What Bartenders Should Know about Mezcal
The process of making mezcal hasn’t changed much since the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early 1800s and brought with them distillation technologies. The Aztecs near the mountaintop settlement of Monte Alban in Oaxaca had cultivated a certain species of agave plant for juice, which they fermented into what they called pulque. The Spaniards, wanting something much more potent, began to experiment with agave.
Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant, but the process is different. The key difference between tequila and mezcal is that the heart of the agave plant is roasted before distilling into mezcal, which is why mezcals have a smoky flavor. Whereas tequila is made exclusively in the northwestern state of Jalisco, mezcal is exclusive to Oaxaca.
Mezcal has a high potency and a strong, smoky flavor. Distillers insist that the drink has medicinal and tonic qualities. In Mexico, tribal women drink mezcal to withstand the pain of childbirth, and laborers drink it for added strength.
The famous worm
Worms live in the agave plant and are hand-harvested during the rainy summer season. They’re stored in mezcal, drained and sorted, and placed in bottles near the end of the process. The worm is what makes mezcal unique; it’s added as a reminder that it comes from the same plant from which the alcohol is made.
The worm is increasingly rare as mezcal is taken more seriously as a spirit. These days, worms are still common in low-end brands, but higher-end producers and craft distillers have gone wormless.
Apocryphal legends note that the worm gives strength to anyone brave enough to gulp it down. Some even believe it acts as an aphrodisiac. Like the drink itself, the worm is something of an acquired taste.
A few brands
The number of mezcal brands is much smaller than the number of tequila brands. Here are a few:
Gusano Rojo Mezcal
Miguel de la Vega Mezcal