An Introduction to Mezcal (and how it differs from Tequila)

If you live outside of Mexico, you may not be familiar with mezcal, a spirit that has been really popping up everywhere in the past couple of years. “It’s a smoky tequila!” is what you are often told but mezcal is so much more than that. It’s a complex spirit that is only produced in Mexico. It’s also a pure spirit in that no additional ingredients are added to it. It is a truly wild spirit. We asked Owen Walker of El Rey Mezcal Bar in Toronto to give us more information about mezcal and why it differs from tequila.

So what is mezcal? Is it not the same thing as tequila?

Long and short… not really but kind of.

Tequila really is the industrialized version of what mezcal has always been. To fully understand what mezcal is, it is important to understand what its younger brother is all about and why these two spirits differ.

Both tequila and mezcal are made from agave. In tequila production, only the Blue Weber agave is used. The Blue Weber is one of the most robust and adaptable of the all of the agave species. It is one of the quickest plants to come to maturity and is also one of the largest (meaning a high yield). So, fast, adaptable to most climactic conditions in Mexico, able to be cultivated and a high production potential… These are some of the main reasons, in addition to purity of flavour, that the Blue Weber agave was chosen as the lone agave used in the production of tequila. Where tequila can only be made from Blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from approximately 50 varieties of agave species.

Where the agave plants are grown geographically is also important to the distinction of tequila and mezcal. Tequila is made in only five states in Mexico, whereas mezcal can presently be produced in eight states.

Finally, the production methods for the two products can be very different. In tequila production, the hearts or the piñas of the Blue Weber agave are pressure cooked in autoclaves or more industrial style ovens. The piñas are then typically machine ground and left to go about fermentation and then distillation. In mezcal, the piñas are baked in earthen pits, which serve to smoke and caramelize. These piñas are then chopped by hand or ground by the use of a donkey and a tahona or large rock wheel. Distillation is also notably performed with either clay, or copper stills. During distillation, there are also some dramatic differences that become apparent with respect to the addition of heads and tails (the whole of the distillation) in mezcal.

With respect to agave…. The Agave plant is of huge historical significance in Mesoamerica. With the help of the agave plant people have been able to thrive and build great civilizations in that specific region. Think Aztecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, Mixtecas and Zapotecs. In Mesoamerica, man has chewed agave for 9000 years! For centuries humans have made tools, food, medicine, weapons and fermentations from all different parts of the plant. It’s cultural significance is not to be overlooked.

Because mezcal can be made for such a vast number of different kinds of agave, there is no one flavour to mezcal. When it comes to varietal differences, there are a number of families that specific species of agave are sub-categorized in. Below are some of those sub-categories to help you when you choose what mezcal to sip on next. The best way to understand the differences is to order a flight at your local mezcal bar so that you can really discover the flavours. Or better yet, hop on a plane to Oaxaca!

Espadin is by far the most common agave used to produce mezcales. It accounts for approximately 90% of mezcal production. Espadin is a robust, resilient and adaptable species that grows fairly quickly in a vast number of climactic conditions. Because of the plants unique ability to adapt and flourish, it is a great register for understanding the impact of terroir on mezcal production.  

A bit of an oddball, the Kawinskii species have a unique set of characteristics that become very evident when tasting. All examples are wild harvested and have a interesting elongated trunk that end up looking like matchsticks, rather than pineapples when harvested. Typically, very green on the palate and generally have herbaceous qualities. Think green chilies and peppercorns.

Known to some as the “king of mezcales”… This agave is said to be at its best when grown wildly at high altitude and in the shade of the white oak tree. This relatively small statured plant produces an enzyme that erodes the rock faces it prefers to grow on! Typically Tobalá mezcales will be rich and round with tropical fruits and baking spice.

Tepeztates are the monsters of the agave world. Wild grown, and wild by nature. Curving and jagged edged, these gnarly beings can be 30 years old by the time they reach maturity. 30 years of embracing the energy of the sun and the nutrients of the earth.. The mezcales of Tepeztate can have a great deal of variance in flavour, look for brine, tropical fruit and some savoury notes.

Arruqueño is genetically similar to Espadín, and like Espadín it grows to be a massive plant when it reaches maturity. With powerful notes of tropical fruit and a palpable richness, Arruqueños are known to be excellent examples of some the most classic flavour profiles associated roasted agave. With limited availability outside of Mexico, Arruqueño Mezcales are something to be appreciated…All-stars of the Mezcal world.

The Rhodacantha species is another resilient and adaptable variety of agave, that grows in as far south as Oaxaca and as far north as Sonora. The monstrous plants are deceptively mild and delicate on the palate and tend to do their best work at higher elevation and adjacent to pine forest.

Pechuga is mezcal that is infused with fruits and spices and re-distilled with a protein suspended in the still. Like making a consommé, the protein (turkey, chicken, rabbit, jamon leg, etc.) acts as a natural filter the mezcal passes through and balances the fruit and other spices. These beautiful mezcales are typically produced for special occasions and holidays and are much sought after, based on their interesting profiles and rarity.

If any of this registers with you and you are keen to know more, El Rey in Toronto is set to host a series of educational tastings with some food pairings in the near future. Additionally, the bar is open 5pm-2am, 7 days a week and is well equipped to take you on a journey through the beautiful and varied landscape of agave distillates!

Owen Walker
Owen Walker’s journey in the world of hospitality began early in life. From the age of 13, Owen found himself employed washing dishes and scrubbing pots in a family friend’s small restaurant. During the next decade, travel became a large priority in Owen’s life. Visiting much of South and Central America, he found himself cooking both part time and full time to fuel his desire to explore. After many years dedicated to culinary work, he found himself behind the bar. The act of bartending became a critical outlet for very sociable person, eager to engage and find common ground. It was still a couple years before he was introduced to a style of bartending that engaged his interest in flavor pairings and a desire to learn new technique as well as interact with a diverse group of people. After just a year and a half of employment at Bar Isabel, Owen moved into the position of Bar Manager. During this period of growth and change, Owen also started a small company with a small group of peers that is responsible for an aperativo product called Capo Capo. Managing the bar at a busy restaurant and nurturing a small business has only greater inspired Owen to collaborate and innovate new projects. Owen has recently opened a new project with partner Grant Van Gameren called El Rey Mezcal Bar. Ely Rey is an exciting cocktail bar and restaurant with a focus on Mezcal.
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