The word “mezcál” comes from the náhuatl language and the exact word mexcalli, coming from two words: metl and ixcalli. Metl signifies maguey (which is a type of agave) and ixcalli simply means cooked. Inhabitants of Mezoamerica used to use the cooked maguey as a meal. It has been proved that maguey is in use for over 9000 years. Maguey has diverse utilisation: serves as food, source of fibers for clothes and shoes, and a construction material to build light houses. Its spikes have been used as nails and needles for rituals and today maguey is used for the traditional medicine.

Because of its versatility, maguey was respected by ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica and they even assigned is a goddess, Mayahuel.

Sources from colonial time describe a wide variety of fermented beverage; which were produced before indigenous people entered in contact with Europeans. Beverages as pulque, tesgüino y pozol were part of important religious rituals, accessible to priests and noble people only.


Theories about alcohol distillation

There are 3 different theories about beginning of distilled beverages in Mesoamerica:

First theory is that distillation started at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the XVI century. Spaniards brought copper, used by Arabs to obtain essences, and in Europe was used to produce distilled products. During their conquest, Spaniards met maguey and fermented beverages made from it, and simply decided to distill it to obtain beverages with more alcohol content.

Second theory says that the process of distillation was brought to Mesoamerica by Filipino people during XVI century, coming from Manila. Firstly the sailors used to distill coconut water to obtain vodka. Filipino method employed cheap materials like wood and clay, thanks to that it was easy to adapt and develop the production on larger scale.

The third theory says that the distillation process was known before Spaniards arrived to America (it is confirmed by archaeological remains). Distillation was known as early as 1500 BC and the local people used techniques different than the ones brought by Spaniards and Filipino.

Independently of its origin, the distillation process became very popular in the XVII century. Each city was producing its own distilled beverage using local maguey and wood, as well as clay and metal appliances. In such way every region of Mexico created their own unique brands of distilled beverages, with different instruments and methods of producing.

In that time mezcál was known as a sort of vodka or plant wine. With time, the words vodka and wine disappeared, and the only word: mezcál remained.

In XVIII century production of mezcál became an industry.

During the New Spain and Spanish Colony consumption of mezcál has been prohibited as an abuse of public health and an act against royal interest, but in fact this prohibition supposed to boost import of alcoholic beverages from Europe.

Despite prohibition, mezcál was still widely produced in small farms and families.


Mexico is home to around 200 species of agave, of which only about 12 to 15 are mezcál-producing agaves. Each type of mezcál is associated with a specific agave species and a rural region.

The mezcál-producing agave is a plant from the amaryllis family, with long fibrous lance-shaped leaves of bluish-green color. The core or “piña” (stem and base of its leaves) is used for making mezcál. The plant matures between seven and ten years, although cultivation cycles vary across different regions. According to the Official Mexican Standard for Alcoholic Beverages – Mezcal – Specifications, mezcál is an alcoholic beverage obtained through distillation and rectification of musts (or juices) prepared directly from the sugars extracted from the mature heads of agaves. These heads are first cooked and subjected to alcoholic fermentation.

Mezcál is a liquid with an original aroma and flavor, colorless or slightly yellowish when rested or aged, or when blended with additives (one or more natural products, flavorings, or colorants permitted by relevant legal provisions) without aging.

The mezcál industry began in the 16th century but gained significant momentum only during the Mexican Revolution. However, its growth was slow, and just 15 years ago, artisanal mezcál production was illegal, leading to clandestine production. Conversely, recent years have seen efforts to organize and strongly support the industry. The establishment of the official Mexican standard, the designation of origin, the creation of the Mezcál Regulatory Council, and the National Chamber of the Mezcál Industry are just a few examples of the importance given to this product.


Types and categories of mezcál

According to the aforementioned standard, mezcál is categorized into two types based on the percentage of carbohydrates from agave used in its production:

Type I: 100% Agave Mezcál . This product is obtained through distillation and rectification of musts directly and originally prepared from the sugars of mature agave heads, previously hydrolyzed or cooked, and subjected to alcoholic fermentation with yeast (cultivated or wild). This type of mezcál can be joven (young), reposado (rested), or añejo (aged), and it can also be abocado (sweetened).

Type II: Mezcál . This product is obtained through the distillation and rectification of musts, in which up to 20% of other carbohydrates permitted by relevant legal provisions have been added.


Categories of mezcál

Based on characteristics acquired after distillation and rectification, mezcál is classified into three categories:

– mezcál añejo (aged): This product can be abocado and undergoes a maturation process of at least one year in white oak or oak barrels.

– mezcál joven (young): Obtained through distillation and rectification of musts prepared directly and originally from the sugars extracted from mature agave heads, previously hydrolyzed or cooked, and subjected to alcoholic fermentation with yeast (cultivated or wild).

– mezcál reposado (rested): This product can be abocado and is left to rest for at least 2 months in white oak or oak barrels for stabilization.


Transformation process

The production of mezcál consists of five processes:

– Cooking: Agave cooking is performed in underground ovens, vertical masonry ovens, hydrolyzers, or autoclaves. Cooking allows for the hydrolysis of starches, converting them into glucose and fructose. The cooked piñas are called mezcál .

– Grinding: Grinding is carried out using various methods: hand maceration, crushing in a “tahona” (mill operated by horse or mule power), or using a mechanical shredder along with a press. After grinding, the resulting juice is called “mosto,” and the fibrous residue is known as “bagazo.” The mosto is transferred or pumped into fermentation tanks.

– Fermentation: Fermentation takes place in wooden vats, wooden-lined pits, or stainless steel tanks. This process, lasting 1 to 3 days, converts the sugars in the mosto into alcohol. The fermented juice is called “mosto muerto” and has an alcohol content of 6 to 7%.

– Distillation: Different technologies are employed for distillation, including clay pots, copper alembics, or stainless steel stills. This operation separates alcohol based on its varying boiling points. The product obtained is referred to as “mezcál de primera destilación” (mezcál from the first distillation).

– Rectification: The same equipment used in distillation is employed here, and the procedure is similar. In this stage, mezcál is distilled for a second time to increase its alcohol content.

origin of mezcal

Mezcál: denomination of origin

Mezcál is a beverage with a denomination of origin, encompassing protected territories in the states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

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