Many centuries before the conquistadors set foot in the New World, the locals of what is now Mexico consumed pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. Pulque is still produced and is a delicious, refreshing drink but is only good when fresh and has an incredibly short shelf life. There have been attempts to put pulque in cans but it really doesn’t work and that’s why you don’t see it in Australia.
With the arrival of the Spanish, distillation of the sweet agave juice took over and mezcal was born. Mezcal is the generic name for any spirit made from agave including tequila, mezcal, raicilla, sotol, bacanora and others. The word mezcal comes from the Aztec/Nahuatl language: “metl” is agave and “ixcalli” (pronounced ishkalli) means cooking. So every tequila is a mezcal but not every mezcal is a tequila.
Agave spirits are unbelievably good. They’re textured and layered and the artisanal producers make world-class spirits every bit as complex and multifaceted as single-malt whisky. Agave spirits are strictly regulated and depending on type can be totally clear and unaged or aged. Mezcal can be aged for up to 12 years, while the ageing process for tequila can last between two months and three years, with a category introduced in 2006 for three-plus years of ageing. The production is simple: harvest, cut out the piña (the heart of the agave plant), cook it, grind it to obtain the juices, ferment the juices, distil and bottle (or age and bottle).
Tequila is only made from the weber azul cultivar of blue agave in the Denominación de Origen (DO) Tequila in Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Michoacán.
Mezcal can be made from any type of agave, as long as it’s grown within the DO Mezcal, which encompasses Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis, Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Michoacán. Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Michoacán are allowed to produce both mezcal and tequila.
Raicilla is an agave spirit produced in the DO Tequila from different agave species to tequila.
Sotol is made from a cousin of the agave called desert spoon and is produced in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, in New Mexico and in Texas. It can be as dry as an agave spirit, but also sweet like a liqueur or made with additives (most favoured are cannabis and peyote).
Bacanora is a mezcal made from agave grown in the Mexican state of Sonora. It was illegal until 1992; in 2000 it was finally granted an official Denominación de Origen by the Mexican government
Here are two great places to eat Mexican food and drink superb agave spirits.
Here are what I consider the best agave spirits.
➼ Tequila Fortaleza Blanco Still Strength, 46% ABV
My favourite blanco tequila. This is the very best sipping tequila.
Nose: Sweet, cooked agave, crushed mustard seeds.
Palate: Alcohol sweetness persists, with an oily mouthfeel, with butter, roasted hazelnuts and rose petals.
Finish: Long and very clean.
➼ Mezcal de Oaxaca Don Amado Añejo, 43.5% ABV
This is made in a traditional ceramic and bamboo pot still.
Nose: Nail polish, volatile alcohol (blows off eventually), leather.
Palate: Leathery, quite funky, turning sweeter with burnt raisins.
Finish: Medium-long, ending sweet.
➼ Mezcal de Oaxaca Casamigos Joven, 40% ABV
Made from 100% of the espadin species of agave. Not a beginner’s mezcal but it will grow on you, I promise!
Nose: Meaty, brown chicken stock, celery stalks.
Palate: Very dry and grassy, no floral flavours but the meatiness persists.
Finish: Long, slightly bitter.
➼ Mezcal Derrumbes Zacatecas, 46.4% ABV
By master mezcalero Jaime Banuelos. It’s incredibly smooth and clean. This is the real deal!
Nose: Very closed with notes of a stable and hay.
Palate: Arnika root, galangal, dried parsley root and freshly baked bread. Fabulous mouthfeel.
Finish: Short and moreish.
➼ Mezcal Vago Elote Joven, 51% ABV
Made from espadin infused with corn. Mescalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez figured out that corn from his farm enhanced the flavours of the agave. My favourite high-alcohol mezcal
Nose: Angelica, toasted almonds, cloves (the flowers).
Palate: Initially hot, then smooth, mouth-filling with fresh pastry and apricot.
Finish: Long, superbly clean and warming.
➼ Mezcal Del Maguey Rio Minas, 48% ABV
Another 100% agave espadin, made in a very remote location by one family. This is the one mezcal that I will always go back to. My number one!
Nose: Demerara sugar, sweating horse, touch of diesel fuel and white pepper.
Palate: Quite bitter initially, then gets sweeter with floral notes and soft-boiled eggs.
Finish: Medium-long, with a lingering sweetness and saltiness.