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Mezcal: The Rebirth of a Traditional Mexican Drink

Left: The maguey plant. Right: Bottles of commercial mezcal. Photos by the author and used with permission.

When talking about traditional Mexican drinks, the conversation invariably leads to the recent resurgence of mezcal. Once nearly fading into disuse, mezcal is now the leading drink on menus of all types at a wide variety of Mexican establishments.

In the last decade, drinking mezcal has been trending among Mexicans, but what exactly is mezcal? According to the Official Mexican Standard (Mexico's official rules governing mezcal's characteristics and specifications), mezcal is a distilled, transparent alcoholic beverage obtained from the maguey plant:

100 % de maguey o agave, obtenida por destilación de jugos fermentados con microorganismos espontáneos o cultivados, extraídos de cabezas maduras de magueyes o agaves cocidos (…)

100% maguey or agave, obtained through the distillation of fermented juices with spontaneous or cultivated microorganisms, extracted from mature maguey heads or cooked agaves (…)

Mezcal's historical origin is uncertain although some versions maintain it began in the colonial period, sometime after 1521 following the Spanish conquest and their subsequent introduction to distillation techniques. Others assert that mezcal is a prehispanic brew used by indigenous people for centuries before the conquest.

Mezcal now holds a leading spot among other old-fashioned drinks like pulque and tepache. It's not to be confused with tequila, which comes specifically from the blue agave harvested in its namesake region of Tequila, Jalisco. A recent Huffington Post piece on the rise of mezcal highlights a few other differences:

Alrededor del mundo ambos elixires simbolizan a México, y si durante décadas el tequila ha sido la bebida mexicana por excelencia, ahora el mezcal está viviendo una auténtica revolución. Después de haber sido considerado como una bebida despreciada, ya por fin lo encontramos en los bares mas chic del planeta y el talento de los bartenders le están dando el lugar que se merece.

Around the world, both elixirs symbolize Mexico, and if for decades tequila has been the quintessential Mexican drink, now mezcal is experiencing a genuine revolution. After having been considered an underappreciated drink, we finally find it in the most chic bars on the planet and the talent of the bartenders is giving it the recognition it deserves.

Mezcal's demand is so high in the Mexican capital that mezcalerías (places dedicated solely to its sale and consumption) have popped up. Online sites such as Hello DF or TimeOut regularly recommend some of the most sought-after mezcal shops.

Mezcalería en Matatlán. Foto del usuario de Flickr Eduardo Robles Pacheco. Usado bajo licencia Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Mezcalería (mezcal shop) in Matatlán, Mexico. Photo used with permission from the Flickr account of Eduardo Robles Pacheco under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

On the website Qué Rica Vida, Silvia Lucero published “Mezcal: Mexico's Trendy Beverage,” in which she recommends the best way to taste Mezcal:

Tengo que confesar que, así como me pone un poco nerviosa ver a alguien pedir un tequila y tomarlo en un solo trago, lo mismo me pasa con el mezcal, ya que hay que saber tomarlo y disfrutarlo–sobre todo tratándose de una bebida ancestral.

Existen diferentes tipos; hablando de manera general, sin embargo, está el blanco, el de pechuga y el añejo. En lo personal me gustan aquellos que tienen un sabor como ahumado. Si lo tomas puro, se acompaña con un gajo de naranja y sal de gusano que mezclan con chile en polvo. Suena extraño, es verdad, pero es delicioso.

I must confess that when someone orders tequila and drinks it in one big gulp, I get nervous. Just like tequila, I believe you should know how to drink and enjoy mezcal, especially since it is a handcrafted beverage.

There are several types of the drink. The most common types are white, aged and pechuga, which is distilled with chicken breast. Personally, I like those with a smoky flavor. If you take a shot of this drink, you should take it with an orange slice, worm salt and chili powder. Sounds strange, right? But it’s delicious!

