(n.) A Mexican spirit distilled from the agave plant with a distinctive smoky character (technically, tequila is a type of mezcal). In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors began distilling mezcal from pulque, an agave-based fermented beverage created by the Aztec. Tequila was later refined in the 18th century to be only from blue agave plants in Jalisco and surrounding states. Today, mezcal is made in seven states in central and southern Mexico, with production centered in Oaxaca.
As with tequila, mezcal is made from the hearts of the agave plant (piñas), but differences between the two begin with the plant selection. Whereas tequila can be made from only blue agave, mezcal has a wider array of options in the agave family; the most popular variety is espadin. The hearts are roasted in underground pits filled with hot rocks and wood, which gives the spirit its characteristic smokiness. Many small producers double distill the liquid in copper stills instead of using more industrial column stills.
The two major climates in which the agave is grown plays a factor in flavor: Highland plants tend to yield larger hearts which lend a fruitier edge, while Lowland plants have smaller hearts, which skews earthier. That there are distinctions in terroir for Mezcal, much like wine, is a driving force behind growing interest in the category.
Mezcal is sold in similar tiers to tequila: 100-percent agave and mixto, which must be at least 80-percent agave. Producers have been experimenting with oak aging, to varying effect. Aging breaks down into three categories: unaged white, reposado, which must see two to nine months in barrel, and añejo, which must see over twelve.
Because of its rustic and decentralized production, most mezcal that makes it to the United States skews artisanal. Traditionally consumed neat, the smoky spirit also makes an interesting addition to cocktails. Producers to look out for include Sombra, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas and Mezcal Vago.