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Learn what mezcal is and why it’s so universally beloved

Mezcal has an incredible production process with an even more exciting history. Learn more about the first distilled spirits in the Americas.

Mezcal has an incredible production process with an even more exciting history. Learn more about the first distilled spirits in the Americas.

Since you’re bound to ask this question eventually, we may as well address the issue of mezcal vs. tequila right off the bat.

Question: Is mezcal tequila?

Answer: Nope.

Think of it this way — mezcal is the overarching term for spirits distilled from the maguey (agave) plant, while tequila is simply a form of mezcal. In order to be classified as tequila, the drink must consist of more than 51% blue agave. Higher blue agave content signifies finer mezcal tequila.

The history of mezcal

It was four centuries ago when Spanish conquistadors began arriving in Mexico. While what happened upon their arrival was not one of humanity’s shining moments, there is some interesting liquor history in there too. Pre-Spanish Mexicans regarded the agave plant as a mythical, sacred plant. When cooked, its insides — called the piña — release juices that people referred to as the “elixir of the gods."

The Spanish had brought along their own stash of booze, but it soon ran out. Desperate for a substitute but discouraged by the Crown from using grapes or sugarcane to distill liquor, they set their eyes on the agave.

Mexicans had been making an alcoholic drink called pulque from agave for millennia. Today, this drink is the equivalent of Mexican moonshine. The Spaniards didn’t mind it but wanted something stronger. They began experimenting and soon came up with mezcal.

How mezcal is made

This history still lies close to the heart of mezcal today. The vast majority of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, where 11 different types of agave plants are used, with the most common one being agave espadín.

You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that the traditional method of making mezcal is still alive and well today. The agave is roasted underground in a wood-fired bit, then distilled in copper pots in small batches. It’s still the ceremonial drink of Oaxaca and you’d be hard-pressed to find a baptism or wedding without it on the guest list.

What is the purpose of the worm in mezcal?

There is the small issue of the worm floating in your drink (okay, it’s not in every bottle of mezcal). In fact, what you’re looking at is a moth larva. In the 1950s, a mezcal maker discovered one of these insects floating in his batch and found that he rather liked the taste that resulted. Today the trend persists, though some speculate it’s largely a marketing ploy.

Varieties of mezcal

Like any timeless liquor, mezcal has plenty of variations and recipes you can dive into. The really good stuff like Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal and El Jolgorio Tepeztate costs the most and delivers an extremely interesting, rich experience. El Jolgorio ages their spirits for 25 years!

Choose El Silencio Espadin or Montelobos Mezcal Joven to enjoy a good smoky flavor, while Bozal Tobalá brings a fruit-forward brightness to the dance. There’s also plenty of variation to be enjoyed in Derrumbes San Luis Potosi Mezcal. It's made from wild Salmiana Crassispina agave and roasted with dried Salmiana leaves and quiotes — all due to demands of the natural environment, and all contributing to a truly unique flavor.

Just because we’re on the subject of pure mezcal doesn’t mean we should shy away from mezcal tequila. Drinks like añejo and reposado are the favorites of big wigs like George Clooney and Mike Meldman, and are made from 100% Blue Weber agave.

So with ingredients galore and plenty of varieties of agave for a universe of potential characteristics, these agave spirits have stood the test of time and will continue to do so. Bartenders worth their salt will always have some fine mezcal on the shelf. Whether you’re sipping it alone or as part of a margarita or negroni, you’re in for a delightful ride.