I’ve seen more and more Mezcal on the back shelf of my favorite watering hole lately. I know it’s similar to tequila, and tequila is made from a succulent, but what succulent is Mezcal made from? I did some research and found what plant is used in the production of Mezcal.
Mezcal is any spirit distilled from the agave plant. Although any agave can be used to create traditional Mezcal, not all products can be labeled as such. To be officially labeled, certain standards need to be met relating to the types of agave used, the region it is made in, and how it is produced.
This means that tequila is actually in the Mezcal family. All tequilas are Mezcal, but not all Mezcal are tequilas. Get it?
Mezcal has been on the uptrend lately, though this isn’t quite the same Mezcal your grandparents knew. Laws called NORMA (NOM-070-SCFI-1994) were introduced in 2017 to help regulate the industry.
It used to be that you could throw any agave or combination of agaves into the still and out would come Mezcal. Not so anymore. Let’s talk a little more about that.
Agave Production Basics
First of all, not all agaves are created equal. Some don’t have enough sugars to make good Mezcal. Sugar is the key to producing any alcohol.
The first step in the process is harvesting the agave. The first cut is made at the base of the fruit, then all the leaves attached to the stem or cut off, very similar to pineapple.
Then the agave is roasted. The agave is put in a big pit or burn pile and roasted until it is browned appropriately. This gives the agave heart a smoky, aromatic aroma and taste. This is one big difference from tequila since the agave used to make tequila is not roasted at all.
After roasting, the agave is ground-up. It is mashed in the pit using a large, heavy stone wheel while a worker spreads the fruit out to be evenly mashed. It’s essential that the agave grounds have a consistent texture, hence the manual labor.
Once the plant is crushed up with a consistent texture, it is put in wooden barrels to ferment. The fermentation time varies from region to region as temperature plays a large part. The hotter the weather, the less time the mash needs to ferment.
A little cold water is added with the pulp for a couple days, then hot water is added to top off the barrel until the fermentation is complete.
Lastly, the agave mash is put in a still. Good Mezcal is always distilled at least two times. Fibers and other impurities are removed after the first distillation, then distilled a second time to yield a much higher alcohol content and purity level.
Why Use Agave?
Agave is deeply rooted in Mexican history. The ancient Aztecs worshiped the agave goddess Mayahuel as well as her husband, Patecatl. Patecatl was the God of the fermented sap of the agave plant.
The agave plant was first eaten because it was an easy to find form of sustenance. When it was discovered that it contained enough sugar to distill and create alcohol, humans started doing what humans do best and created a beverage that lowered inhibitions for gatherings, ceremonies, and rituals.
It grows wild all over the Mexican territory, making it easy to find as well as harvest. It’s a hard plant to miss as it stands out from it’s surroundings and often grows very tall and wide.
In the middle of the plant, you can find the heart or the piña. The piña is the edible part of the plant and is what is used to create Mezcal. The piña is very large and can grow between 60 and 300 pounds.
It’s abundance, ease of cultivation, sugar content, and size makes the agave ideal to ferment and distill into liquor.
What Agave is used to produce Mezcal?
According to my research, five types of agave can be used to be NORMA compliant and to identify a Mezcal as authentic.
The different types of agave give the Mezcal unique flavor traits that can vary from region to region, even with the same kind of agave. Here are the five types of agave used to make authentic Mezcal.
Agave angustifolia makes up approximately 90% of Mezcal made. It is in the same family as the agave tequilana, the same type of agave used to create authentic tequila. As such, it shares many of the same flavor characteristics and profiles.
It grows wild throughout Mexico and is usually harvested before it ages to around 10 years old.
Because it’s harvested so young, it doesn’t have some of the complexities as other older agaves cultivated in the wild have. It is, however, simple to farm and is plentiful.
Also known as rough agave, the agave asperrima grows to roughly 4 feet tall at approximately 6 feet wide. The thick leaves can grow up to 3 feet long with a grayish blue color.
It grows best at elevations of 1500 feet to 6000 feet above sea level and is native to southern Texas and northern Mexico.
When it blooms (as all agave plants do), a single stalk grows up to 20 feet tall from the center of the plant and sprouts several yellow flowers. After bloom, the agave plant dies.
The agave weberi, similar to agave asperrima, can grow up to 4 feet tall and over 5 feet wide. It’s bluish gray color looks great in the garden to contrast greenery.
It grows very fast and similar to almost all other agaves does well with a little neglect. It will grow fantastically in the Southwest United States in outdoor gardens and grows very well with a variety of kalanchoes, aloes, and Red Yucca.
It also grows well at higher elevations as well as near the coast and is usually cultivated later, helping its complex flavor profile create unique and flavorful Mezcal’s.
Also known as the butterfly agave, the agave petatorum grows 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. It’s oblong leaves grow thick from the base until they reach the tip where they grow narrow at a very sharp angle.
This particular agave grows excellent at high altitudes, typically between 4000 and 7000 feet. This agave can be found mostly in the regions of Puebla and Oaxaca.
The Nahuatl Indians are credited for naming this the butterfly agave as they had a deep appreciation for its beauty.
The Agave salmiana is also known as the Green Giant, and for a good reason. This succulent grows up to 6 feet tall and 12 feet wide. Its piña can grow to weights of up to 300 pounds!
This particular agave is more frost sensitive than the others, yet it can still withstand temperatures as low as 18°F for reasonable periods of time before the plant feels adverse effects.
In what regions is Mezcal produced?
According to NORMA regulation, several regions are recognized as being official producers of Mezcal. The official areas include Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.
The vast majority of the world’s Mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca.
What’s Up With The Worm?
Believe it or not, the worm at the bottom is not a worm, and it has a very long history and tradition in the region.
The larva at the bottom of your favorite bottle is, in fact, a caterpillar. A red larva is from a species of moth called the Hypopta agavis while the white caterpillar is from a species of butterfly called the Aegiale hesperiaris.
The Aztecs and ancient farmers would collect them for food and believed they gave their beverages flavor.
The practice of intentionally including the worm inside the bottle only began in the 1950s as a marketing gimmick. It helped distinguish particular brands and set them apart, making it easy for consumers to identify and purchase their brand.
These unique succulents are fantastic additions to your garden, but it’s important to note that care needs to be given when handling these plants.
The spines of the agave are sharp, and every gardener needs to be mindful when handling. They can cause swelling when the spines prick the skin, but the sap that many agaves secrete is the real danger as it is caustic. Be sure you’re wearing gloves and long sleeves when you’re working around them.
That said, the agave plant as many characteristics that draw gardeners to succulents in the first place. There are extremely drought tolerant, deer resistant, accompany other succulents very well, and can be a great addition to any outdoor succulent garden in the Southwest United States.
So that’s the long and short. Agave is the succulent used to produce official Mezcal. It’s delicious, hip, trendy, and a good way to switch up your Friday night. The agave plant used to produce it also look pretty cool in your succulent garden.
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