What Is Mezcal? Learn About the Trendy, Agave-Based Alcohol

Commonly confused with its cousin tequila, mezcal is a smoky agave-based spirit from Mexico. This is one spirit deserving of a spot in your home bar.

Native to certain states of Mexico, mezcal is making its way north onto cocktail menus all over the country. In fact, Business Wire predicts the market demand for this agave-based alcohol will grow by more than $980 million by 2024.

But what is mezcal, anyway? If you're not a mixologist or well-versed in types of alcohol, you might wonder what the difference is between mezcal and tequila. They're both agave-based spirits, after all. But, while true, their succulent plant roots are the only shared attribute.

There are more than 200 varieties of agave. Tequila is solely made from blue Weber agave. Mezcal is made from one (or a combination) of about 30 types of agave that are roasted and fermented. Tequila is a type of mezcal (all tequila is mezcal), but all mezcal isn't tequila. Still confused? That's fine. Read on to learn more about mezcal and some delicious ways to drink it if you decide to try it.

What Is Mezcal?

Mezcal translates from Nahuatl (a native Aztec language) words metl and ixcalli to "oven-cooked agave." It's commonly called "maguey" in Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced. Depending on the variety of agave used, the plant is harvested in mature states of up to 15 years.

As for the mezcal process, it's cooked in an earthen or stone-lined underground pit for a few days. Preparing it this way helps start its signature smoky flavor. From there, the cooked agave is milled and fermented. Once fermentation is complete, everything (juice and fibers) is distilled up to three times.

Types of Mezcal

The various aging times and processes determine how to categorize the mezcal classes and labels:

  • Blanco (Joven): Unaged and unadulterated, this is the most common class of mezcal.
  • Madurado en Vidrio ("Matured in glass"): Mezcal is stored in glass for more than 12 months, underground, or somewhere with little change in light, temperature, and humidity.
  • Reposado: Mezcal "rested" in oak barrels or wooden vessels for at least two months.
  • Añejo: Mezcal aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels or wooden vessels.
  • Avocado: Flavored or infused mezcal that may include maguey "worms," fruits, or herbs.
  • Destilado con ("Distilled with"): A traditional process in which a second or third distillation is done with other ingredients added to the still.

What's the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

"If you think about it, scotch and bourbon are both whiskeys, right?" says Lou Bank, co-host of the podcast Agave Road Trip and the founder of S.A.C.R.E.D., a non-profit that helps rural Mexican communities that make heritage agave spirits. "Mezcal and tequila are both agave spirits," says Bank.

As mentioned earlier, tequila is only made from blue agave, while mezcal is made from one (or more, called an "ensemble") of the 200+ other agave varieties. And while good tequila is 100% agave, Bank says tequila is only required to be 51% agave to be considered tequila. All mezcal, however, contains 100% agave.

Not only is the type of agave different, but Bank says the regions that produce them are also different. Tequila is made in five Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal is produced in nine states, including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca (nearly 85% of mezcal comes from here), Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

How to Drink Mezcal

small blue copita drinking vessels for mezcal
Courtesy of BeckerArtStudios / Etsy

If you want to experience mezcal the traditional way, drink it from a vessel known as a copita ($36 for a set of two, Etsy). This small, shallow cup is made of glass, wood, or ceramic. And since mezcal is a strong alcohol (up to 55% ABV), it's traditionally meant to be sipped and savored slowly from your copita. If you don't like drinking mezcal straight, it's an excellent base for cocktails.

Mezcal Cocktails

negroni cocktail made with mezcal
The Spark Negroni cocktail made with mezcal. Courtesy of Vamonos Riendo Mezcal

Here are some mezcal takes on standard cocktails by LA bartender Cari Hah to introduce you to some flavors that pair well with mezcal.

The Spark Negroni

1.5 oz. mezcal, such as Vamanos Riendo Mezcal
1 fresh pineapple chunk
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet vermouth

Place your pineapple chunk in the bottom of a double Old Fashioned glass. With a flat bottom muddler, gently press the pineapple to release some juices into the glass. Don't smash it; press it! Add remaining ingredients. Add a big ice cube and stir. Sprinkle with sea salt on top.

The Optimistic Martini

2 oz. mezcal, such as Vamonos Riendo Mezcal ($53, Reserve Bar)
¾ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. Benedictine
Grapefruit bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with grapefruit oils by gently twisting a grapefruit peel over the drink.

Because tequila and mezcal are related, you can try getting creative by making a margarita with mezcal. Or, for a spicier drink, try our recipe for this smoky pineapple cocktail with some heat from serrano chile pepper.

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