What is mezcal? The definitive guide
You've probably heard the buzz about mezcal. One of the fastest-growing drink industries in the world, this Mexican spirit is prized for it's smoky flavour and artisanal, small batch production.
But what is mezcal? Here’s Eduardo Gomez, director of Tequila & Mezcal Fest to explain all…
What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal? The difference is that tequila can only be made, by law, from blue agave plants; whereas mezcal can be made from any agave. There are more than 30 different agave species. It is the production process that allows these two wonderful spirits to have completely different flavours.
How is mezcal made? Mezcal is made in nine estates of Mexico under the ‘denomination of origin’ launched in1994. The ‘jimadores’ (agave farmers) harvest the agave plant, expertly cutting off the long spiked leaves, leaving a pineapple shaped cone called a piña. With tequila, the piñas are cooked in massive stainless steel ovens or autoclaves then passed through the milling process where it undergoes a fermentation process using artificial yeast. With mezcal the process is more traditional. Instead of using huge industrial ovens the agaves are cooked and roasted in an underground earthy pit oven. The pit is lined with volcanic rock and shaped like an inverted cone. The oven is fuelled by wood and heats the volcanic rock to extreme temperatures. This smokes, cooks and caramelises the piña over a multi-day cooking process. This cooking process is what really differentiates mezcal from tequila.
How can I tell if I’m drinking good quality mezcal? An artisanal, or rare mezcal is always above 45% ABV, proving its quality and that it hasn’t been watered down. The batch number is also of relevance, always look for this as the smaller the batch the better the quality. Under the new NOM70 which is a new set of regulations in the category, there are three classification of mezcal: Industrial, Artisanal and Ancestral – these three regulations are based on the production methods. I would always recommend to drink artisanal or ancestral mezcal only!
Mezcal is one of the fastest growing drinks in the world. What’s the next big trend in mezcal? So the new trend is that millennials are drinking less, but they demand the best quality. Mezcal fits perfectly into this as artisanal mezcal is one of the purest and cleanest spirit. Nothing is added to it in its production. A lot of other spirits have added artificial colours and flavours – or artificial yeast to accelerate the fermentation process. With good mezcal, the fermentation lets the natural airborne yeast do its job. The less sugar, the less of a hangover you’ll have.
What are the proper ways to drink mezcal? Mezcal must be drunk neat at room temperature. You can sip it on its own, or with a slice of orange dipped in either chilli powder or warm salt. You can even get a special mezcal salt made from the mezcal worm, the pest that lives inside the agave plant. Mezcal is incredibly versatile in cocktails, too. My favourite is a Tommy’s Mezcal Margarita but it also works amazingly well in any twist on a classic cocktails. Think Old Fashioned, Mezcal Sour, Manhattan, etc.
Congratulations, you are now on the path to mezcal enlightenment. To learn more about what makes a great mezcal, we highly recommend pre-ordering Emma Janzen’s acclaimed – and extremely comprehensive – new book, Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisinal Spirit.
Celebrating Mexico, the only exclusive agave festival of it’s kind in the UK, Tequila & Mezcal Fest, now in its 5th year will return to London in October 2018. Visit tequilafest.co.uk
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