By Alberto Navarro, Agave Spirits Expert
D.O. Agave Spirits: Proudly Mexican
Nov 26, 2020
Nowadays iguana, sheep, rabbit meat and even Ibérico ham are used to hang inside a clay distilling pot during a third distillation, to infuse the fermenting fumes and produce alternative versions of “pechuga” mezcal. The original recipe, however, uses only skinless chicken. The name “pechuga,” which is translated as “breast” (from poultry), comes from that. Other ingredients, like cinnamon and many other spices, rice, apples, bananas, and other fruits, are tossed inside the lower clay pot for additional infusion. Usually the base mezcal is a blend of A. Karwinskii and A. Angustifolia
Some agaves, like A. Tequilana Weber var. Blue (blue agave) have three methods of reproduction: rhizome shoots (hijuelos), flower pollination & seeds, and flower stalk bulbils. However, not all agave species have all of these abilities and can only reproduce generating fertile seeds by flower pollination, such as A. Cupreata (papalote agave). This may seem like a limitation for these species, but even from a seemingly doomed chopped flower stalk, flowers will grow again, giving life another chance. Nature finds its way.
Recent research suggests that agave was already being cooked, fermented, and possibly distilled in the state of Tlaxcala around 600-400BC, long before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico.
The controversial inclusion of Aguascalientes, Estado de México, and Morelos into the Mezcal D.O. is still in legal battle.
“Mezcal” derives from the Náhuatl words “Metl” (maguey/agave) and “Ixcalli” (cooked), forming the word “Mexcalli.” "Pulque Real” was fermented from the sweet natural agave sap and reserved for the priests and the elderly, the Spaniards realized that the general population was fermenting Mexcalli in order to produce an alcoholic beverage called “pulque de agua.” They then started distilling it as well, and called it “Vino (wine) Mexcalli.”
The upper clay pot in a traditional “montera” distiller is actually a bottomless pot that has been placed and sealed on top of a complete pot that is exposed to the fire and contains the ferment. This allows the upper pot to work as a chimney, leading the alcohol vapors all the way up, directly into the cooling plate that sits at the very top where they condense into the desired spirit. The liquid then drips into a collection spoon connected to a sugar cane tube that drains the liquid outside the device.
About 6 million liters of mezcal were produced in 2018. Even though production has been growing at a very impressive rate, mezcal is still a small category among spirits when compared to the more than 300 million liters of Tequila produced in the same year. About 75% of the mezcal was produced with A. Angustifolia (espadín agave), and the vast majority of it was produced in Oaxaca.
Out of the three mezcal categories; ancestral mezcal, artisanal mezcal, and mezcal (aka industrial mezcal), artisanal mezcal represents 92% of the production.