Mezcal is one of Mexico’s most beloved gifts to the world of spirits. Mezcal is a distilled agave spirit from the Mexican agave plant, also known as the maguey. It might be hard to distinguish between mezcal and tequila. However, a little-known fact about mezcal is that it was the precursor to tequila, which has become a much more well-known spirit.
Originating in the 16th century, mezcal is a perfect example of the old world and the new world colliding. Up until the colonization of Mexico, fermented beverages did exist in indigenous civilization, but it was the colonizers who introduced the practice of distillation.
The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca used the distillation process in the production of mezcal, which has now become one of the most prized beverages, not just in Mexico but in the world. Below, I’ll explore the different types of mezcal and mezcal agave varieties.
Mezcal comes from the agave plant, but different agave plant varieties produce a wealth of different types of mezcal that vary in flavor and aroma. Read on to discover different types of mezcal agave species below.
Arroqueno agave is one of the largest wild agave plants in the world. It also takes the longest to mature, reaching the maturity to bear fruit after a whopping 25 years. Arroqueno is native to the Oaxacan highlands and is the mother species to the more popular mezcal agave plant, Espadin. Arroqueno agave is thus a rare agave plant that many consider in danger of extinction due to over-harvesting.
If you do get your hands on a coveted bottle of Arroqueno mezcal, you’ll see why it is so prized. Arroqueno mezcal offers rich-tasting notes of floral and citrus flavors, cooked agave, and a dark chocolate finish. You’ll also see Arroqueno agave referred to as ruqueno (old man variety) or curandero (medicine man).
Meaning “ash” in Spanish, Cenizo Mezcal is one of the rare wild agave species from outside of the state of Oaxaca. Instead, Cenizo Mezcal agave is from the northern Mexican state of Durango. It is the key ingredient in most Durango mezcal production. Cenizo mezcal is wild and highly drought-resistant due to the harsh desert climates of Durango’s high desert plains.
Unlike the Arroqueno agave variety, Cenizo Mezcal takes half the time to reach maturity, with a life cycle of between 10-12 years. Cenizo agave has wider, light green leaves. It yields an aroma of leather, clay, and grass. The tasting notes you’ll get from cenizo mezcal are stone fruit, coriander, and buttered popcorn. While you might not find Cenizo agave as readily as the Oaxacan varieties, it’s a mezcal worth purchasing when you see it on the shelves.
Espadin agave is the agave variety most synonymous with mezcal, as it’s used in around 90% of mezcal production in the world.Espadin is the common term for the agave plant species Agave Angustifolia, a native of Oaxaca that is now the most widely grown agave plant in Mexico.
Espadin Mezcal reaches maturity between 12-14 years, although some farms document life cycles between 6 and 8 years. Espadin is an offshoot of Arroqueno and is also a sister species to the blue agave or agave Tequilana used to produce tequila. Espadin Mezcal has a subtly sweet palate with notes of herbs and citrus. As a close relative of blue agave, Espadin mezcal has a flavor palate that mirrors wide tequila varieties.
Notorious as one of the hardest agave plants to distill, Jabali mezcal is a deep green agave variety from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, where it’s regionally known as Lobo or Cuche. Jabali means wild boar in Spanish, which is an accurate description of this wildest of agave plant species that are known to destroy pot stills with foam during the distillation and cooking processes of mezcal production.
Mezcaleros who manage to tame the beast produce a delicious Jabali mezcal product with amazing earthy and spicy aromas that yield tasting notes of wood, baking spices, buttered crackers, and vanilla.
Karwinskii mezcal is an agave plant that you could mistake for a palm tree as its long stem and pina look like a tree trunk, ending in a bulb of spikey green leaves. Karwinskii mezcal is a wild agave variety found in Oaxaca that takes up to 18 years to reach maturity. The most popular mezcal variety to come from Karwinskii agave is called cuishe mezcal, which uses an open-air fermentation process and double distillation.
It produces a prized artisanal mezcal product that opens with a dry, herbaceous mouth feel. The mid-palate produces a strong fruity flavor that ends with a smokey, dry finish. Karwinskii is a rare agave variety as it is wild and has a long maturation process, but growers are looking for ways to domesticate it for the delicious mezcal it yields.
Known to Mexicans as the prettiest variety of agave, Mexicano agave or Maguey Mexicano is an Oaxacan highland native with at least 100 leaves sprouting in a perfectly globular structure. This species often grows out of rocky crevices and takes an average of 10 to 14 years to mature. Mexicano mezcal has an herbaceous scent, likened to Mexican herbs like epazote.
The palate is a subtly spicy, full-bodied flavor with notes of burnt wood, coffee, dry grass, and leather. It’s a rare mezcal variety that has a trifecta of sweet, spicy, and salty flavors, making mezcal Mexicano a popular sipping spirit for connoisseurs.
