Mezcal has a worm in it.
In the late 20th century, a couple of marketers decided to put worms in their export mezcals as a gimmick. It is not a genuine tradition and none of the quality mezcals have worms. Cheaper mezcals and low-grade export mezcals do have worms, and I've heard that bottles exported to the Japanese market sometimes have several worms (actually caterpillars) in each bottle.

It is true that no respectable tequila has a worm in the bottle, and its also true that no true artesanal mezcal has a worm in it.

2. Worms from a mezcal bottle cause hallucinations.
The only hallucination they may cause is that you're having a hallucination.

3. Mezcal is just "cheap" tequila.
There is absolutely no truth at all to rumors that producers who can't meet the standards of "tequila" use the "mezcal" label. The beverages are different, that's all, and mezcal suffers an image problem due to its relative unfamiliarity compared to the more widely experienced tequila.

4. Tequila is stronger than mezcal.
Occasionally, you can find mezcal that is as weak as tequilas sold on the international market (which are often a mere 80 proof, sometimes even less). In truth, most mezcals tend to be stronger than most tequilas, but its largely owing to their extreme variability. Tequilas are usually watered down at bottling to "international industry standards". Artesanal mezcals are bottled locally to satisfy local preferences. Mezcals are commonly 90 to over 100 proof --- occasionally less, occasionally more.

5. Mezcal produces bigger headaches than tequila.
Big heads tend to come from liquors distilled only once. That's usually the cheap, no-name liquors.

Most good tequilas are triple-distilled, and almost any decent brand will be at least double-distilled. This is also true of mezcals. Name brand mezcal (including Monte Alban) is at least double-distilled. Most artesanal mezcals are double-distilled and a large number are triple-distilled. Quality-wise, a good mezcal is as smooth and as refined as the best top-shelf liquor you can buy of any spirit type.


When IS It a Mezcal Then, and When IS It a Tequila??
There's a lot of factors that make up the difference.

Tequila tends to come from the state of Jalisco. Mezcal tends to come from the state of Oaxaca. There are exceptions for both appellations.

Tequilas is made from one specific type of agave (called "blue agave" or "tequilana weber") whereas mezcal is made from various kinds of agave (generally of five common types, though there are at least 20 species in Oaxaca). By the way, there have been rumors that unethical tequila producers in Jalisco sometimes purchase non-blue agave varieties from farmers in Oaxaca, in violation of regulations stating that tequila be produced solely from blue agave.

Tequila tends to be more predictably standardized in flavor, color, and aromatic ranges, while mezcal is much more varied with more intense flavors and aromas. This results from the smaller production scales of mezcal and from the many differences in production methods (ranging from the ways in which the agave piņas are roasted, to the ways in which the drinks are fermented, distilled, and aged).

By the way, beer lovers will appreciate that mezcal is usually naturally fermented via open-air following the same basic methods as lambic brewers from Belgium.


Variations on a Theme...
In the city of Oaxaca, as well as in coastal towns on the Oaxacan coast, there are small shops and booths in many markets that sell many brands of mezcal that are never sold outside local Oaxaca markets. This is true also of small town markets, and I even found mezcal-only stores on the tourist route east of Oaxaca to the Mitla arachaelogical site and out towards Hierva del Agua. Many Oaxaca restaurants had extensive mezcal selections.

In some of these mezcal markets I found a huge number of flavored mezcals and "cream liquers" based on mezcal. Shopkeepers encouraged me to taste their flavored mezcals. Most of these were shockingly good, and far more complex than the relatively direct Irish cream liqueuers that seem so popular in the United States. Mocha, cajeta, mango, pineapple, even blueberry, were offered up for sampling in many a market. Needless to say, my souvenir cache coming back has more bottles than knick-knacks...

In Huatulco, I found a lot of these creme mezcals being sold in the mercado in Crucesita, as well as in a delightful tasting room at a shop called the Museo de Artesanias Oaxaca (just off the main plaza in Crucesita). I doubt they're based on the best mezcals, but they're wonderfully accessible and smooth apperetif beverages for people who may not appreciate the assertive character of a pure mezcal. In Oaxaca, you can find an excellent range of pure mezcals at downtown restaurants like Los Danzantes (a 5-star dining experience) and Caminito al Cielo. Heck, you can find mezcals at street fairs and gas stations....finding a good mezcal in Oaxaca is as easy as finding a good bagel in New York.


How Does a Glass of Mezcal Compare to a Glass of Tequila??
The whiskey analogy is very useful when tasting mezcal because Oaxacan mezcals are very much like single malt Scotch whiskies.

Like single-malt Scotch, mezcal shows off significant, easily perceptible, differences in flavor from brand to brand, and from region to region.

Many of the same kinds of flavors that you look for in single-malts will be found in mezcal too. Smokiness and a phenol signature are extremely common and I'm told are a result of the intense roasting regimen that the agave piņas go through. Likewise, you get some mezcals that exhibit signs of saltiness, and you get some that may have an almost Brettanomyces-like horsey or leather aspect to them. They are wonderfully variant and complex.

Also like scotches, you find mezcals that smooth themselves out over years of aging in the barrel. The aged mezcals are identified as "aņejo" --- just as they are with aged tequilas. Look for smooth sweet characters here, with all that implies.


Bottom Line...
I'm no expert on mezcal, but my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of the drink. I hadn't had it in years, and then, over the course of the last couple weeks, I drank it at least once (usually 3 or more times) a day. In Oaxaca, mezcal is everywhere and its easy to find samplers of brands you've never heard of, and variations you never imagined existed. A selection was available in all of the good restaurants and hotels I visited, and even at the all-inclusive chain resort I stayed in at Huatulco (the Barcelo) free samples of mezcal were offered at every meal. You can't visit Oaxaca without being offered mezcal. That's a good thing.

My intention here was just to talk about a few of the things I've picked up about mezcal in general, and to try to expound on the Oaxacan side of mezcal as very distinct from the well-known tequila style that most people are used to. I intend to post a couple specific mezcal reviews that build on the generalities.

Until next time, see you in the cantina. Don't be too surprised if my beer mug's been replaced by a shot glass of mezcal...




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