Just hidden behind the floor-to-ceiling cases of Cuervo Gold is a diverse and fragile world of mezcals deserving your attention – sipping spirits on par with fine Cognac or Scotch; mixing spirits that are affordable and rewarding.

As rum is made from sugarcane (and its derivatives), as bourbon is made from corn (mostly), mezcal is made from agave. Not a cactus, not an aloe – agave is a succulent with over 200 varieties that grow from the southern US down to Colombia and Venezuela, including the Caribbean. The bulk of agaves harvested for mezcal grow in and around the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (say it “wah-HAWK-ah”). In the wild, agaves mature at around eight to twelve years, sending up a cluster of blossoms on a tall, asparagus-like stem called a quiote. Nectar-feeding bats fly from plant to plant, pollinating as they go. These pollinated flowers produce thousands of seeds, then the plants die as they regenerate scores of little baby agaves. The recent explosion of interest in mezcal and tequila has forced a situation where some producers interested in standardizing their spirits are looking to speed up the process by manually pollinating ahead of the game, cutting out the natural process. Unfortunately, this could have a long-term negative impact on agave, by reducing biodiversity and eliminating the habitat of the pollinating bats.

Before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico around 1520, natives made pulque – a thick, milky, lightly-intoxicating drink made by fermenting the sap of certain agaves. When the Spanish brought the hardware and the know-how for distillation (that they, in turn, learned from their travels to Arab countries), focus was shifted to the starchy pulp of the agave heart and the first, rough mezcals were created.

The agaves used for mezcal take between six to twelve years to mature, depending on their variety, the weather, their elevation, their soil – and like the “terroir” of fine wine, all these factors influence the final nose and flavor. Although automation has come to some mezcal producers (using harvesting machines and stainless steel autoclaves), the old ways still hold fast. When mature, cultivated or wild-growing agave plants are stripped of their leaves and dug up. Not an easy task – they can weigh as much as 220 pounds! Gentler mezcals are steam-roasted in hornos – large brick ovens. For a smokier flavor, a large pit is dug in the ground and lined with red-hot river rocks and a mix of cypress and mesquite wood for smoke, then loaded up with split agave “piñas” (as the hearts are called – they look like pineapples when cut), which are then insulated with agave leaves and straw. The insulation creates an earthen oven, and the piñas are left to roast for a few days, then dug up and ground to a pulp under a stone wheel (“tahona”) or shredded mechanically. The resulting thick liquid mush ferments in open vats for a few more days (as long as a month), and is finally distilled in alembic or pot stills – sometimes even rustic clay pot stills. You’ll usually only see “joven” (unaged) mezcal – occasionally, it’s aged for less than a year, called “reposado” (rested) or longer, called “añejo” aged.

Tequila is simply a type of mezcal, just a very tightly-controlled mezcal. Where mezcal can be made from any kind of suitable agave grown anywhere in Mexico, tequila must come from the Weber Blue agave and must come from from the state of Jalisco (or a small handful of surrounding states). Sort of like how Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France (otherwise it’s called “sparkling wine”). Typically, the Weber Blue agave hearts are roasted in hornos (no smoke like mezcals) and tequila is typically distilled longer than mezcal, making for a softer flavor – and can be sold straight from the still as “blanco” or “plata” (white or silver), aged two months to one year as “reposado” (rested), aged one to three years as “añejo” (aged), or aged beyond three years and called “extra añejo.” Aging takes place in oak barrels, usually leftover from aging bourbon or other whiskeys. Always, always make sure it says 100% agave on the label – otherwise, you’re getting that cheap mixto swill (made from part agave, part whatever). To be clear, that’s not to say all 100% agave tequilas are great (they’re not) but that should be your baseline to start.

Tequila was originally imported to the US in the late 19th century as a health tonic (still works that way, if you ask me). It wasn’t until some anonymous and wonderful person hit on the idea of making a standard “sour” cocktail with it in the 1940s that tequila began to catch our attention – and began the long, slow slide into the pop-culture tar pit it’s currently drowning in: “mixto” sold by the jug, slushy machines, and chemically green sour mix. Meanwhile, fine mezcals continued to be made in the villages of Oaxaca and enjoyed by the locals while the gringos up north choked down rotgut tequila with a dose of salt and a bite of lime to deaden the palate. It stayed that way until the 1990s, when New Mexico artist Ron Cooper visited Oaxaca, tasted these amazing spirits, and made it his mission in life to bring them to the world, creating the Del Maguey brand. Del Maguey sources mezcals from individual villages, each one with its own unique character. Following his lead, there’s been an incredible surge in handcrafted mezcals available to the rest of us – from just a handful a few years ago to over 150 brands today. Note that unlike tequila, mezcal can only be exported in individual bottles (never in bulk), so what you’re getting is an artisanal product, straight from the source.

There’s another esoteric agave spirit, bacanora – essentially just mezcal made in Sonora, so it falls outside the regulations governing true mezcal production. There’s only one brand available in the US at the moment, Cielo Rojo. Similarly, raicilla is made from agave around Puerto Vallarta, on the coast of Jalisco, and is roasted in hornos like tequila.

The first thing you’ll taste in most popular mezcals is the smoke, reminiscent of a campfire in the desert on a warm summer night. But let your palate adjust – what follows can be a long, twisting finish that goes on for miles: vegetal roasted chili peppers, sweet creamy butter, fresh tropical fruit, Dutch cocoa, hazelnuts, earthy minerality. These elements are there in good tequila, also – just softer, rounder. Mezcal is bold, wild, and invigorating.

All this love for agave helps boost the local economies in Mexico and shines a light on a fascinating culture, but it may come at a cost. I’ve already mentioned the threat to biodiversity and habitats, but there’s also a power grab coming from Mexico’s governing standards bodies that would give power to the mega-corporations that are mass-producing tequila and would eliminate the ability of small-batch producers to make a living. Even worse, some desperate and short-sighted farmers in Oaxaca have begun selling truckloads of immature agave to big-name mixto tequila producers to help satisfy their market demands – at the expense of mezcal’s future (and theirs). For more on these issues, please follow the Tequila Interchange Project and sign their petitions that come up every so often as these damaging initiatives attempt to become regulations. But in the meantime, support small, independent producers, enjoy these amazing spirits neat or mixed – and help keep this world alive.

RECOMMENDED BRANDS

Mezcal for enjoying neat: Del Maguey Tobala, Pierde Almas Tobaziche, Fidencio Clásico, Don Amado Plata
Mezcal for mixing: Del Maguey Vida
Tequila for enjoying neat: Tequila Ocho, Fortaleza
Tequila for mixing: Espolón, Camarena

Photo courtesy Celso Flores.
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