Mezcal - What it is (and what it's not)
Because there is a lot of faulty knowledge concerning Mezcal we want to put a few things straight here. We've tried to compile all there is to know about the topic (not an easy task) because publications are limited and often more poetic than true. Nevertheless we keep on researching, below you will find a basic outline of what we've learned.
Mezcal (also: Mescal or Meskal) is a spirit distilled from mash made out of the steamed hearts of various species of agaves. The word mezcal comes from the Aztec language, the Nahuatl, and means "cooked agave": mezcalli from metl = agave, ixcalli = cooked. Historically, mezcal is the general term for all kinds of agave spirits made in Mexico. Since 1994 however, there is a protected denomination of origin (denominación de orígen) for Mezcal.
Traditionally agave spirits are made from locally available agaves with varying techniques and named differently from region to region. Tequila from Jalisco is the most widely known mezcal, commercialized under the name "Vino Mezcal de Tequila" (Mezcal wine from Tequila). Popular since the 1880s in Mexican mining towns, the name Tequila persisted.
Other agave spirits are: Bacanora from Sonora; Raicilla, around Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco; Tuxca, around Tuxcacuesco, Jalisco; Comiteco, around Comitán, Chiapas; Sotol from Chihuahua (attributed to the family of Mezcales though not made from agaves, but from Dasylirion-species).
Denominación de Orígen:
The Mexican standard NOM-070-SCFI-1994 regulates the production of Mezcal and implies the denomination of origin, which limits the production of agave spirits to be called Mezcal to the following Mexican states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato und Tamaulipas.
The concept of denomination of origin of Mezcal and Tequila (and since 2000 also for Bacanora) does not apply to the historic formation of the product, but with the general linguistic usage and we follow this for better understanding. There are traditionalists, who disclaim the governmental regulation in its current form. More about this under TYPES & QUALITIES.
Tequila can be called Mezcal accordingly, but not all Mezcal is Tequila. And that´s a good thing, because industrial shortcuts have made Tequila a mediocre product over the last 100 years, while Mezcal-production has kept its handcrafted character at a high level. Note: Mezcal is not Tequila with a worm.
Oh, right - the worm! This is actually the larva of Hypopta agavis, a agave vermin, and has nothing to do with a proper Mezcal. Nor does it have a hallucinatory effect and the fact that "Mezcal" sounds like "mescaline" is only a coincidence.
Also note: The standards of Mezcal are by no means laxer than those for Tequila, but on the contrary. More about that under MEZCAL & TEQUILA.