Last Updated on August 2, 2023 by Lydia Martin
We can easily distinguish mezcal for its distinct smoky flavor. But did you know that the unique process of mezcal production greatly influences its complex flavors?
If you want to know more about this traditional Mexican spirit, let us share valuable insights about how mezcal is made and everything your need to know about this artisanal process. Keep reading.
7 Steps In The Mezcal Production Process
1. Agave Cultivation
Mezcal can be made from various agave leaves, unlike tequila which must be made from blue agave plants.
Mezcal producers in Mexico cultivate different agave plants, particularly Espadin and Tobala. Each agave plant imparts a unique flavor profile.
“From agave’s heart to soulful spirits, mezcal’s artisanal magic.” – Liquor Laboratory
Factors like weather and soil composition significantly influence the maguey plant’s final sugar and mineral contents, surpassing genetic considerations for flavor and affecting the final product.
2. Plant Harvesting
Now, a full-grown agave plant is harvested by cutting leaves to expose the piña (the agave heart), primarily used in producing mezcal, even tequila.
While some agave for mezcal is cultivated, many grow wild in remote areas. Tepeztate, for instance, thrives on steep cliffs, taking about 30 years to mature.
3. Cooking Process
Traditional producers use an earthen pit oven to cook agave hearts. The pit retains heat using straw mats, burning wood, and hot rocks as the agave plants are layered inside and covered with earth and leaves.
After several days of roasting, the piñas’ natural sugars caramelize (agave syrup), imparting the mezcal’s distinct smoky flavor.
Cooking and steaming the agave syrup convert the sugar of cooked agave into fermented juice, essential for making mezcal and tequila.
4. Crushing Or Grinding
After roasting the agave plant, it will be crushed to extract the agave juice, which is then fermented. Following the Mexican culture, mezcal makers use a tahona (a large stone wheel) or hand maceration with wooden mallets.
But large companies who make mezcal can use a roller mill or diffuser, though the latter isn’t encouraged in the industry.
After getting the agave juice, their fibers and juices are fermented into alcohol using naturally present yeasts. The fermentation process occurs in containers of diverse materials like stone, soil, and wood.
The Mexican states permit the inclusion of fibers, which will ferment naturally, and the duration of fermentation depends on temperature and humidity, lasting from a few days to weeks.
6. Distillation Process
The majority of producers utilize wood stills or clay pot stills, heated directly by fire using locally available materials. Distillation determines alcohol content through bubble formation and endurance.
Mezcal, like Tequila, undergoes double distillation. The first distillation produced the “ordinario” juice, distilled the second time to make mezcal.
The resulting product generally ranges between 40% to 50% alcohol by volume (ABV).
7. Subsequent Resting Period
The distilled juice is now aged in oak barrels for several months to a year, enabling flavor development and mellowing.
While some distilled spirits are bottled without aging, agave spirits like Añejo mezcal undergo several years of aging to attain a smoother and more intricate taste. But what’s the best way to drink mezcal?
Different Types of Mezcal & How They’re Made
Mezcal, made from Espadin, boasts an earthy flavor. The hearts of Espadin are harvested and roasted in an underground pit.
The roasted piñas are then crushed, fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, distilled in clay or wood stills, and aged to develop the earthy flavor.
Tobala mezcal is made from the Tobala maguey plant, which is roasted, crushed, and fermented. After that, it undergoes a distillation process, which produces the mezcal with a delicate floral flavor.
This agave spirit boasts medical and herbal flavors. Madrecuixe is earth-roasted for several days, and the juices are extracted using a traditional stone mill.
It undergoes fermentation and double distillation using copper stills.
We find its flavor profile a mix of Tobala (floral), Madrecuixe (herbal), and Tepeztate (smoky).
“It’s (mezcal) quite a chameleon of a spirit.” – Robert Simonson, American Journalist
Raicilla is made by harvesting agave plants in the Jalisco region of Mexico. The agave is cooked and crushed, followed by fermentation and distillation.
We find Pechuga, a distinctive mezcal variety infused with fruits, nuts, and spices, occasionally including a whole chicken breast during distillation. So, this mezcal boasts an unparalleled and intricate flavor profile.
Arroqueño mezcal boasts a spicy and complex flavor profile. The Arroqueño agave is harvested and cooked in an earthen pit, then crushed to extract the juice for fermentation and distillation.
Among other spirits made from agave, Tepeztate mezcal exudes a vibrant, smoky flavor. This type of mezcal undergoes distillation in copper pot stills along with an open-air fermentation.
Regulations & The Law
Strict regulations and laws in Mexico govern how mezcal must be made. To be labeled as mezcal, it must meet the government standards, including:
- It should be made from 100% agave, without additives.
- It must be produced in designated regions, specifically Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Michoacan, Guerrero, Durango, Tamaulipas, Puebla, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato.
- The ABV should be between 36% to 55%.
These regulations ensure the authenticity and quality of mezcal in the market. But what’s the difference between mezcal and agave?
Are mezcal and tequila made the same way?
No, mezcal and tequila are made in different ways. Mezcal can be made from different agave species and has a more traditional method, while tequila is made explicitly from blue agave  using modern techniques. Also, is mezcal stronger than tequila?
Is mezcal made with worms?
No, mezcal is not made with worms. The traditional practice of placing a worm in the bottle is more associated with some types of tequila rather than mezcal .
Is mezcal only made in Oaxaca?
Mezcal isn’t only made in Oaxaca. It can also be produced in several other states in Mexico, such as Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Puebla.
However, Oaxaca remains the heartland of mezcal production and is known for the highest quality and variety of mezcal.
On A Final Note
The art of mezcal-making involves a rich blend of tradition, craftsmanship, and respect for the agave plant. The unique and diverse flavors we find in this traditional spirit are thanks to how it is made, with each step contributing to the final spirit – from harvesting the piñas to fermentation and distillation.
Adhering to strict regulations, mezcal makers ensure the authenticity and quality of this treasured beverage, making it a symbol of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage while delighting enthusiasts like us worldwide.