Agave, the succulent king
The consumption of agave finds its roots with the Mesoamerican societies. The ancient Mayas, per example, used its spines in various rituals involving bloodletting. It is only when the indigenous cooked the heart of the plant, the « piña » that they realized how sweet and nutritious the plant could be. Later on while stocking the cooked agaves in their houses, the mixture fermented. It gave birth to the pulque. Used for centuries as a medicine, this milky alcoholic drink is still consumed in Mexico today. This beverage, born more than 2000 years ago, is the result of a natural fermentation process that can even take place within the plant itself.
The agave is part of the succulent perennials family (from the latin « succulentus », full of juice). As a matter of fact, the succulents were able to survive in areas of our planet where rain was very rare, thanks to their leaves, roots or stems storing water. Today, agave grows naturally in most arid regions of Mexico. It grows very slowly, up to 30 years, which is why some people call it the century plant. While agave is the scientific and most common name, you will also find terms such as « maguey », « pita » or « cabuya » in local conversations denominating the same plant.
When agave was first distilled
The Spanish conquistadors brought distillation to Mexico in the 17th century. Indeed, Spain had inherited the alambics from the arabs. The distillation process was applied to agave syrup, known as « aguamiel ». The distilled pulque did not provide as high degrees of alcohol. The new spirit quickly took the name « Vino Mezcal de Tequila », in English oven-cooked agave wine from Tequila. The word « Mescal » from the Nahuatl, the most spoken indigenous language of Mexico, means oven-cooked agave.
With the arrival of distillation in the Tequila area, new kind of farmers appeared in that same region. Indeed, while agave was always a wild plant, there was quickly a strong need for a domestic production to supply the distilleries. Later on, it is the train that allowed the industry to grow in other regions of Mexico. Its strong national dimensions in the 19th century allowed the spirit to export itself to other territories such as the United-States. Both the industrialisation of the productions and the sales growth will change the name Vino Mezcal de Tequila to the simple « Tequila » we know today. The first legal definition will come about in 1974 with a designation of origin for the Tequila. True control on the quality of the spirit will only be implemented in 1994 with the creation of the Consejo Regulator de Tequila, an inter professional organization of producers.
Tequila vs Mezcal
Today two different factors allow us to distinguish Tequila from Mezcal : its regions of production and the variety of agave used to produce the spirit.
Indeed, according to the designation of origin of Tequila, at least 60 % of agave distilled should be Weber variety, also known as blue agave. In this case, the Tequila is considered « mixte ». The denomination « pur Tequila », however, requires the use of blue agave only. The main region of production of Tequila is Jalisco, state of the village of Tequila. It can also be produced in some specific towns of the states of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato or Tamaulipas.
In regards to Mezcal, experts agree that most Mexican states had at some point a culture of distillation of agave syrup. More than fifty different types of agave can be used in the making of Mezcal. The biggest part of the production, 85%, is done in the south of the country, in the state of Oaxaca. However, the designation of origin of Mezcal, born in 1997, also recognizes the states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla.
What does the tasting say?
In conclusion, Mezcal and Tequila are both agave distillates. Apart from the localisation and the type of agave used in the production, what truly distinguishes the two spirits ?
To start with, the tasting of the two is very different. Indeed, Mezcal presents some very unique flavors including the smoky element that will last until finish. If the different varieties of agave used in the making of Mezcal and Tequila play for sure on the final aromas of the spirits, the difference in flavours comes first of all from the different means of cooking. Indeed, the designation of origin of Tequila allows to cook the agave in large industrial ovens. However, the agave distilled to make Mezcal, is first cooked in underground earthen pits, with wood fire and volcanic rocks.
Can we consider tequila as an industrialized mezcal ? It would be a shortcut to admit that. But it is clear that the craft process has remained almost unchanged in the habits of Mezcal master distillers, when tequila is making the most out of its worldwide reputation, creating a need to produce more and faster.