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Tequila is produced mostly in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, appropriately much of it is made in or near Tequila, a small town about 40 miles (65 km) west of the capital, Guadalajara, on Hwy 15. The other major tequila region, called Los Altos, or the Highlands, is a little further away, about 135 kms (84 miles) to the northeast.
Jalisco is by far the largest grower of agaves and producer of tequilas: more than 80% of all blue agave is in Jalisco. The total number of agaves planted from 2000 to the end of 2006 was just over 394.68 million - more than 336.338 of them in Jalisco.
Updated June 27, 2007
Many of the agave plantations in Oaxaca are terraced into the hills. While larger producers use modern production methods and produce blends, their products are equivalent to bulk mixto tequilas. It is said that each local mezcal is different because of the dirt and the mezcalero's hand. In the wine trade this is referred to as 'terroir' - a word that denotes the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon the products. it is the sum of the effects the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product.
Many of the small village producers like Del Maguey's Minero use traditional methods such as fragile clay stills and bamboo pipes instead of copper - a 400-year-old process.
In part because much of it is still made in small lots by small village producers, mezcal retains more mystical-religious and cultural links than tequila. The people who harvest the maguey and make mezcal are magueyeros and makers of mezcal known as palenqueros. The vendors or producers are called mezcaleros.
The flavour and the aroma of these small-production mezcals are quite different from that which you might have encountered with some of the more common commercial brands.
The agaves require little care after planting: no irrigation is necessary. Agaves can also grow in areas where other plants or cattle do not survive. Typically agave plantations in Oaxaca are planted 1,000-2,000 per hectare, 2m apart in rows 3.5m apart. This is considerably less dense that the agave plantations in Jalisco.
The local Oaxacan agave, espadin, is used for about 90% of all mezcal production. Ron Cooper, of Del Maguey mezcal, reports that plant geneticists recently discovered the espadin is the genetic mother of the blue agave.
Budding plants (hijuelos) are cut from the parent plant at three years. The agave shoots are often planted with other crops like corn, beans and pumpkin to provide sustenance while the agaves ripen. In this case there are about 1-2,000 plants per hectare when with other crops, but if planted alone can reach 2,500-3,000 per hectare. The rugged terrain and poor soil of some areas means lower densities - under 1,500 plants per hectare.
The quiote is cut off, and within a year the plant is harvested. They are harvested between six and twelve years, depending on soil and moisture - the average being eight years, like with tequila.
Mezcal piņas are roasted or grilled over hot rocks in covered conical pits (called palenques or hornos; 5-8 feet deep and 12-15 feet across). These are lined with stones or fireproof bricks. A fire is started in the pit, and burns for about 24 hours to heat the stones. Then the piņas are placed in the pit and covered with moist fibre (left over from the previous fermentation, and containing natural yeast residues). This is then covered with a layer of agave leaves or woven palm leaves (petates: woven palm fibre mats), and earth during the two-three days of cooking. The
sugary juice of the cooking magueys acts as a glue to seal a new a palenque.
Some producers say using the discarded agave fibre to cover the palenque, helps reduce the smokiness of the mezcal, making a smoother product.
The baking of the agave is the main difference between tequila and mezcal production.
The baking caramelizes the sugars, and after cooking, the piņas are left to stand in the sun for several days before shredding and fermenting.
Baking the agave piņa in pits is an ancient craft - the traditional method of cooking the agave for eating. It was described in books and journals by Jesuit writers in Mexico during the mid 18th century. The process is at least 4,000 years old, attested to by ancient roasting pits with the remains of the roasted hearts, found by archeologists in southern New Mexico and northern Mexico.
The process of cooking is overseen by a maestro or palenquero (sometimes called a practico) and his skill will determine the quality and flavour of the final result.
After two or three days, the earth covering is meticulously removed, so as not to dirty the roasted piņas.
The traditional tahona (molina or noria - stone grinding wheel) is commonly used to mash the baked plants. The fibres and pulp (bagaso) and juice are mixed together with pure water to create the mosto, or wort. Airborne yeasts start the fermentation, which takes from 13 days to four weeks to complete (although high temperatures and humidity may lower this time considerably).
Some smaller producers still use canoe-shaped wooden troughs and big mallets to crush the agaves.
Fermentation is done in wooden vats or tubs. The antique method was a vat made from cowhide.
Larger producers may use urea and ammonium sulfate to accelerate fermentation (these encourage rapid yeast colony growth) and commercial brewers' yeasts. Traditional producers depend on the natural yeasts in the air and on the maguey. Using natural yeasts means the fermentation time will vary according to weather and local conditions. It can take as little as 3 to 5 days in the heat of summer, but as many as 10-20 in the cooler winter months.
The result of fermentation is the must or tepache, a low-alcohol juice with pulp in it, similar to pulque.
Los Danzantes Mezcal (named after los danzantes, the dancers, glyphs found in the ruins at Monte Alban) put large chunks of roasted agave into the mosto during fermentation for extra flavour.
Distillation is often done in tiny, 25-gallon stills twice, and may even be done three times. The process has changed little since the Spanish Conquistadors developed it.
Modern mezcal is usually filtered through charcoal and cellulose to soften the aroma, or through sand to refine the texture and clarity.
The traditional aging process was to use a cured, black clay cantaro (ceramic jug). Aging mezcals in imported oak barrels dates from the 1950s. Mezcals are not usually aged in wood, but stored in stainless steel tanks, to retain their flavour.
Because of the small scale of the production, many manufacturers don't blend their mezcal: each batch is 3-4 barrels, or about 60-100 cases per batch. This means different batches will tend to have their own taste and aroma characteristics.
Mezcal production remains small - about 5 million litres a year, less than 1/40th the output of tequila. Scotch, on the other hand, sells a billion bottles a year in 200 countries.
Jake Lustig, says his mezcal, Don Amado, differs from tequila in
several ways. His producers grow their own agave. They add the stem
to the roast, instead of using just the hearts. They use natural
fermentation, copying the sour-mash process used in making bourbon
by leaving some of the prior fermented mash in the bottom of the
tank. And they use clay stills, instead of stainless steel, for the
flavor they impart.
To eliminate the smoky flavor he believes turns off most Americans, Lustig pipes water directly onto the rocks in the pit after 2 1/2 days, extinguishing the embers. As a result, Don Amado Plata is reminiscent of tequila.
The agave shortage in Jalisco also had an effect on mezcal production. Many tequila producers came to Oaxaca to buy espadin agave, and as a result drove the price up four to five times its original level. Many mezcal makers couldn't afford to buy the agave, so turned to more cane sugar for production, lowering the quality of their products. Mezcal production dropped from 6 million litres a year in 2000 to 2 million by 2004, but has slowly been recovering its output since then.
A regional mezcal is bacanora, made by distilling the juices of the roasted yaquiano maguey piņa. It is still made in the state of Sonora, where it originated. Making bacanora was illegal in Mexico until 1992, when the government changed the laws. Today it is available regionally only in small quantities, and may be as high as 92 proof. Sotol is a similar agave-based drink made in Chihuahua. See my page on other Mexican spirits for more drinks distilled from agave juice.