Mezcal Compared to Tequila and Wine
You've probably tried mezcal, even if you didn't realize it at the time.
"Tequila is mezcal," says Yira Vallejo, director of Mezcal From Oaxaca. "But mezcal is not tequila."
All mezcals are made from agave plants; tequila is made from one particular species—the blue agave—while smokier mezcals are made from one of the other 150 agave species native to Mexico.
Tequila has to be made from one agave only, but the DOC for Oaxacan mezcal says that it can be made from 11 different varieties of agave, which add wonderful flavors.
Once thought of as a lowbrow way for college kids to get hammered and eat a worm, mezcal is gaining popularity outside of Mexico as cocktillians discover the smoky notes really good mezcal can confer on mixed drinks. Mezcal drinks are turning up in bars from Los Angeles (Las Perlas) to New York (Mayahuel).
Proponents of the spirit compare its production to wine. "In the past it used to be called vino de mezcal, or mezcal wine," Vallejo says. "So if in wine you have grapes and you have different names like Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, in mezcal, you have Madrecuixe, Tobalá, Espadín, Largo, Cirial, Tripón, Barril—150 names. " "You kiss mezcal," Vellejo says. "It's for sipping. Don't shoot it!"
While some of these agave species are cultivated, the majority of them grow wild in the countryside. Mezcals made from Espadín agaves tend to be the most readily available.
Unlike grapes, which are harvested each year, mezcal producers sometimes have to wait decades for agave to reach maturity. Many of these agave farmers are also known as Maestro Mezcaleros (a term of respect for craftsmen who make mezcal), and their distilling operations, called palenques, are very small-scale.
Because mezcal is still considered a craft spirit, expect to pay more for it than you would for tequila. Bottles range in price from $45 to $300, depending on the producers.
Written off as tequila’s smoky brother, mezcal is a lot more than just something for Scotch drinkers to enjoy when in a Mexican restaurant. “Every mezcal will influence your mood in a different way. They have these different energies,” says Lucas Ranzuglia, the bar manager at San Francisco’s forthcoming La Urbana. “It sounds like B.S., but it’s true.”