Just when you thought you’d mastered tequila, along comes mezcal. If you’re confused about the difference between the two spirits, it’s understandable. Despite our familiarity with tequila, mezcal is the broader category—all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas.
They’re both produced from the heart of the agave plant (blue agave only for tequila, 30 varieties for mezcal) but made in different regions of Mexico, with some geographical overlap. The production methods also differ. Tequila generally starts by steaming agave inside large ovens, while mezcal is baked in earthen pits that are filled with wood and charcoal, lending mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor. And in an age when tequila is increasingly mass-produced, mezcal is distilled in small batches in either copper pot stills or clay pots.
Joven (or “young”) mezcal is bottled after less than two months of aging, as is Blanco or Silver tequila. The rest of the barrel-aged categories are similar as well: Reposado (at least two months but less than a year), Añejo (one to three years), and Extra Añejo (three years and up).
Fueled by the perception of mezcal as an artisan spirit, U.S. demand has increased dramatically. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, sales went from 50,000 cases in 2009 to nearly 360,000 in 2017, with an upward trend of 15 to 20 percent anticipated in the next five years. Those sales increases led spirits giant Pernod Ricard to buy a major stake in Del Maguey, the most familiar mezcal brand in America.
“Like wine, terroir is very important with mezcal,” says Peter Van Es, managing director of Mezcal Hub. “The agave plants take on the character of the place where they’re grown.”
Van Es became an aficionado during his 20-year stint in Mexico and decided to import Gente de Mezcal into the U.S. He’s currently introducing three Joven brands into the Florida market, and he prefers the unaged spirit to the barrel-aged version. “Good mezcal isn’t smoky, and cask aging increases that flavor,” he notes.
Why does Van Es think it has suddenly become popular here? “It’s an honest, straightforward, and authentic spirit,” he says. “People are looking for something different, and they’re willing to spend money on a quality product. And it won’t give you a hangover—I speak from experience on that.”
Whereas mezcal is generally consumed straight in Mexico, Americans tend to prefer it as a component in craft cocktails. It’s now highly unusual to read the cocktail list of a trendy restaurant or bar and not find at least one mezcal libation. While it has a reputation for being difficult to mix, it can also add a spicy note to an otherwise bland drink.
At the groundbreaking Mayahuel in Sacramento, you can belly up to the taco bar and mezcaleria (the first of its kind in the U.S., aimed at reproducing “pre-Hispanic culture”). Offerings include traditional Oaxacan cocktails such as Pepino Enchilado (muddled cucumbers, mezcal, jalapeño, lime, agave nectar, and infused chili) or Mayan Orchid (agave nectar and house-made hibiscus syrup with a combination of tequila and mezcal). On the East Coast, at Leyenda in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, award-winning bartender Ivy Mix is shaking up the Tia Mia (an anagram of Mai Tai, composed of espadin mezcal, Jamaican rum, and orange Curaçao).
Those who do find themselves at the bottom of a mezcal bottle and spot the infamous worm should be wary. Van Es says it’s a marketing gimmick: “If you see the worm, run.”