Chances are you’ve probably tried tequila a time or two (hundred) throughout your life. You may have also heard of the wonderful spirit called Mezcal, which is having a shining moment over the last few years! Consider Mezcal to be tequila’s more complex, classier older sister. And it just so happens to hail right here from the state of Oaxaca.
While temporarily living in Mexico, Sasha and I took a weekend trip to the amazing state (and city) of Oaxaca (Oaxaca is both a city and a state). We rented a car and took a day trip on our own to Teotitlan, a traditional rug weaving village. Just ten minutes outside of the village is a delicious restaurant off the main highway called Mezcal Don Agave, where you can try traditional foods of the region, and take a mezcal making tour! (You can read my blog post here on 6 Must-Visit Markets in Oaxaca.
Tours are free, but you are expected to tip your guide at the end. The tour lasts for approximately one hour. Ask for Ricardo Alvino – he was our guide, and was a wealth of knowledge and had such an avid passion for this art. I recommend tipping anywhere between 200 – 400 pesos ($10 – $20 USD)
Mezcal is my favorite spirit and in my opinion, makes some of the best cocktails in the world. In Oaxaca, Mezcal reigns queen! You will find it on literally every menu in every restaurant throughout the city, in addition to mezcalerias – entire bars dedicated to serving various types of mezcal. There’s even a mezcal library!
So, are you ready to have your mind blown about the mezcal making process? It’s actually quite fascinating! In this blog post I’ll explain the process of making mezcal from plant to bottle, along with some fun and interesting facts about mezcal.
Mezcal comes from the agave plant (the same plant from which tequila is made). Another term for the agave plant is maguey.
16 Fun Facts About Mezcal:
- There are 27 different types of maguey plant in Oaxaca!
- Not all mezcal is smokey
- Locals drink mezcal slowly in sips, not as a shot (which makes it classier than tequila)
- Tequila is mass produced in factories, while mezcal is still (mostly) made by hand in the traditional way in smaller batches and is considered more artisan
- It takes 4 – 6 years for an agave plant to mature when planted in a field, while wild agave plants take between 12 – 15 years to mature
- You know a plant is mature when the tips of the leaves turn yellow
- The Zapotec people used to use the spines of the maguey plant as a weapon because it’s so sharp and stings like crazy when it pricks the skin! (I know this from experience, as whilst touching one of the plants I accidentally pricked myself and it stung like a bee sting for about half an hour)
- Mezcal making has been a tradition since the ancient times, and the process of making mezcal is considered an art
- Mezcal relaxes your muscles and gives you energy, so it became even more popular when the Spanish came because the miners drank it to be able to work harder and longer
- Sierra Azul and Sierra a Norte are the two regions that produce the most mezcal in all of Mexico
- Zapotec and Aztec people used to use mezcal for ceremonies and Gods, but they didn’t drink it because it was poisonous (they were nearly there – they just had to distill it one more time for it to become drinkable)
- The agave plant gets tall and grows flowers. Once they turn brown, they die and the seeds are collected to continue production
- The Spaniards brought sheep with them, so after they settled in Oaxaca, the locals began making tapetes (rugs) with wool, whereas before they used the fiber of the maguey plant
- If you don’t put mezcal in a barrel, it’s called joven (young). If it is in a barrel for up to one year, it’s called reposado. If it’s in a barrel for more than one year, it’s called añejo
- What’s with the worm? In some mezcal bottles, you’ll see a worm inside. In the 1950’s, a mezcal maker noticed a moth larvae in a batch of his liquor and thought that it improved the taste, so he kept it in. Now worms are added mostly as a marketing strategy
- Maguey are planted far apart in fields because the leaves get really long
So, how exactly does that delicious clear liquid get into glass bottles from plant form? Let’s review the mezcal making and distillation process.
How is Mezcal Made?
STEP 1: Maguey seeds are planted in fields
STEP 2: Once the plant is mature (between 4 – 12 years), the leaves are chopped off (and discarded), and the heart (core) of the plant (called the piña, which means pineapple) is removed and shaped
STEP 3: A large oven is filled with wood and lit on fire, then rocks are thrown on top to heat it for around 4 hours
STEP 4: Fiber from the maguey plants are covered over the rocks
STEP 5: The shaped piña is cut into large slices and placed on top of the heat, and covered with dirt to cook slowly for 7 days
STEP 6: The sugar from the piña is burned off so it becomes brown and sweet; this liquid is then placed inside a large hole in the ground and a horse pulls the rock for 5 hours to mash the piña until it becomes a pulp (horses live on site in stables)
STEP 7: The pulp ferments and is mixed with water to dilute the fermentation (this process takes around 10 days depending on the temperature (it’s faster in hotter temperatures and slower in colder temperatures)
STEP 8: After fermentation comes the distillation process to separate the alcohol from the water and fiber
STEP 9: For the joven mezcals, this completes the process. For the older mezcals, the alcohol is placed in barrels to age
STEP 10: Bottle the goodness
STEP 11: DRINK IT and enjoy!
I hope you learned something new today about how to make, drink and appreciate mezcal! Salud!
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