Have you ever looked behind the bar at a Mexican restaurant and seen a bottle of liquor with a worm in it? Most people would be grossed out, but worldly drinkers know the bottle contains mezcal, a traditional Mexican alcohol with a very distinct flavor.
For those interested in drinking mezcals, a whole world of varieties is waiting to be tasted. This guide will help jumpstart your own mezcal adventure.
What is mezcal?
If you’ve ever tasted tequila, then you have tasted a type of mezcal. Both are derived from several varieties of agave plants. In fact, mezcal literally means “oven-cooked agave” in Nahuatl. What we call “mezcal” differs from tequila in several important ways:
- Geography – Tequila and mezcal are produced in different regions of Mexico
- Agave – Different species of agave are used to produce mezcal and tequila
- Method – Tequila agave is steamed, mezcal agave is baked in earthen pots
After the agave is harvested, the outer leaves are removed, leaving only the hearts, which are cooked and then pulverized into a mash. The mash is then fermented and distilled twice. Distillation is the process of purifying a liquid through heating and cooling.
After the second distillation, the mezcal is ready to be consumed. However, some producers choose to age their mezcal in barrels to develop a deeper flavor. Mezcal can be aged up to twelve years! The mezcal is bottled, and the worm is added (It is actually a moth larva).
What does mezcal taste like?
There are so many varieties of mezcal, it is impossible to describe a single flavor that applies to all of them. Because of the wood fires used to cook the agave, many mezcals have a smoky or charred flavor, similar to scotch whiskey. Other possible flavors include:
One of the coolest things about mezcal is the incredible variety of possible flavors. Artisanal mezcals produced from wild agave can even vary in flavor from batch to batch. You’ll just have to them all to find your favorite variety!
How to choose a mezcal
The first decision you must make as a budding mezcal aficionado is to choose a mezcal. It is best to start with a mezcal derived from Espadin agave. This species of agave is the most common. About 90% of mezcals are derived from this particular plant.
Another benefit of Espadin mezcal is the price. Mezcal derived from rare varieties of agave like Tobalà can cost a pretty penny. It would be unfortunate to crack open the bottle only to find that you dislike the flavor. You can’t gift someone a bottle you’ve already opened!
Mezcal newbies should also know the age of a mezcal before they buy it. Color can be a helpful factor here. Younger, lighter-colored mezcals often have milder flavors than their older, darker counterparts. Mezcal is generally divided into three age varieties:
- Joven – clear, unaged
- Reposado – golden, rested in oak barrels for less than a year
- Añejo – dark amber, aged in oak barrels for a year or longer.
Mezcal purists might prefer joven mezcals because the true flavor of the agave comes through most clearly.
How to drink mezcal
Keep it simple! Mezcal connoisseurs know that there is only one way to enjoy mezcal: in a glass without ice. Sliced orange, lemon, or lime sprinkled with salt are common accompaniments.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of mezcal out there just waiting to be tasted. The adventure is more fun with friends, so be sure to share the love and drink responsibly!