Our “go-to drink” drinking evolution here at Earth & Star has gone a little like this: The syrupy Jack and Cokes of our youth were swapped out for giant bottles of white wine which gradually became smaller bottles of white wine which all but disappeared in favor of a dirty martini which eventually just became vodka in a glass which shared its time in the spotlight with its rowdy cousin, tequila in a glass, which was then corralled into a sensible (albeit giant) glass of red wine which finally has given way to sake (for Erica) and mezcal (for Zoe). And just like that, we’re all grownup.
Isn’t it just, like, smoky tequila?
No, no it’s not, for a few reasons. First off, there are about 30 different agave plants mezcal can be made from; tequila can only be made from one: blue agave. It is, however, much like tequila, recognized as an Appellation of Origin ever since the Mexican government stepped in in 1994 and proclaimed that in order to be called mezcal it must be produced in one of nine designated states. In 2005 they took it a step further and declared that mezcal must be 80% agave (whereas tequila must be only 51%), and in 2015 the powers that be decided anyone not following the rules must call their liquor Komil, a word from the Nahuatl language meaning an intoxicating drink. Lastly, the process for making mezcal is usually a little more, shall we say, rustic, than tequila, which we can thank for that lip-smacking smoky sweetness.
Okay, so what the F is it then?
Of the thirty or so different agave varietals that can be used to make mezcal, espadín is by far the most common, making up around 90% of the market share, almost always coming from Oaxaca, where it can be grown on farms. The other varietals, other than blue agave, grow in the wild, making for a far more rare (and expensive) tasting experience. One of these, jabalí, is found only in the hard to reach mountains that sandwich Oaxaca, and must grow for over twenty-five years before it’s ready to be harvested. Another varietal, tobalå, which takes twelve to fifteen years to mature and requires eight agave hearts to yield the same amount as one espadín, has seen its population decimated thanks to overharvesting.
How’s it Made?
Ready to roll up your sleeves and get dirty? It’s time to dig a hole. This is the “earthen pit” that we will place our agave hearts (called piñas thanks to their resemblance to a pineapple) into. Next, start a fire in the pit with oak or mesquite wood and throw in some rocks. (Is this starting to sound like a clambake to anyone else?) Once the rocks are hot, add your halved piñas and cover with agave leaves, dirt, mats, whatever you can find really, and Go Do You for four days. Sweet chunks of roasted piña will be waiting upon your return.
Next, find a mule to pull a grinding wheel over the roasted agave and grab you camera for this very Instagrammable moment. Post your pic, thank your mule and empty the mashed up agave pulp into a wooden barrel. Now sit back and, like a cool parent, benevolently watch the yeast throw their very own fermentation party. After a few days–just like anyone else on a bender–the yeast will be gasping for water. Once added, the yeast will commence a sugar binge, evidenced by bubbles on top of the vat that form into a thick crust. Finally, it’s time to break the crust and begin the dual distillation process in a glass, clay or copper pot. Mezcal, like tequila, can be joven, (new/blanco) which means it’s aged less than two months, reposado, in which it’s aged two months to a year, or añejo, aged at least one year.
The word, mezcal, has its origins in the Aztec word, mexcalli, which means “cooked maguey”, another word for agave. The myth of mezcal is a publicist’s dream: The agave plant, personified by Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of fertility and nourishment, was struck by a bolt of lightning, instantly cooking the piña inside and splitting the plant in half, releasing a flow of ready-made mezcal. The less romantic story is that four hundred years ago when the Spanish came to Mexico to slaughter the Aztec, they wanted something to take the edge off all of that raping and pillaging, and adjusted their distillation techniques to include the local fauna.
Mezcal was mostly looked down upon as poor man’s hooch until the 1990s, when the government stepped in with regulation and California artist Ron Cooper snuck a stash of the stuff through customs on his return trip– but more on him in a bit.
A Healthier Hangover?
More often than not, mezcal is made out of 100% agave, (check your labels!) which means no additives. Zero additives means less sugar (other than what occurs naturally in the fermentation process) which means you’re way less likely to curse the gods after an all night fiesta.
Mezcal is truly having a moment. Sales of the stuff grew by more than 300% between 2009 and 2017, and the global market is projected to grow by 14.2% by 2023. Celebrities have gotten into the game (Clooney!!!) and the giant liquor companies have taken note. Stoli Group launched fancy pants Se Busca Mezcal in 2018 and Bacardi purchased a minority stake in the crowd favorite Ilegal Mezcal. Pernod Ricard recently purchased a majority stake in Ron Cooper’s Del Maguey Mezcal–which was probably the first Mezcal seen on the bar shelves stateside in the mid ‘90s. With big business getting involved, now more than ever the smaller labels are bending over backwards to out-authentic one another. Mezcal fermented in cow hide, anyone?
Brands to Watch
Gem & Bolt
Founded by another pair of work wives, AdrinAdrina and Elliot Coon, Gem & Bolt is a hand-crafted mezcal made with 100% agave. What sets it apart, other than the brand’s expertise at throwing one helluva party, is that it’s distilled with damiana, a traditional Mexican herb that Gem & Bolt claims will up your mood and promote “mythic powers in the bedroom.”… Ahem, I’ll have what she’s having. $35/bottle
Oh George, can you do no wrong? After selling the tequila company he started for kicks with Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman for ONE BILLION DOLLARS, (700 million now, 300 based on future performance–we’re gonna go out on a limb and say they’ll meet those benchmarks) Clooney and Co. has launched Casamigos Mezcal, made out of 100% Espadin agave. $59.99/bottle
Made from the ultra rare jabalí agave, which grows only in the wild, this family-owned producer knows where a secret stash grows in the mountainside and harvests about twelve plants a year. The result is a triple-distilled mezcal that carries hints of mint and plum. $114/bottle
With a tip of our sombrero we give mad props to the abuelo of stateside mezcals, Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper. In 1990, returning from a mezcal taste-testing mission in Mexico, border agents made Cooper cry when they forced him to pour out three gallons of painstakingly collected mezcal. Luckily, he still had 28 other bottles of various small village producers stashed in his truck. What began as a smuggling operation has grown into one of the best-selling mezcals in the world. And though Cooper recently sold to Pernod Ricard, hold the judgment, we probably wouldn’t even be drinking the stuff if it weren’t for him. The dude has earned the right to some dinero.
Final (Random) Thoughts
Here at Earth & Star, we try hard to look like we know what the fuck we’re talking about, and we want you to too. In that spirit, the z in Spanish is pronounced as an s, so mezcal is actually pronounced mess-cal. Also, if you find a bottle with a worm, it’s not a worm, it’s a larva from what would’ve become a moth that lives on the agave plant, and no, it won’t make you hallucinate, but if that’s what you’re into, we know a guy…