History

Mezcal is a mestizo beverage, meaning its roots go back to European and indigenous traditions, thereby creating a new, "native" product.

Historic building from agave leaves.
The goddess Mayahuel, sitting on a blooming agave and holding a gourd of Pulque.

Agaves were used for centuries by the indigenous cultures of the Americas in many ways, producing clothing, shoes, building material, paper, tools and much more. They remain an important part of local diets and serve to produce Pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice (from Agave atrovirens). Its consumption was closely connected to religious ritual and limited to certain social stratum. The plant itself was regarded sacred and inhabited by the goddess Mayahuel. (That's the last you'll here from us about old gods. Promise!)

Alembic from clay as it is still in use for Mezcal production. From a medivial codex.

The Spanish brought the knowledge of distillation to the American continent, which they themselves learned from the Moors. The words alcohól and alambique (pot still) themselves are of Arabic origin. The techniques of distilling developed since the conquest of Mesoamerica are quite diverse and many fell out of use in Europe, such as distillation in earthenware pots, for example.

Distillery of the Ángeles-family, around 1900, with a ceramic pot still in the foreground.

Traditionally Mezcal is produced in small-scale rural distilleries with raw materials coming from surrounding estates and mostly for consumption within the family and the village. This structure is to a large extent still maintained today. For Mezcal there is huge local diversity while production remains low, whereas Tequila production went industrial in 1900 and favored large-scale output in place of diversity. In the state of Oaxaca there were 361 registered Mezcal distilleries (palenques) in 1892, in 2005 this number was 530.

Since 1994 Mezcal is subject to the standard "NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994“, which also implies the denomination of origin. It is applied by the “Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal A.C.” (COMERCAM), an association of producers, brand owners and experts. Since 2005 only Mezcal bearing the COMERCAM-label is officialy marketable. These standards have been highly criticized by Mezcal producers and aficionados who fear the loss of diversity and originality. They refer to the Tequila standards established in the 1960s as a poor model for such regulations (see TYPES & QUALITIES).