Mezcal’s New Mystique

All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. That’s not a distinction the average tequila drinker would make. But tequila aficionados bitten by the agave bug are beginning to explore the mezcal category.


“There are some great very high-end mezcals,” noted Jose Cuervo brand director Toby Whitmoyer, who added, “there are also some very cheap low-end mezcals.” Cuervo doesn’t have a mezcal in its portfolio, nor does it plan any.


But there is a growing number of mezcal products being imported to the U.S., especially in the superpremium category. The spirit is shedding its “worm in the bottle” caricature for a more sophisticated image.


“The mezcal market in the U.S. is small, but it’s growing,” said Barbara Sweetman, vice president of Caballeros Inc., Rye, NY. The importer, which specializes in mezcals, has seen its sales increase 30% a year for the past five years, she said. Caballeros’ portfolio includes Scorpion, Oro de Oaxaca, Maria de Agave, Don Juan Escobar and, most recently, Mijes mezcal brands.


Like tequila, mecal is distilled from the agave plant. However, whereas tequila can only be made from Blue agave, mezcal can be produced from up to 28 varieties (including Blue, but mainly Espandin agave). Tequila is made from Blue agaves grown in Jalisco and other delimited areas; most mezcals are produced in Oaxaca (a total of seven southern Mexican states can produce mezcal). Another key difference between the two spirits is that agaves for tequila are steamed or kilned to turn starches into sugar for fermentation; agaves for mezcal are traditionally roasted in earthen ovens.


“So mezcals have a smokier flavor,” explained Sweetman. She compares it to a peaty Scotch.


Mezcal is produced in variants similar to tequila – silver, reposado and anejo, with the latter expression being aged as long as seven years.


In 2005, mezcal was given a boost in quality and reputation by certification regulations. Bottles now have NOM numbers, like tequila, which identifies the producer. Certified mescals are all 100% agave; there are no mixtos; and they all must be bottled at the point of origin, not shipped in bulk.


In fact, Del Maguey produces superpremium unblended “single village” mezcals, such as Chichicapa and San Luis del Rio. Each bottle is encased in a hand-woven palm-fiber basket.


Oh, and about that “worm.” It’s actually the larva of a moth that can infest agave plants. It was a marketing gimmick hatched in the 1940s. Scorpion mezcal contains the exoskeleton of a scorpion in every bottle.

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