In addition, Lucero left a recommendation for the most sensitive palates:

Si te parece muy fuerte para beberlo solo, puedes tomarlo en cóctel. Por suerte, cada vez es más común encontrar los típicos margarita, bloody mary, paloma o mojito preparados con mezcal. También puedes experimentar en casa creando algunos refrescantes para el verano como, por ejemplo, con jugo de mango y chile en polvo; ¡te quedará delicioso!

If you feel this drink is too strong, you can also have it as a cocktail. Luckily, it is really common now to find margaritas, bloody marys and mojitos prepared with mezcal. You can also experiment at home and create new refreshing drinks for the summer; try mixing the drink with mango juice and chili powder. Delicious!

The Mezcal Nation site expounds on four ways to finish Mezcal:

Tal vez al leer esto vengan a tu mente un complejo término digno de un “mezcalier” “mezcolatra” o “mezcalero”, la realidad es que hablamos de las cuatro formas de darle un acabado al mezcal.

Joven (blanco): es aquel que es envasado después de terminar la segunda destilación, cuando el destilado ya es considerado mezcal.

Reposado: su nombre lo dice, después de terminar el proceso de producción es reposado en barricas de roble blanco de 6 meses a 1 año.

Añejo: como los mejores whiskys, vinos o coñacs, el mezcal también se añeja por cinco años o más en las mismas barricas de roble blanco canadiense o americano.

Abocado: al terminar el proceso, se le agrega un sabor adicional como alguna hierba o fruta (el mezcal de gusano es un ejemplo de abocado).

Perhaps when reading this, a complex term worthy of a “mezcalier,” “mezcolatra” or “mezcalero” comes to mind; the reality is that we talk about the four ways of finishing a mezcal.

Joven (Young, white): The one that is bottled after finishing the second distillation, when the distillate is already considered mezcal.

Reposado (Rested): Its name says it all: after finishing the production process, it rests in white oak barrels for six months to one year.

Añejo (Aged): Like the best whiskeys, wines or cognacs, Mezcal is also aged for five years or more in the same Canadian or American white oak barrels.

Abocado (Finished): At the end of the process, an additional flavor is added such as an herb or fruit (the mezcal worm is an example of finishing).

The Animal Gourmet offers its own meditation on the best way to drink Mezcal:

Antes de beber, reconoce el mezcal que tienes enfrente. Conócelo. Olfatéalo con una fosa nasal y luego con la otra. Después coloca unas gotitas en las palmas de tus manos y frótalas hasta que el mezcal se seque. Coloca rápidamente tus manos alrededor de tu nariz y respira profundamente. Notarás los verdaderos aromas del mezcal (sin el alcohol interfiriendo). ¿Ahumado? Seguro. ¿Tierra mojada?, ¿tabaco? ¿hierbas? ¿durazno? ¿a qué huele? ¿Te gusta? Inténtalo de nuevo. Los expertos incluso pueden identificar qué tipo de agave y de qué región proviene el destilado. No esperamos que logres esto a la primera, pero es una buena forma de empezar a disfrutar tu mezcal.

Before drinking, recognize the mezcal in front of you. Get to know it. Smell it with one nostril and then with the other. Then place some droplets on the palms of your hands and rub them together until the mezcal dries. Quickly place your hands around your nose and breathe deeply. You will notice the true aromas of the mezcal (without the alcohol interfering). Smoky? Definitely. Wet earth? Tobacco? Herbs? Peach? What does it smell like? Do you like it? Do it again. Experts can even identify what kind of agave and which region the liquor comes from. We do not expect you to achieve this immediately, but it is a good way to start enjoying your mezcal.

On Twitter, fans like Carolina Gómez V proudly show off the mezcal they are about to taste:

#Mezcal to enjoy the verses of #sonjarocho

The Oaxaca Digital account shares this photograph of how a mezcal shot may be presented:

A good #Mezcal from #Oaxaca. 

Carolina Espina recalls the popular Mexican saying: “para todo mal, un mezcal” (for everything bad, a mezcal):

And for everything bad…#mezcal..!!

Mezcal is, without a doubt, in vogue. Locals and tourists alike seek to taste a bit of tradition.

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