& other Agave Spirits
While the rest of the world distills their spirits from grain, fruit and sugarcane, Mexico goes their own route and makes their booze from the native agave plant. The most familiar example is tequila, though mezcal, has been coming on strong in recent years. The difference? For starters, tequila is really just a style of mezcal. Hence the saying: "all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila."
Tequila vs. Mezcal
Flavor wise the main distinction is mezcal's typically has a pronounced smokiness, somewhat reminiscent to scotch. This comes from the agave hearts, or “piñas”, being roasted in large earthen pits over hot rocks before being fermented, essentially smoking them like barbecue. Tequila on the other hand, is traditionally made by steaming or cooking the piñas in above ground ovens. So they taste clean and grassy with no smokey flavors. Continuing with the scotch analogy, tequila is more like Irish whiskey.
The most common expressions of both tequila and mezcal are unaged, though some are barrel-aged for a few months up to a few years, particularly tequilas. More details below.
Use 100% Agave! - Above all, I strongly recommend using tequila and mezcal that says 100% agave on the label. That means everything in the bottle was distilled from an agave. If it doesn't say this, it is called a "mixto" and will contain up to 49% non-agave distillate, and most likely other colorings and flavorings. These are much cheaper and lower in quality. Many of the most visible tequila brands are mixtos, and probably what you did shots of in college.
Tequila can only be made from the Blue Weber agave. Most of it is made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, but production is allowed in parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán and Nayarit and Tamaulipas as well.The three main expressions of tequila are: Blanco - Unaged, but may be rested in neutral containers for 2 months. Reposado - "Rested" for 2 months to a year. Añejo - "Aged" for 1-3 years. There's also Joven (gold) - usually a mixto, and Extra Añejo - aged for over 3 years.
Mezcal is the parent of tequila and known for it's smokier flavors. The majority of mezcal is made in Oaxcaca, Mexico, though production is allowed in seven other states. Mezcal can be made from any species of agave (tequila can only be made from the blue weber agave). Over 40 varieties are used but espadín is the most common. Most mezcals are unaged, or “Joven.”
One of the distinctive aspects of agave spirits is their production is confined to a relatively small area. While types of whiskey, gin, brandy, rum and vodka are be made all over the world, agave spirits pretty much only come from Mexico. On top of this, making a spirit from an agave has many unique challenges, particularly time. It typically takes an agave 8-12 years to mature. The combination of these two factors has placed a lot of pressue on the tequila and mezcal industry.
All agave spirits are all made in a similar way. Though the two we are primarily concerned with, tequila and mezcal, have their differences. The first of which is where they can be made. As mentioned above, each can only be legally produced in specific states and areas recognized by a D.O.
Tequila production occurs mostly in and around the state of Jalisco where the blue agave naturally resides. The permitted region follows the blue agave into the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Michoacán and Nayarit. Tamaulipas on the eastern coast of Mexico may also produce tequila, it's inclusion is a result of some political controversey. The landscape is very different, and not much tequila is produced there today - Chinaco is one.
Mezcal is predominantly made further south in Oaxaca which has the most diverse terrain of any other part of Mexico, hence the variety of agaves available. Other states legally recognized to produce Mezcal included the four non-Jalisco states tequila can be made in, as well as, Durango, Zacatecas, Guerrero and San Luis Potosí.
Though it’s important to remember that outside of these states excellent agave spirits are made throughout Mexico and have been for centuries. For the most part these are all essentially mezcal, even if it can't all legally labeled as such. The restriction to specific states is largely politically and financially motivated, particularly in the case of mezcal.
How Agave Spirits are Made
Highland vs Lowland Tequila
A tequila made with agaves grown in the mountainous highlands (“los altos”) of Jalisco up near Guadalajara will exhibit different characteristics than one from the lowlands (“el valle”) in the valley near the town of the Tequila. So much so that aficionados distinguish whether a tequila a highland or lowland tequila. Some of the more transparent and quality committed brands will even state it on their label.
This is because the terrior - climate, soil and topography - of where an agave is grown will have a major influence on how an it develops. The difference is particularly evident with tequila because one only type of agave is being used. With mezcal there are more varities at play. Generally the distinction will be most palpable with blanco tequilas.
But this only applies to agaves that are all estate grown, meaning they grown were on the same site. Many tequilas, particularly the larger operations, use agaves from all over, so any distinctive flavors are blended together.
Highlands (Los Altos) - Highland agaves take longer to grow because of the lack of rain and the thick red, clay-like volcanic soil. These agaves have to work harder and end up growing to be bigger and sweeter than lowland agaves. The result is a tequila that is cleaner, delicate with floral and green fruit flavors.
