All too often ignorantly dismissed as tequila’s “smoky cousin,” mezcal remains one of the most nebulous and misunderstood spirits in the canon of alcohol. The mythology of Mexico’s indigenous Zapotec people tells of a lightning bolt striking an agave plant, releasing its cooked and enhanced juices for the people to enjoy ever since. To this day its divine origins explain why indulging in mezcal does not make one drunk (in theory) but rather brings one closer to god. Even the agave plants themselves are fundamental to indigenous life: Dried leaves used to thatch homes, stalks and stems with which to sew and hunt, and fibers for clothing and rope come from some species. No wonder its magical juice is also said to be imbued with powers of healing.
Walking the streets of Oaxaca city, the sense of authenticity is impossible to miss; antiquity and primitive spirituality bubble from the cobblestones. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and also home to the largest percentage of the Zapotecs. A visit during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the homage to those who have passed, and the ancient festival’s connection to the great unknown — never mind the spectacular costumes and villagers dancing in the streets — radiate a vibe like you’re on a beautiful but alien planet.
Visiting Oaxaca’s palenques, or primitive mezcal distilleries, only strengthens that feeling of terroir. The clay ovens and mule-powered tahonas crushing agave strike a stark contrast to the gleaming modern tequila factories just a couple of states away. Mezcal can only come from this nation’s arid soil; you get the indelible feeling its plants are the Earth’s gift to the people.
For nearly half a millennium, mezcal has been a fundamental manna of the country’s indigenous people, yet it was tossed aside as provincial or even a lesser swill by the uninitiated. But in less than two decades that perception has changed dramatically — not only in the Instagram-worthy bars of Mexico City but across the planet. By now, dimly-lit mezcalerías have taken root in culture capitals across the globe; but recently even smaller towns and villages are sprouting dedicated temples of agave. Since 2009, mezcal sales in the U.S. have exploded nearly 10 fold (from fewer than 50,000 to 445,000 cases, equal to US$90 million in revenue, in 2018). No other spirit comes close.
Think of this as a primer to the spectacular holy nectar — the how, what and why. But it’s critical to note that as agave acolytes spread to the far corners of the world and sales skyrocket, mezcal’s popularity brings with it both wild benefits and unexpected challenges to those who have been conjuring this spirit for around 450 years. Here are the basics...
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEZCAL
Deriving from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli (“cooked agave”), mezcal was historically a catchall term used across Mexico for any spirit distilled from agave (or maguey). Historically, this has included tequila for hundreds of years, but the denomination of origin (DO) laws scripted in 1974 finally defined tequila in a more specific manner — only distilled from blue agave in five states, centering in Jalisco — from the larger mezcal category. Twenty years later, mezcal carved out its own rules: distilled only from varieties of the agave genus, in several states centring on Oaxaca. The new DO drew a thick, controversial line in the desert sand between mezcal and the much more popular tequila.
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