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Mezcal (/mɛˈskæl/, American Spanish: [mesˈkal] (About this soundlisten)) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of maguey. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl mexcalli [meʃˈkalːi], which means "oven-cooked agave", from metl [met͡ɬ] and ixcalli [iʃˈkalːi]. Traditionally the word "mezcal" has been used generally in Mexico for all maguey spirits and it continues to be used for many maguey spirits whether these spirits have been legally certified as "mezcal" or not, and It is also considered a drink of artisan origin.
Agaves or magueys are endemic to Mexico and found globally. More than 70% of mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but is nowadays produced and commercialized in all around the country growing in the national and international market. A saying attributed to Oaxaca regarding the drink is: "Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también; y si no hay remedio litro y medio" ("For all bad, mezcal, and for all good, as well; and if there is no remedy, liter and a half ").
Whether distilled drinks were produced in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest is unknown. The Spaniards were introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, made from the maguey plant. Soon, the conquistadors began experimenting with the agave plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash. The result was mezcal.
In the 21st century, mezcal is still made from the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, in much the same way as it was 200 years ago. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though other types of mezcal are not as popular as tequila (made specifically from the blue agave in select regions of the country), Mexico does export the product, mostly to Japan and the United States, and exports are growing.
Despite the similar name, mezcal does not contain mescaline or other psychedelic substances.
The agave was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Spanish Mexico, and had a privileged position in religious rituals, mythology and the economy. Cooking of the "piña", or heart, of the agave and fermenting its juice was practiced. The origin of this drink has a myth. It is said that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it, releasing its juice. For this reason, the liquid is called the "elixir of the gods". However, it is not certain whether the native people of Mexico had any distilled liquors prior to the Spanish Conquest.
Upon introduction, these liquors were called aguardiente ('blazing water'). The Spanish had known distillation processes since the eighth century and had been used to drinking hard liquor. They brought a supply with them from Europe, but when this ran out, they began to look for a substitute. They had been introduced to pulque and other drinks based on the agave or agave plant, so they began experimenting to find a way to make a product with a higher alcohol content. The result is mezcal.
Sugarcane and grapes, key ingredients for beverage alcohol, were two of the earliest crops introduced into the New World, but their use as source stocks for distillation was opposed by the Spanish Crown, fearing unrest from producers at home. Still requiring a source of tax revenue, alcohol manufactured from local raw materials such as agave was encouraged instead.
The drinking of alcoholic beverages such as pulque was strongly restricted in the pre-Hispanic period. Taboos against drinking to excess fell away after the conquest, resulting in problems with public drunkenness and disorder. This conflicted with the government's need for the tax revenue generated by sales, leading to long intervals promoting manufacturing and consumption, punctuated by brief periods of severe restrictions and outright prohibition.
Travelers during the colonial period of Mexico frequently mention mezcal, usually with an admonition as to its potency. Alexander von Humboldt mentions it in his Political Treatise on the Kingdom of New Spain (1803), noting that a very strong version of mezcal was being manufactured clandestinely in the districts of Valladolid (Morelia), Mexico State, Durango and Nuevo León. He mistakenly observed that mezcal was obtained by distilling pulque, contributing to its myth and mystique. Spanish authorities, though, treated pulque and mezcal as separate products for regulatory purposes.
Edward S. Curtis described in his seminal work The North American Indian the preparation and consumption of mezcal by the Mescalero Apache Indians: "Another intoxicant, more effective than túlapai, is made from the mescal—not from the sap, according to the Mexican method, but from the cooked plant, which is placed in a heated pit and left until fermentation begins. It is then ground, mixed with water, roots added, and the whole boiled and set aside to complete fermentation. The Indians say its taste is sharp, like whiskey. A small quantity readily produces intoxication." This tradition has recently been revived in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
In Mexico, mezcal is generally drunk straight, rather than mixed in a cocktail. Mezcal is generally not mixed with any other liquids, but is often accompanied with sliced oranges, lemon or lime sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called sal de gusano, which literally translates as "worm salt".
In the US, Europe and Japan, mezcal is increasingly becoming a prominent ingredient on many craft cocktail menus. Often mezcal is swapped for a more traditional spirit, in cocktails such as the "Oaxaca Old Fashioned" and the "Mezcal Negroni".