#MexicoUntold: The history of Mezcal

#MexicoUntold: The history of Mezcal

A wild Blue Agave plaintiff from the State of Oaxaca.

There is a popular say in Mexico's slang that says: "Para todo mal mezcal, para todo bien también", which it rhetorically translates to: "For every fiendish and good deeds, a mezcal is required".

A glass of stilled Mezcal in a cantina near Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Mezcal, a drink so ancient that what is now Mexico was born, is annointed in mystery, mysticism and magic of the ancient civilizations that flourished in its territory. Its mere mention refers to the rituals of the ancient.

Scholars define the mezcalero maguey as a plant with large, fleshy leaves with spikes at the ends. However, at its center is where the pineapple or piña (pronounced as pi-nia), is used to extract, liquify and distill the liquid that will ultimately become this ancient, yet pure alcoholic distilled drink that the world know and love, as Mezcal.

18th century image of how Mezcal is made.

The distillation process, a legacy of the Spanish and Europeans that migrated to the New World for better opportunities and riches, thanks to the Arabs, was introduced to Mexico in the 16th century; it spread in the seventeenth century and was in common use from the eighteenth century. It was then that distilled alcohols began to be manufactured and consumed massively in the country. Such drinks were: Mezcal, Aguardiente (pronounced as āwã-ar-di-ente) and Tequila, were indexed into this category.

Mezcal is produced in almost all places in Mexico where these aforementioned agave plants are exclusively cultivated.

The northern mezcals and those of Oaxaca are famous, but there is almost no place where mezcal is not manufactured. Mezcal is also, even after the emergence of Pulque (pronounced pūl-ke) which is the most ancient form of this distilled liquid that mounts its origins to the Post-Classic Period of Mexico (900 - 1521 A.D.), with a legend: A lightning bolt, when it striked an agave, was the culprit that made the first tatema (burned pineapple). That is why "Mezcal" literally translated as "the Drink from Heaven", in the very alive yet not commonly practiced language, Nahuatl (the language of the "Mexicas", the original name of the conquered and commonly misunderstood, Aztecs) which word literally translated as "mexcalli-metl" (pronounced "mesh-kalī-met-l") and "ixcalli" (yish-cali) as "oven-cooked agave", as seen and appreciated on this painted Spanish codex.

The plants used to make mezcal, are called "agaves" or "magueyes" and belong to the botanical family of the Agaveceas. This family of plants is endemic to the North American continent, it includes nine genera and almost 330 different species.

The genus "Agave" is the most representative and diverse with 200 species in its variety, of which 150 are distributed in Mexico, and 104 are endemic to the national territory. Agaves are distributed throughout the continent, wild or cultivated. They present and develop best in arid and semi-dry environments, although they also, as an ornament, adapt to temperate and humid environments.

The name Agave comes from the Greek and means "admirable". This name was chosen by Carl von Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, to classify the botanical family of the maguey plant in 1753.

To make this distilled and alcoholic beverage, the leaves and roots are roasted, either in wood or gas ovens, or as a barbecue, burying them in the ground. In the markets, the "tatemata" maguey leaves are sold. The Apache Mezcal Indians receive that name because these baked leaves, precisely, without fermenting, were an essential part of their diet for centuries.

The traditional mezcal production process consists of five stages:

  • The careful selection and cutting of the ripe magueyes.
  • Baking or cooking the maguey pineapples

  • Crushing or grinding the cooked pineapples.

  • Fermentation.
  • Distillation.

The techniques and materials are similar in all mezcal vinatas or factories, although there are subtle differences that characterize each one according to tradition. For example, the variety of maguey used, the milling, the tools, the type of oven and alembic.

Non-Transparent Denominations of Origin

The Denomination of Origin (DO) of Mezcal is legal but illegitimate because it includes seven states (Oaxaca, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas) which leaves out 21 producing states with their mezcal regions, including the centers of origin of mezcal Colima, Michoacán and Jalisco.

Other DO of mezcals such as Tequila, Bacanora and Sotol are mezcals, but they use different names that identify them by the geographical region where they are produced and the plants they use for their distillates.

States that are not protected by any DO are forced to trade under other names: agave extract, agave liquor, maguey distillate. Producers have a hard time getting out of hiding, although they have a captive market and proven quality, they are not covered by the benefits of the appellation of origin. The international marketing channels are closed and the possibilities of insertion and positioning in the national market are blocked.

The history of Mexican mezcal
Currently, several regions and mezcal producers are exploring limited production alternatives, maintaining artisanal quality and sustainability of resources. They conserve endemic species, reforest the mountains and organize to achieve and distribute benefits throughout the production chain. Many people work with the objective of developing the culture of mezcals based on the appreciation of natural diversity.

Even today it is necessary to spread the tradition that supports each mezcal associating landscapes and plants, identities and regions; promote the sustainable development of the mezcal industry, preserving ecosystems and rescuing the values ​​of sustainable use of raw materials; and promote commercialization channels for traditional mezcals of excellent quality originating from the different producing regions of Mexico.