Processing Agaves for Distillation
While the raw sap of an agave will naturally ferment, which turns it into a milky white beverage known as pulque, the agave's carbohydrates, called inulin, are too complex to be distillated into a high proof spirit. They need to be broken down into simpler, fermentable sugars that are easier yeast to feed on. This is traditionally done by slowly roasting the piñas for a few days and then crushing them to release the juices. A large stone wheel called a tahona pulled by a donkey or horse used to do the crushing. Many mezcals still use a one, though few tequilas do (Siete Leguas is one). Today other modern techniques have been adopted to increase volume and efficiency. Here are the methods used:
Cooked in Ovens - The traditional method outlined above. Agaves for tequila is roasted in above ground clay ovens typically for 2-3 days, while the mezcal agaves are cooked, or rather smoked, over hot rocks in holes dug in the ground called a pit ovens for 3-5 days sometimes longer. This is largely responsible for mezcal’s signature smoky flavor.
Steamed in Autoclaves - Steaming the agave in large autoclaves (pressure cookers) takes only 12-18 hours, saving valuable time. A rolling mill is then used to crush them.
Shredded and run through a Diffuser - This is the most efficient, cost effective and controversial method. The agave in shredded uncooked and a machine called a diffuser which uses chemical hydrolysis, a method of injecting hot water and other substances, to break down the agave, creating something like an agave tea which can be fermented and distilled.
The Different Effects on Flavor
From a cost and volume standpoint, diffusers and autoclaves are a godsend for producers, particularly for tequila which is produced at much higher volumes than mezcal (for now). It would be literally impossible for the larger producers to keep up with demand without them.
However, what these expidited methods lose by forgoing the traditional slow roasting of the agave, is that caramelizied roasted agave flavor that many of us associate with, and love, about good tequila. So the modern method produce spirits that are milder and have less overall character. To make up for this, many of them add tequila “flavoring,” which is indeed permitted (see below).
Tequila - Most quality tequila is distilled twice in copper pot-stills, in some cases three. Though many large scale operations use column stills for their reduced cost and added efficiency. The latter generally have fewer natural agave flavors.
Mezcal is still mostly all made in a pot-still, though some bottom line driven producers are using column stills. Copper stills are the most common, though clay and wood are also traditional in some areas, and still used today.
What to look for on a Tequila or Mezcal label.
While these cannot guarantee the overall quality of the spirit, there are a few certifications that can ensure a bottle is genuinely a tequila or mezcal. These don't indicate much about production. A bottle can say all these things and still use a diffuser or other non-traidtional methods. But it’s a solid place to start.
100% Agave or Puro de Agave - As discussed above. Very important.
NOM Number - Norma Oficial Mexicana (Official Mexican Standard). These four digit numbers are given to companies to that adhere to government standards of what tequila and mezcal are and where they can be made.
CRT Stamp (Only for Tequila) - The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council) is the regulating body that ensures the NOM standards are being upheld.
Hecho in Mexico (Made in Mexico) - Naturally.
Blending: 100% Agave vs Mixtos
I said this above, but it bears repeating. I strongly recommend getting tequila or mezcal that is made from 100% agave spirits, which will be clearly stated on the label. Many agaves spirits are blended, or cut, with up to 49% of non-agave distillate, typically sugar cane/molasses based. These are called mixtos. While they are much cheaper, they often have artificial coloring and flavoring added and are on the whole far lower quality. You can taste the difference.
For purely economic reasons, many of the biggest and most visible brands are mixtos. A mixto was probably your first encounter with an agave spirit. They’re what you did/are doing tequila shots of in college and why in some circles tequila has the dubious reputation that it does. So resist the lower pirce tag, it's not worth it!
Flavoring and Coloring
Small amounts of flavoring, sweetener and coloring is absoluted legal in agave spirits, and many use them, particularly tequilas. This isn’t necessarily a problem, many respected spirits usew these things as well. Though often it's, shall we say, not so great. The biggest issue I have is the use of tequila "flavoring" to make up for lost flavors in a volume driven procution that's using a diffuser. Unfortunaltey there isn't much transparecy and it's difficult to find specifics about what brand does what.
Side note: There are naturally flavored agave spirits that are completely legit and very tasty. One great example is pechuga, a traditional style of a mezcal that's infused through a third distillation with fruits, spices and a piece of meat!
Maturation and Barrel Aging
Tequila is aged more frequently than mezcal, but they both have similar classifications, though not identical. American oak barrels are typically used, ex-bourbon casks are common.
Blanco ("White"-Tequila)/Joven ("Young"-Mezcal) - These are clear spirits. While they have no barrel influence they will often rest in neutral containers - stainless steel tanks or neutral barrels - to allow them to mellow before bottling. Note that this tequila and mezcal use different labels here (blanco/joven). Even more confusing, there's also a separate joven tequila cateogry, aka gold tequila, which usually lower quality. So: Joven mezcal = good. Joven tequila = Bad (generally).
