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HISTORY - Mexico`s Favourite Drink: The Spirit of Mezcal & It`s Colonial History

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

It is said in ancient times, a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, thus cooking and releasing its juices. Called “The Elixir of the Gods,” Pulque was the original fermented beverage to be produced from agave, by indigenous groups in Mexico. So important was this beverage, there were temples constructed to the Pulque gods. It remains unknown if indigenous groups were distilling spirits before the Spanish Conquest, though the historical record suggests mezcal was the result of a fusion of these cultures – one that harvested, cooked and fermented the juice, and another that also distilled the juice, increasing its alcohol content. One of the factors behind the Spanish development of mezcal was due to protectionist laws in Spain. Though sugarcane and grapes were initially introduced to the Americas following contact, the Spanish Crown feared backlash at home, thus prohibited the continued transplanting of grapes and sugarcane to New Spain. The Spanish were encouraged to utilize local resources, hence creating a brand new industry that has only recently gained recognition around the world.

In 1803, Alexander Von Humboldt mentioned mezcal in his Political Treatise of the Kingdom of New Spain, noting the production of this strong spirit in Valladolid (now Morelia), Mexico State, Durango and Nuevo Leon. Confusion sprung from this, as he reported mezcal as a byproduct of Pulque, which it is not. Edward S Curtis also described mezcal in The North American Indian, outlining the fermentation process and potency.

By 1994, Mezcal was recognized as an Appellation of Origin. Oaxaca is credited as the origin state for this diverse and delectable spirit, and their distilleries have lobbied against other states from gaining recognition as a Mezcal Denomination of Origin; even-so, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Puebla and Zacatecas were also granted such designation, as well “Geographical Indication.” Michoacan State gained recognition under these designations in 2012, and has a booming mezcal industry. Chihuahua has a growing sotal industry, made from a plant known as the Desert Spoon. Sotal is the fibre of the plant, also utilized by Raramuri weavers to frame their larger pine-needle baskets. As sotal is not an agave plant, this spirit is not technically mezcal and its production is more similar to the way tequila is produced.

There are over 30 varietals of agave used in the production of mezcal. This greatly contrasts with tequila, which is only made from blue agave. While blue agave is not cooked for tequila, other agave hearts are cooked for producing mezcal. Agave plants can take anywhere from 5-16 years to mature. During the growing process, farmers must take care to keep the plants healthy and weevil-free, as agave’s infested by weevils cannot be rescued.

An interesting factor behind the overall flavour of mezcal, is the terroir. Like grapes, agave plants pick up various flavours based on the soil, climate and other contributing factors. At harvest time, agave plants can weigh as much as 40 kg’s per plant. Once the harvest is complete, the agave is culled of its outer layers and roots, to reveal the heart of the plant. These are halved, then placed in a ground pit-oven that is lined with hot rocks. After being covered with more hot rocks, maguey leaves and reed-woven mats, the mound is buried with moist soil, and left to steam for 3-4 days. The process of steaming the agave causes the starches to turn into sugar which is crucial for fermentation, while also caramelizing and imbuing the flesh with the smokiness mezcal is so famed for. Once uncovered, the hearts are ground into pulp and placed in vats with water. At this point, the juice is left to ferment, which can take up to 25 days depending on the weather. Once the fermentation is over, the juice can be distilled in clay or copper pots, which will also affect the flavour. Like tequila, mezcal is distilled twice. The first distillation generally produces 75 proof (37.5% alcohol), while the second distillation process increases the alcohol content to as high as 55%. Young mezcal is bottled and sold, while some product is aged in oak barrels for one month to as long as 12 years.

Mezcal comes in a variety of flavours, including cream mezcals that are made with macadamia, coconut, pine nuts, or coffee. One mezcal vegans and vegetarians should beware of is called Pechuga (breast). This mezcal is infused with cinnamon, apple, plums, cloves and other spices, then distilled through the breast of chicken, duck or turkey. The addition of a worm in a bottle of mezcal happens during the bottling process, and is said to impart flavour, though experts agree this is more about marketing, since the worm actually destroys the delicate nature of the spirit.

Today, Mexico has approximately 330,000 hectares of land being utilized for growing agave plants. It is estimated this industry employs 29,000 workers under 9,000 producers. With 6 million litres produced annually, 2 million of which are certified, the export industry has grown to approximately 434,000 litres which generates 21 million in income. While it is amazing to find mezcal in markets around the world, there is nothing quite so fine as driving past fields and hillsides dotted with agave plants, to toast the national spirit of Mexico in a town where it is made.

We offer tours to mezcal distilleries, or can sometimes include one or two, on a journey in our region. Please contact Jennifer for more information.

Our publication is 100% free, but if you are feeling generous and would like to make a small, voluntary donation to help us cover our time for research and writing, please click below for payment options starting at $20 MXN (Approximately $1.20 USD). Thank you!

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