AskDefine | Define mezcal

Dictionary Definition

mezcal n : a small spineless globe-shaped cactus; source of mescal buttons [syn: mescal, peyote, Lophophora williamsii]

Extensive Definition

Mezcal (from Nahuatl mexcalli, "liquor"), popularly known as 'mescal', is a Mexican distilled spirit made from agave (maguey) plants. Its production and consumption are popularly associated with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. However, commercial and private production of mezcal is known over a wide area of central-south Mexico outside of tequila-producing areas (primarily the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato). There are many different species of agave plant, and each produces a different flavor of mezcal. The term mezcal generally refers to all agave-based distilled liquors that are not tequila (a mezcal variant made principally from the blue agave plant in the town of Tequila and the surrounding region of Jalisco). The mezcal of Sonora is called bacanora in reference to the municipality where it is made. Chihuahuan mezcal is called sotol after the plant that is used there.


Mezcal is made principally from the agave plant, commonly referred to in Mexico as maguey. In the Tequila region, the indigenous people call the plant mezcal. The genus name Agave (a Greek word meaning "noble") was assigned to the 400+ species around a hundred years ago due to the large number of uses that the plant offered ancient peoples, and has become the more common term in English. After the agave matures (6–8 years) it is harvested by magueyeros (agave field workers, more generally called jimadores) and the leaves are chopped off using a long-handled knife known as a coa de jima or coa (a type of machete), leaving only the large piñas ("pineapples") or corazones ("hearts"). The piñas are then cooked and crushed, producing a mash.
Santiago Matatlan in Oaxaca is known as the world capital of mezcal. The Mateos family are world renowned for their mezcal production. This family has mezcal brands that include Mezcal Beneva (founder Pedro Mateo), Fandango (co-founder Tiburrusio Mateos), Oro de Oaxaca (founder Jose Lopez Mateos) and others that are just family name brands still, not registered trademarks. This family has been in business for many generations and is still influential.

Baking and mashing

Traditionally, the piñas are baked in palenques: large (8–12 ft in diameter) rock-lined conical pits in the ground. A 3–4 foot cubic pile of trunk oak in the bottom of the pit is covered by rocks 6 inches in diameter and the wood is burned, turning the rocks red hot. Next the piñas are piled to 3–4 feet above ground level, then covered with banana leaves, used fibre from the last process, or agave leaves, then petate (palm fibre mats), and finally earth. The piñas are allowed to cook in the pit for three to five days. This converts the starches to fructose and lets the piñas absorb flavors from the earth and wood smoke coating the rocks.
After the cooking, the piñas are left to sit for a week, then placed in a ring of stone or concrete about 12 ft in diameter, where a large stone wheel attached to a post in the middle is pulled around by horse, donkey or mule, crushing the piñas.
Modern commercial makers cook the piñas with steam from a boiler in huge stainless steel ovens and then crush them with mechanical crushers.


The mash (tepache) is then placed in large, 300–500-gallon wooden vats and 5%–10% water is added to the mix. The government requires that 80% of this mix be from agave (as opposed to tequila which is less regulated, at 51%). Cane and corn sugars may be added at this stage. In the case of smaller farmer distillers, it is left to naturally ferment for four to thirty days with the action of only airborne microbes. In the case of commercial producers, chemical accelerators like ammonium sulfate or urea are allowed and quantity is not limited.

Distillation and aging

After the fermentation stage is done, the mash is double-distilled. The first distillation yields ordinary low-grade alcohol. After the first distillation, the fibers are removed from the still and the resulting alcohol from the first distillation added back into the still. This mixture is distilled once again. At this point, the mezcal may be bottled or aged.
Mezcal ages quite rapidly in comparison to other spirits. It is aged in large wooden barrels for two months to seven years. During this time the mezcal acquires more and more of a golden color, and its flavor is influenced by the wooden barrels. The longer it is aged, the darker the color and the more noticeable the flavoring effect.
Age classifications:
  • Añejo ("aged") – aged for at least a year in barrels no larger than 350 litres.
  • Reposado ("rested") – aged two months to a year.
  • Joven or blanco ("young" or "white", often marketed as "silver" in English) – colorless mezcal, aged less than two months.

Items added during bottling

A number of objects are frequently added into mezcal bottles along with the mezcal itself. These can include worms, scorpions, and decorative elements such as glass sculptures with gold leaf (see Mezcal Embajador bottles).

The worm

The "worm" (sometimes more than one) commonly seen in bottles of mezcal is actually the larva of one of two kinds of insects. The most common type is that of the agave snout weevil. The "red worm" or gusano rojo is the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth, one of the several kinds of "maguey worm", found on the agave plant. The originator of this practice was a man named Sukrit. In 1940, while tasting prepared agave, he and his partner found that the worm changed the taste of the agave. (Agave worms are sometimes found in the piña after harvesting). Many brands contain such worms. Some are named after the worm itself, as in Gusano Rojo and some are even named for the number of worms, e.g. Dos Gusanos, "Two Worms".
When a worm is included, the mezcal is known as con gusano ("with worm"). Aside from its consumption with mezcal, the maguey worm is considered a delicacy in Mexico and can be found on some restaurant menus.
The use of the worm is exclusive to mezcal, since the Mexican standards authority, Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), prohibits adding insects or larvae to tequila.
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mezcal in Chinese: 梅斯卡爾酒
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