Mezcal is a Mexican distilled spirit made from the agave plant. There are many different types of agaves, and each produces a slightly different mezcal. Agave is part of the Agavaceae family, also called maguey. While Tequila is a mezcal made only from the blue agave plant in the region around Tequila, Jalisco, spirits labeled “Mezcal” are often made using other agave plants.
Mezcal is made from the agave plant. After the agave matures (6-8 years) it is harvested by jimadores (field workers) and the leaves are chopped off using a long-handled knife known as a coa or coa de jima, leaving only the large hearts, or piñas (Spanish for “pineapple”). The piña is cooked and then crushed, producing a mash.
Baking and mashing
A distillery oven loaded with agave “pineapples”, the first step in the production of tequila. Traditionally, the piñas were baked in palenques: large (8-12 ft diameter) rock-lined conical pits in the ground. The pits were lined with hot rocks, then agave leaves, petate (palm fiber mats), and earth. The piñas are allowed to cook in the pit for three to five days. This lets them absorb flavors from the earth and wood smoke.
After the cooking, the piñas are rested for a week, and then placed in a ring of stone or concrete of about 12 ft diameter, where a large stone wheel attached to a post in the middle is rolled around, crushing the piñas.
Modern makers usually cook the piñas in huge stainless steel ovens and then crush them with mechanical crushers.
The mash (tepache) is then placed in large, 300-500 gallon wooden vats and 5%–10% water is added to the mix. The government requires that only 51% of this mix be from agave. Cane and corn sugars, as well as some chemical yeasts, may also be added. It is then placed in large stainless steel vats, covered with petate and left to naturally ferment for four to thirty days.
Distillation and aging
After the fermentation stage is done, the mash is double-distilled. The first distillation yields ordinary low-grade alcohol. After the first distillation, the fibers are removed from the still and the resulting alcohol from the first distillation added back into the still. This mixture is distilled once again. Sometimes, water is then added to the mix to reduce the proof down to 80. At this point the mezcal may be bottled or aged.
Mezcal ages quite rapidly in comparison to other spirits. It is aged in large wooden barrels for between two months to seven years. During this time the mezcal acquires a golden color, and its flavor is influenced by the wooden barrels. The longer it is aged, the darker the color and more noticeable the flavor.