Also spelled tepextate, Tepeztate mezcal comes from the agave plant known as Agave marmorata, endemic to Oaxaca its northern neighbor, Guerrero. Tepeztate agave is another long-living agave variety with a 25-year maturity period. They’re from the mountainous highlands, often sprouting wild out of rocky cliffs, thus making them difficult to harvest. Tepeztate agave plants also have gorgeous yellow flowers, which signal their maturity.
If you’re a fan of savory spirits, Tepeztate mezcal is famous for its spicy and earthy flavors and aromas. You’ll get tasting notes of spicy peppers, fresh vegetables, and earthy aromas. Its spicy flavor profile makes it a great ingredient for a mezcal cocktail with sweet, tropical ingredients like mango or tamarind.
Perhaps the rarest mezcal agave variety of all, Tobala can’t reproduce on its own but instead relies on birds and bats to disperse and fertilize its seeds.Tobala mezcal became especially popular in the U.S. as a luxury mezcal variety, surpassing the popular Espadin mezcal. Tobala Mezcal grows in the pine forests of lower altitudes with a distinct rose petal shape.
It’s still one of the rarest and, thus, most expensive varieties of mezcal on the market. However, one taste of this prized mezcal will justify shelling out the extra cash. Tobala mezcal has a mix of spicy and floral notes with a wonderfully sweet palate. I would consider Tobala the ultimate sipping spirit.
A wild subspecies of agave Karwinskii, Tobaziche is one of 7 wild agave species growing in Oaxaca and Puebla. They are tall species that grow vertically instead of horizontally, with small pinas or hearts. They can reach up to 7 feet in height. They take up to 16 years to mature. They are also easier to cultivate, with wild populations less prominent than domesticated populations.
Like all Kawrinskii varieties, tobaziche has a low sugar content, resulting in a spicy and dry flavor profile that any savory spirit lover will cherish.Many liken the aroma of tobaziche mezcal to walking through a pine grove. Its tasting notes yield pine, epazote, sage, and bitter chocolate with a dry, bitter finish.
The presiding industrial authority that regulates mezcal in Mexico is known as the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal. They’re responsible for setting the regulations for ingredients and distilling processes for mezcal production. I’ll give you the low down on types of mezcal classifications according to those regulations.
All mezcal consists of cooked agave that’s been fire roasted, then fermented, and finally distilled. Mezcal is the most industrialized classification, using modern equipment to roast, ferment, and distill. Most major mezcal brands fall under the broader, more modern Mezcal classification.
You’ll see mezcal distilleries use diffusers and other high-tech equipment like steel fermentation vats and continuous column stills for mezcal production. This streamlines the process of mezcal production and makes it easier to mass produce.
Mezcal artisanal is the fancier, small-batch mezcal with a stricter and more specific list of regulations. It’s generally more expensive than the broader mezcal classification.
Mezcal artisanal uses more rudimentary equipment for agave roasting while allowing shredders to grind the agave. Distillation allows for clay pots or copper stills but not continuous column stills.
The rarest mezcal classification, mezcal ancestral, honors the original mezcal production procedures followed by the indigenous founders of the spirit.
Thus, mezcal ancestral must use clay pots and maguey fibers for distillation. They must use pit ovens for cooking the agave and rudimentary tools to shred the agave by hand. With stricter rules and a much more labor-intensive fermentation and distillation process, mezcal ancestral is hard to find. When you do find it, it will undoubtedly be the most expensive product on the shelves.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the aging times of mezcal?
· Joven- meaning “Young”, refers to unaged mezcal or mezcal that’s aged less than two months
· Reposado– Aged between 2 months and one year
· Anejo- aged between 1 and 3 years.
· Extra Anejo- aged for a minimum of 3 years.
What is the difference between mezcal and tequila?
While mezcal and tequila are both agave spirits, they differ in terms of the agave varieties used.
Tequila comes from the blue agave variety, namely, the blue weber agave plant that must comprise at least 50% of its makeup.
Mezcal comes from upwards of 50 different agave plant varieties and is thus a more all-encompassing spirit. However, unlike tequila, mezcal must be made of 100% agave with no added flavors or sugars.
Are there other agave-based spirits?
Agave spirits aren’t just limited to tequila and mezcal. The other agave spirits that exist include Sotol, Raicilla, and Bacanora.
Which is Your Favorite Type of Mezcal?
Mezcal is the original agave spirit, made from cooked, fermented, and distilled agave. In addition, it’s a 100% agave spirit with classifications specified by the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal, each following specific production guidelines.
There are 50 agave plant varieties used in mezcal production, each imparting a distinct flavor.
To help you distinguish and appreciate the different types of mezcal on the market today, I’ve gone over the most popular varieties as well as their classifications and aging designations. Let me know in the comments below which type of mezcal is your favorite.