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Mezcal & Tequila

Key Takeaways:
  • Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the fermented heart (piña) of the agave plant

  • Can legally be produced from nine states in Mexico

  • Is split into three categories; Mezcal, Artisanal Mezcal, and Ancestral Mezcal

Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the agave plant. That means that, technically speaking, tequila, bacanora, and raicilla are all mezcals. Sotol is NOT a mezcal as the sotol plant is not an agave.

Mezcal has an internationally recognized Denomination of Origin (granted in 1994), which means that currently it can only be made in nine designated regions of Mexico (Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Puebla, and Michoacan). However, the majority of mezcals hail from Oaxaca.

Mezcal can be made from any type of agave with enough sugars to make it work and there are roughly 40 to 50 different varieties of agave used to make mezcal. Typically, production techniques include cooking the hearts of the agave, or piñas, in earthen pits, which imparts a smoky flavor to the mezcal and then fermented in open-air wooden vats which allows local yeast to ferment the mash and add distinct notes of the spirit’s terroir.


One of the most significant factors influencing the taste of a mezcal is the type of agave from which it is made, but other factors include:

  • Terroir (special characteristics of the geography, geology and climate of a certain place and their interaction with the plant’s genetics),

  • The geography of the mezcal-making regions of Mexico ranges from high desert to semitropical and involves a range of elevation starting at sea level and climbing to 9,000 ft. All this creates a series of microclimates which change the nature of the mezcal from hill to hill and valley to valley (an espadin found in one region compared to another located 200 miles away results in two different-tasting mezcals even if produced in exactly the same manner.

  • What is grown around or near agaves, the water used in post-production to lower the ABV, what yeast/bacteria are in the air at fermentation time, and other factors impact the final product of mezcals.

  • How the agaves are harvested (what age of maturity, how long after the quixote has sprouted, how much skin is left on the piña, etc) also impacts the final mezcal.

  • How the earthen pits are built and how evenly the heat is distributed to each piña while they’re being cooked.

  • The wood used (mesquite is quite common) and whether or not the pit is lined with rocks or not impact the flavor of the mezcal; Earthen-lined hornos (not rock lined) generate less heat which means a slower cooking process and often makes for a more gentle and earthy flavored mezcal.

Mezcal traditions and family recipes are often passed down through generations, which leads mezcal to reflect both the place it is grown and the hand of the maestro mezcalero who produces it. This creates a spirit with a wide variety of flavor profiles.

  • Mezcal

  • Artisanal Mezcal

  • Ancestral Mezcal

  • Cooking: Piñas or juices can be cooked in earthen pits, brick ovens or autoclaves (large industrial pressure cookers).

  • Grinding: Tahona, small mechanical grinder, or industrial shredder.

  • Fermentation: Can take place in wood, cement or stainless steel tanks.

  • Distillation: Copper or clay pot stills or continuous column distillation.

Artisanal Mezcal
  • Cooking: Earthen pits or brick ovens.

  • Grinding: Tahona, mallet, or small mechanical shredder

  • Fermentation: Can take place in stone, soil, clay, wood, cement or animal skins and the process must include the fibres of the maguay (bagaso)

  • Distillation: Copper or clay pot stills with direct fire. The process must include the fibres of the maguay (bagaso)

Ancestral Mezcal
  • Cooking: Earthen pits only

  • Grinding: Tahona or mallet

  • Fermentation: Can take place in stone, soil, clay, wood, cement or animal skins and the process must include the fibres of the maguay (bagaso)

  • Distillation: Only in clay pot stills with direct fire. The process must include the fibres of the maguay (bagaso)


Del Maguey, El Silencio, Koch


Key Takeaways:
  • Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue Weber agave.

  • Tequila is a type of Mezcal

  • Most production comes from the town of Tequila, Jalisco

Tequila is a distilled beverage made from the blue Weber agave. Most production is done around the area of Tequila (40 miles north of Guadalajara) and in Los Altos, the highlands region of Jalisco. Tequila is a type of Mezcal.

  1. Only blue Weber agave can be used

  2. Certain cooking methods

  3. Location: laws state that tequila can only be produced in Jalisco and in limited areas in the following states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas

Tequila is produced between 35 and 55% percent alcohol. U.S. Law states tequila sold in the states must be at least 40% alcohol.


The agave plants are harvested by jimadores who have usually been taught family techniques and methods on how to best care and harvest the agaves. Agaves reproduce through one method where a flowering stalk will shoot out from the plant at the end of its life cycle. This is called a quiote. Quiotes are loaded with sugars and carbohydrates to attract animals like bats and birds to spread the seeds of the agave. When making tequila however the jimadores want to keep the carbohydrates in the plant so when the agave is fermented it has the necessary sugar content to ferment. The main part of the plant that is used for agave distillates is called the piña for its resemblance to a pineapple. Piñas in the lowlands average around 150lbs and 240lbs in the highlands.

After harvesting the pinas are taken to large clay ovens where they are baked to break down the sugars. Depending on the producer the cooked pinas are then shredded by a machine or still use the traditional method of being mashed by a large stone wheel pulled by a donkey or horse. This stone wheel is called a tahona. Some more industrial tequilas use machines called an autoclave or a diffuser. An autoclave is a strong heated container used for chemical reactions and other processes using high pressures and temperatures. A diffuser is a large machine that uses hot water and sulfuric acid to extract up to 99% percent of the sugar from the plants. While the autoclave and diffuser are without a doubt more efficient, tequila connoisseurs almost unanimously claim quite a bit of the agave flavor is lost in these more modern processes. Another downside to the diffuser is that larger brands are able to use agaves that are not mature enough for traditional methods.

After the agave juice is extracted it is poured into large wooden vats or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment. The length of fermentation is up to the producer. Also some producers add their own yeast to the fermentation tanks and some let wild yeasts work their course. After fermentation what is left is called a mosto. This mosto is distilled twice to produce blanco tequila. Here it is either bottled and sold as a blanco or put into barrels to age. Highland tequila will often yield sweeter and fruitier tequila while lowland usually produces a more earthier and minerally flavor.


Several different types of barrels are used for aging tequila including wine, sherry, cognac etc, but a majority is white American oak barrels from American whiskey distillers.

  1. Blanco: Unaged or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels

  2. Reposado (rested): Minimum of two months but less than a year

  3. Anejo (aged): Minimum of one year but less than three years

  4. Extra Anejo: Minimum of three years


Olmeca Altos, Siete Leguas, Espolón

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