Where: Most highly famed in Oaxaca, Mexico
Types: Plum, scorpion, and most famously worm!
Produced: Similar to Tequila, from the pulp of the maguey plants
Mezcal is the drink made famous by the worm that appears at the bottom of some bottles. Tequila, and Mezcal, trace their roots back at least two thousand years to Aztec times. Native Indians in Mexico found theat the guice of the agave plant if exposed to air fermented into an alcoholic brew. They called this beverage octili poliqhui, a name that the Spaniards later corrupted into pulque. The Aztecs used pulque to celebrate specific festivals, although the rich were allowed to drink it all year round. It was a drink given to prisoners prior to their being sacrificed to the gods.
The spaniards weren’t too fond of the low alcohol (3%) crude tasting pulque, but later learned to refine the pulps into a sweeter wine, and then they began to distill the pulp to the Mezcal spirit we know today.
Like Tequila, Mezcal it is made from any variety of maguey plants (part of the lily family) in small, independent distilleries. It is produced by allowing the plant to grow for 10 years, then when it reaches its sexual maturity and begins to flower, the stalks are cut forcing the plant to produce a huge pulpy bulb known as a ‘pina’ or pineapple. They are baked in underground ovens heated with wood charcoal (which gives Mezcal its distinctive smoky taste). They are then crushed (traditionally with a stone wheel drawn around a circular trough by a mule) and shredded to extract the sweet juice, called aguamiel, or honey water. The drink is usually tranparent, but sometimes colours like caramel are added or flavours like coconut.
The state of Oaxaca is particularly renowned for the quality of its mezcal. The process of making mezcal is slow and laborious and only plants which have matured for at least 5 years are ever used.
There are several types of mezcal. The smell and flavour of the transparent, white or young, mezcal bottled soon after production vary according to the plants used. Other mezcals that are stored and stabilized in vessels for at least two months are referred to as ‘settled’, whereas ageing is the result of remaining in oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months. Among the most popular are mezcals containing cactus worm, scorpion and plum. Although the worm is actually the larva of the moth which grows on the maguey plant. The origins of the worm are not fully known, but it is thought that it is proof that the drink is high proof as if the worm is intact the alcohol has successfully pickled it. However, the best quality Mezcal rarely contains a worm!
Mezcal is a traditional part of Oaxacan life, especially in ceremonies and social and religious fiestas. Custom dictates it should be served either as an aperitif, with meals or halfway through the afternoon.
Main image: Cara Dura Mezcal, rainy city, Flickr Creative Commons