What’s Mescal?

We just returned from Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. Coincidentally, a friend is living there while he’s starting a mescal export business. We visited with him a few times and learned a bit about mescal.

Mescal is a broad category for liquors distilled from the agave plant. The mescal most people know is tequila, but there’re lots more mescals throughout Mexico.

Because I live in Mexico, I’d been thinking about writing a post about my favorite tequila. But mescal is a more interesting story than my favorite tequila (I buy Centenario Repasado most often which, I guess, makes it my favorite).

Different types of agave plants are found pretty much all over Mexico. Agaves have been used as a beverage base for thousands of years here. Probably the original agave drink was pulque, sort of like an agave beer.

After the Spanish showed up and introduced distillation, various local Peoples began producing a drink called mescal using agave plants.

The world of mescal shares some similarities with the wine world. The agave plant comes in many forms and grows in many different soils and climate with each combination providing different taste characteristics for the mescal.

Just as champagne can only be made from certain grapes and only in the Champagne region of France, tequila can only be made from a certain agave plant and only in the Tequila region of Mexico.

Like wine, mescals can can be consumed when they’re young or they can be aged. Young clear mescal, called joven, seems to be considered the way to go.

The agave plants can also be harvested in the wild where they grow naturally, or they can be cultivated and harvested more easily. Each style of the resulting mescal has it’s following.

Again like wine, the pricing is often based on scarcity. And mescal drinkers use similar adjectives for describing the, often subtle, taste differences between different mescals.

There’s even some overlap with scotches; the most common adjective I heard for describing a mescal’s taste was “smokey.”

There’s a thriving mescal subculture, especially in Oaxaca, that’s worth investigating if you’re even slightly interested in it.