An introduction to mezcal and tequila

Stuart Forster attends a virtual spirit tasting – an introduction to mezcal and tequila with information about the production of the Mexican beverages made with agave hearts.

Disclosure: Some of the links below and banners are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Mezcales de Leyenda mezcals, tequila blanco and Ojo de Dios mezcal.
Mezcales de Leyenda mezcals, tequila blanco and Ojo de Dios mezcal.

A virtual spirit tasting

Would I like to attend a virtual tequila tasting? My friend’s question prompts distant memories of boozy nights featuring shots accompanied by salt and lime. Those nights were inevitably followed by thumping hangovers.

Consequently, tequila is a drink I avoid. Mezcal, by contrast, is a spirit that I’ve never tried but about which I have read positive reviews.

Maybe I’ve simply tasted the wrong type of tequila? The quality and flavour of alcoholic drinks such as wine, whisky and beer vary according to the brand and label. It stands to reason that the tequila I downed as student wasn’t premium quality.

Perhaps it’s time to give tequila another chance and simultaneously sample mezcal.

I accept the invitation to the virtual tasting event.

A couple of days before the Friday evening tasting a box is delivered containing miniature bottles of mezcal and tequila. It also contains a packet of tortilla chips, salsa dipping sauce and ingredients to mix a Smokey Picante cocktail.

Shots of Mexican spirit during a virtual tasting that was an introduction to tequila and mezcal.
Shots of Mexican spirit during a virtual tasting that was an introduction to tequila and mezcal.

Smokey Picante cocktail recipe

The Smokey Picante is made by mixing the following ingredients over ice:

25 millilitres of Ojo de Dios mezcal

15 millilitres of agave syrup

25 millilitres of fresh lime juice

A drop or two of piquant Yucateco sauce

After shaking them together, the mixed drink should be served in a glass rimmed with Tajin seasoning.

With a Smokey Picante next to me I sit by my laptop. Eduardo Gomez, the Sales Director of MexGrocer, welcomes me to his virtual tequila and mezcal tasting.

Blanco Nino tortilla chips, agave syrup and miniature bottles of mezcal and tequila.
Blanco Niño tortilla chips, agave syrup and miniature bottles of mezcal and tequila.

A virtual tequila tasting

“I guarantee that nine out of 10 people go eew! when tequila is mentioned” says Eduardo. The native of Mexico City jokes about the widespread negative perception of tequila.

His words resonate with me and I sip from my Smokey Picante, a drink that’s making a positive impression.

“I never encourage people to shoot tequila…when you are doing a shot you are disrespecting the plant,” he says, referencing the agave plant from which both tequila and mezcal are made.

Eduardo informs us that five types of alcoholic spirit are distilled from agave in Mexico.

Internationally, the best known is tequila, by far the most widely consumed of the five spirits.  Mezcal, bacanora, sikua and raicilla are also produced using agave, a plant also known as maguey.

Just as the grapes used to make wine have many varietals, mezcal can be made from many types of agave.

The spirit’s name is derived from a word from central Mexico’s Nehuatl language. Mezcalli references baked maguey.

Eduardo explains that Mexico’s size is comparable to Europe’s. A quick Google search reveals that the road journey between Tijuana and Cancun is a bottom-numbing 4,377 kilometres (2,720 miles) in length.

That vastness means a multitude of landscapes and climatic conditions. Agaves grown in arid conditions taste different to those harvested in lush surroundings. In common with wine production, factors such as soil and altitude influence the taste of the drink.

Of course, variations in production processes also impact the flavour profiles of spirits made from agave.

Agave syrup and miniature bottles ahead of virtual tasting, an introduction to mezcal and tequila.
Agave syrup and miniature bottles ahead of virtual tasting, an introduction to mezcal and tequila.

Harvesting the agave plant

More than 150 varieties of agave plants grow across Mexico. They flower when they are mature, a process that varies according to the type of agave and the conditions in which the plant grows.

Blue agave used for making tequila takes around five to seven years to develop into a harvestable size. By contrast, some of the 50 or so agave varieties used to make mezcal take as long as 30 years to mature.

Typically, harvested agave hearts weigh 50 and 200 kilograms (from 110 to 440 pounds).

Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco, is known as the principal hub for tequila productions. It’s also made in four other states.

Mezcal is made in nine of Mexico’s states, including Oaxaca (whose name is pronounced like that of the UK restaurant chain, Wahaca). The process is regulated by Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, the body which oversees the denomination of origin.

Agave is harvested by hand using a sharp metal tool known as a coa de jima. Consequently, the harvesters are called jimadors.

The heart of the agave – known as the pinã or pineapple – is used to make both tequila and mezcal. Eduardo shows us pictures of harvested agaves. We see that leaf stubs are left on the heart when making mezcal.

Miniatures bottles used in a virtual tasting of Mexican drinks, an introduction to mezcal and tequila.
Miniatures bottles used in a virtual tasting of Mexican drinks, an introduction to mezcal and tequila.

How tequila is made

Tequila is always distilled twice. Eduardo explains that small-batch craft as well as industrial-scale versions of the spirit are produced.

