Mezcal, Mexico’s wonderfully smoky contribution to the drinking world, works as a great base for cocktails or simply as a straight sipper. It also has a rich history.
The roots of mezcal stretch far into history, back before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Agave has been cultivated for centuries, used as both a flavouring and a sweetener, as well as being fermented into mildly alcoholic drinks such as pulque, which dates back at least 2,000 years.
When the Spanish arrived, they brought along the knowledge of distillation; and lucky for them, they found a plant (agave) whose juices they could readily distill. Tequila’s ancestor was born. The first mezcals appeared in the 1500s, and the beverage spread throughout Mexico over the following centuries, eventually being exported back into Spain.
The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli, which taken together mean “oven cooked agave.” Like tequila, mezcal is made by roasting agave hearts in an oven. The word can also be spelled mescal, but some producers avoid that variation because of the mistaken association between mezcal and mescaline.
Until the 1990s, mezcal had a bad reputation as nothing but poor-quality tequila. The bad perception came from a lack of regulation about what could properly be called mezcal, and as a result there were a lot of cheap knockoffs.
Much like true Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of France, true mezcal must come from one of eight states in Mexico, the largest of which is Oaxaca.
Contrary to popular belief, the worm in mezcal isn’t a worm at all, it’s actually a larva. There are two types of larvae that are often added to mezcal: white-and-gold or red. The white-and-gold larvae live in the agave root, and the red larvae reside in the long leaves of the plant. Despite the worms’ prevalence among mezcal brands, the larvae are not necessary. And no, it won’t make you hallucinate.