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What is Mezcal?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated May 17, 2024
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Perhaps the most famous drink to come out of Mexico is one made from the agave plant: tequila. But there’s another drink derived from the agave, one far less known but just as potent. Mezcal is commonly associated with the Mexican state of Oaxaca, though it is produced in several different areas throughout Mexico. It features many different flavors, depending on what species of the agave plant it is made from. Generally, it is any distilled liquor derived from the agave plant that is not tequila.

Mezcal is typically double distilled to produce a rich flavor, and then aged. The longer the liquor ages, the darker it becomes. Young mezcal, or joven, is almost clear and does not have the stronger flavors that more aged versions have. Reposado mezcal means the liquor has been aged from two or three months to a year, and anejo mezcal has been aged for a year or more, producing the strongest flavors and deepest color.

Sometimes mezcal bottles contain a worm or larvae in it. These are largely marketing tools now, but they were widely believed to add nutrients to the liquor. They also add some flavor to the liquor, but the worm is typically seen as a marketing device playing on an already-established perception of the product. Contrary to popular belief, worms are not added to tequila as such practices are banned in Mexico; the worm is distinctive to mezcal.

This alcohol is made from agave corazones, or hearts, which are also known as the pineapple, or piña, of the plant. Harvesters chop off the large leaves of the plant and collect the hearts after the plant has matured six to eight years. The hearts are then formed into mash after being cooked and crushed. The mash is added to water along with sugar, and it is left to ferment for up to a month. The liquor is then distilled according to the time frames mentioned above.

Mezcal has a flavor similar to tequila, but it is typically stronger and somewhat harsher. Tequila tends to be a smoother drink. In Mexico, tequila and mezcal are considered extremely different drinks though they are made from the same plant and have similar tastes.

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