Mixed tequila needs only 51 per cent of its sugar to come from agave plants. He urges us to look out for bottles whose labels indicate that the tequila is made from 100 per cent pure agave.

Simultaneously, all of use participating in the virtual tasting sip Reserva del Senõr’s Tequila Blanco. Lightly smoked and easy to drink, it’s significantly smoother than the tequilas I chucked back in my student days.

In addition to tequila blanco, blended and aged varieties of the spirit count among those available.

Snacks to accompany a virtual tasting of alcoholic Mexican spirits.
Snacks to accompany a virtual tasting of alcoholic Mexican spirits.

How mezcal is made

Eduardo describes how the agave hearts used in mezcal production are initially baked in wood-fired ovens covered by earth, banana leaves and grass. This can impart a smoky flavour but doesn’t have to.

Roasted agave hearts are then shredded and fermented. Traditional mezcal production methods involve natural fermentation in wooden vats.

The specifics of the production process depend on the category of mezcal and whether it is Mezcal, Mezcal Artisanal or Mezcal Ancestral. Approximately 1,200 producers make a total of around 1,600 mezcals.

The scale varies from stainless steel vats to copper stills and, in the case of Mezcal Ancestral, clay stills.

Eduardo describes how master distillers grow up around their craft. They tweak the product after tasting it.

We compare two of Mezcales de Leyenda’s spirits. One is a Guerrero (45 per cent alcohol by volume) made from agave baked for five days in a lava-lined pit then naturally fermented for three to four days. The other is from the state Durango (47 per cent alcohol by volume) and cooked using oak, acacia and mesquite then fermented for between seven and 10 days. They taste markedly different with the latter rounder and warmer.

Eduardo describes spending time with small-scale producers who do not speak Spanish as their mother language. Mexcales de Layenda supports marginalised communities. He informs us that Mezcales de Leyenda supports small-scale, ethical and sustainable production and suggests that spending money on their mezcals helps the families of producers.

Ojo de Dios mezcal

As the tasting draws to a close, I sip a glass of Ojo de Dios, Mexgrocer’s own brand of mezcal. Meaning the ‘eye of God’, the spirit is distilled in a 250-litre copper still.

Made from espadin agave that’s seven to eight years in age, Ojo de Dios is 42 per cent alcohol by volume and has a long, pleasant finish.

“We say in Mexico that mezcal doesn’t get you drunk, it gets you high” says Eduardo of the buzz from drinking the spirit. “It is pure energy from Mother Earth,” he enthuses.

The virtual tasting comes to a close. I shut down my laptop and, impressed, decide to look out for mezcals in the future. The tasting has been an enjoyable start to the weekend and helped me reassess my perception of tequila.

Buy mezcal and tequila online

You can purchase mezcal and tequila online from websites such as MexGrocer.co.uk and Amazon:

 

Map of Mexico

You can view of a map of Mexico below:

Zoom into this Google Map of Mexico to view destinations around the country.

Books about Mezcal

Interested in learning more about mezcal and cocktails made from it? Check out the following books about the Mexican spirit (click on the cover image to find out more):

Tom Bullock’s Mezcal and Teqila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for the Golden Age of Agave:

 

Bullock is also the author of The Mezcal Experience: A Field Guide to the World’s Best Mezcals and Agave Spirits:

 

Emma Janzen’s Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit:

 

James P. McAvoy’s Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!

 

Books about tequila

Want to know more about tequila and tequila cocktails? Take a look at the following books (click on the cover image to find out more):

Ian Williams’ Tequila: A Global History:

Ana G. Valenzuela Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan are the authors of Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History:

 

Catherine Cobbs’ Tequila and Tacos: A Guide to Spirited Pairings:

 

With more than just tequila-based cocktail recipes, Tim Federale’s brilliantly named Tequila Mockingbird:

Further information

Interested in participating in a virtual tasting? Contact Eduardo Gomez via the Mexcgrocer website to ask about their availability. Tasting kits including three different mezcales de Leyenda, one mini tequila and a one-hour virtual tasting led by Eduardo or one of his team are priced at £49.99.

Want to read more about drinks and drinking culture from around the world? Tonic magazine launched in 2020. Go to the magazine’s website and enter the exclusive discount code GOEATDO15TONIC to get 15 per cent off the cover price.

Always enjoy alcohol responsibly.

Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this introduction to mezcal and tequila. Enjoy craft spirits? Read this Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey interview.

Stuart Forster is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Stuart frequently writes about alcoholic drinks and their production process.

If you enjoyed this post why not sign up for the free Go Eat Do newsletter? It’s a hassle-free way of getting links to posts on a monthly basis.

‘Like’ the Go Eat Do Facebook page to see more photos and content.

Pinterest pin for Go Eat Do's blog post about participating in a virtual Mexican spirits tasting providing an introduction to mezcal and tequila.
Use Pinterest? Pin this and share Go Eat Do’s blog post about participating in a virtual Mexican spirits tasting providing an introduction to mezcal and tequila.

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.