An Introduction to Mezcal

If you think that mezcal and tequila are the same thing, then you'll be surprised! In this article, we will give you an introduction to Mezcal, and teach you everything you need to know about Mexico’s most traditional agave spirit.

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An Introduction to Mezcal

Mezcal is a spirit made from wild agave, a cactus-like plant that is native to Mexico. Agave plants only flower once in their lifetime, growing a tall stem from the piña of the plant, after which the plant dies. In order to make mezcal, the piñas of the agave are slowly roasted in a large wood-fired pit in the ground, providing the mezcal with its distinctive smokiness. The piñas are then naturally fermented in wooden barrels, and purified in stills made from either copper or clay.

The method of production, and the way that Mezcaleros process the raw ingredients to produce their mezcal plays an essential role in the spirit’s final flavor profile. Unlike tequila, which is made exclusively from the blue Weber agave in the state of Jalisco, mezcal is produced in almost every state of Mexico, and applies dozens of different agave varieties.

There are an estimated 200 species of agave, of which 40-50 varieties can be used for mezcal production.

Like wine, the beauty of mezcal lies in the spirit’s ability to express the conditions in which it was cultivated. The flavor profiles in mezcal are influenced by the yeasts that carry out the fermentation, as well as the conditions in which the plant grew - such as the soil, altitude, and weather conditions. This diversity makes mezcal an interesting drink for many spirits aficionados.

One of the most popular types of agave used for mezcal is the “Agave Angustifolia” - or Espadín, as it is best known. This sort accounts for about 80-90 percent of all mezcal production in Mexico.

Producers tend to favor this sort because it is easy to cultivate, and has a relatively short maturity period of six to eight years – seems like a long time, right? Well, not compared to other agave sorts, such as the Agave Potatorum, and Americana, that can take up to 15-25 years to mature.

Mezcal Production

There are generally three ways of producing mezcal according to tradition, and that is, that all mezcals should consist of 100% agave (or maguey as it is called in Mexico), with no other added source of sugar during the fermentation process. Hence, there are generally three ways of producing mezcal, and these are ancestral, artisanal, and industrially made mezcals.

  • Ancestral Mezcal: The ancestral mezcal is distinguished from those called “artesanal” for their distillation process, which is in an “olla de barro” – a traditional clay pot. In this method, the agave must be cooked in a pit and crushed by a mallet or stone mill. Distillation in stainless steel columns is prohibited for ancestral mezcals.

  • Artisanal Mezcal: The majority of certified mezcals fall into the artesenal category. Producers of this method follow ancestral methods, but exclude the use of autoclaves, diffusers, and column stills.

  • Industrial Mezcal: Lastly, we have industrially made mezcal, which allows for modern production methods imported from the tequila industry. These mezcals are often criticized by ancestral and artisanal aficionados, as they are made by cooking the agave in autoclaves, extracting the juice with a diffuser, and distilling the agave in stainless-steel columns.


Both artisanal and ancestral mezcal are cooked in a stone-lined pit in the ground, in which a bonfire is built on top. After the fire dies down, stones are piled on top of the red-hot coals. The stones are then covered in wet agave fiber, with agave on top. The mound is covered with straw mats, and buried in the earth, where the heat from the stones completes the cooking process of the agave over the course of several days.


Once the agave has been cooked, the next step is to mill it as soon as the agave has been removed, cooled down, and sorted. The agave is crushed by a large stone wheel pulled by a horse or mule. Mechanical shredders are also common for this artisanal method, whereas ancestral mezcals are crushed by hand with large wooden mallets. When the agave is crushed into fiber and wet pulp, it is then ready for fermentation.


Crushed agave will ferment naturally, with the addition of water. The fermentation process generally takes 1- 4 weeks, depending on a number o factors such as the sugar content, temperature, altitude, proximity to livestock, and frequency of fermentation in the Palenque (mezcal distillery). Mezcal is mostly fermented by the yeast and bacteria that grows in the Palenque in which it is processed. The use of commercial or proprietary yeasts is rare, and frowned upon. The barrels used to ferment the agave are usually made of wood, but stone, concrete, leather, and even plastic are also used to contain the agave. The maestro Mezcalero’s five senses are the instruments used to decide when the fermentation process is complete.

A traditional maestro Mezcalero will typically watch, listen to, smell, touch, and taste the fermenting agave regularly as the sugar content drops and alcohol rises.


Once the fermentation process is done, the mash of the agave is distilled. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol, from which the fibers are removed to distill the alcohol a second time. After this second distillation, the mezcal is mixed and is either bottled right away, or left to age in oak barrels.