Reposado "Rested" - Aged for two months up to one year in casks as large as 20,000 liters.
Añejo "Aged" - Aged from one to three years. Tequila casks may be no larger than 600 liters, mezcal is 200 liters.
Extra-añejo tequila "Ultra-Aged" - Only a tequila cateogry, for now. Aged in small barrels for a minimum of three years and often longer. Started in 2006 and is rarer, but growing.
In both tequila and mezcal, the agave juice is fermented large wooden or stainless steel vats typically for 3-5 days. The fermented mash is called mosto. Many mezcals use an open fermentation to develop bacteria that produces a variety of flavors, particularly those tasty tropical fruit ones.
Five states are permitted to make tequila.
Eight states are permitted to make mezcal.
Agave Spirits Beyond Tequila and Mezcal
Agave spirits are made all throughout Mexico and have been for centuries. But only a handful a states posses a "Denominacion de Origen" (D.O.) to legally produce tequila and mezcal by name. You can see a map of them all below.
The agave spirits made outside of those designated states are essentially mezcal too, they just can’t be labeled as such. Some go simply by "agave spirit," others have different names with their own D.O. such as Racilla, Bacanora and Sotol (actually made from the desert spoon plant, an agave relative). Much of these spirits are for local consumption, though more and beginning to be exported.
Base Ingredient - Agave
The agave, also called a maguey, looks a little like a cactus but is actually member of the asparagus family and a close relative of yucca. Traditionally mezcal was the name given to all agave spirits (as mentioned above, tequila is technically a type of mezcal). Though today there are various legal definitions for what can be amde where anc called what, which we'll get into below. Though I still think it's best, and most accurate, to think of them all as an offspring of mezcal.
There are over 300 species of agave. But tequila may only be made from one: the blue weber agave (agave tequilaiana). Mezcal on the other hand, is unrestricted. At the time of writing over forty different agave species and varietals are being used to make mezcal, which makes it a much more diverse category overall. Information on some of these other species can be found on the mezcal page.
Over their 8-12 year or longer, growth period, agave need to be carefully tended to cultivate the necessary levels of carbohydrates (sugars) for fermentation. When an agave is fully ripe, the spiny long stalks (quiotes) are hacked away so only the heart, or piña, reamins. All this painstaking work is tradionally done by hand by jimadores whose intimate knowledge of the agave has been embedded over generations.
Lowlands (El Valle) - The lowlands are actually still pretty high up, over 4,000 feet above sea level. Here water runs off the mountains into the agave fields so the roots don’t have to work as hard, they are short and stocky. These tequilas are more rustic tasting with earthy, robust and herbaceous flavors. This added backbone lends itself will to aging as well.
Why Agave Spirits are in Trouble
As I’ve alluded to throughout this page, the production of agave spirits and the inner workings of the industry in general is at critical juncture. While I think it’s always important to be conscious and support the responsible production of all spirits, it is the most vital with agave spirits. Action needs to be taken both environmentally and politically. Below are the bullet points of issues, you can read flushed out versions of each here.
Agave Degradation and Sustainability: As we know, agaves take a long time to mature. Because of increased demand they can’t be grown fast enough, so corners are being cut to keep up. This has lead to diminishing quality and disease that could result in the ultimate extinction of the agave as we know it.
Marginalization of Small Producers: As we also know, agave spirits are made throughout Mexico but only a handful of states can legally call them tequila or mezcal, the rest are simply “agave spirits,” or go by another name. But now, legislation is being proposed by the Mexican government that would outlaw the term “agave spirit” for spirits made outside of those designated states. This would further marginalize small producers and tighten the grip the bigger companies have on the agave spirit industry. Even worse, these same large companies exert extreme influence on the governing bodies that wrote this legislation.
There is a bartender organized effort to stop these legislations called the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). For more about what they are doing and what you can do to stop them, visit tequilainterchangeproject.org.
Wild vs Farmed Agave - Most agaves are grown on farms, particularly the blue agave for tequila and the espadín, the common agave used for mezcal. But many other agave varieties used for mezcal are almost impossible to farm and only grow in the wild. Mezcals made from wild agaves are rarer and prized by connoisseurs for their exotic variety as a result of their natural settings. Needless to say, they are also much more expensive. Many mezcal brands proudly tout the use wild agaves. Others prefer to only use farmed, not just because it’s easier but also because they don’t want to upset the balance of the agave’s natural ecosystem. In each case, I think moderation is the key. Both are fine as long as agaves aren’t being over farmed or over harvested.