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What is Mescal?

A.E. Freeman
By A.E. Freeman
Updated May 16, 2024
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Mescal, or mezcal, is a type of distilled spirit made in specific regions of Mexico, where production is heavily regulated by the Mexican government. The liquor can only be produced in a number of Mexican states, using only certain kinds of agave varieties, and cannot be blended with any other spirit. The state of Oaxaca usually produces the most mescal for the country. This drink is available outside of Mexico and could grow in popularity as more people discover it.

Generally, mescal comes from a type of agave plant known as maguey. A number of different varieties of agave are used to create different types of the liquor. Tequila is a specific type of mescal made from the blue agave plant in the state of Jalisco. All tequilas are mescal but not all mescals are tequila.

The drink has a long history in Mexico, as the maguey plant was traditionally a sacred plant for the Aztecs. When the Spanish invaded the country in the early 1500s, they brought the art of distillation with them. Prior to the Spanish landing, people fermented the sap of the maguey plant to produce a drink known as pulque. Pulque was used to calm sacrificial victims, given to priests to help them prepare for rituals, and used as a medicine. Once they learned how to distill, the native Aztecs began to create mescal from the sap of the agave.

It usually takes several years to produce mescal, as the maguey plant takes up to 15 years to mature. When the agave plant has matured, the heart, also known as the Pina, is removed from the plant. The Pina is crushed and chopped up and usually placed over hot rocks in a deep pit. Hearts are usually covered with banana leaves or palms and then soil. They are left in the fire pit to roast for a number of days. In some cases, the hearts may roast for up to a month.

Once the hearts are roasted, they are ground and left to ferment for a week or more. Before the maquey is placed in the still, water is added to the mix. The maquey mixture is then distilled for a day, at which point it becomes mescal. Generally, the process of producing this spirit has remained the same since the region was introduced to distilling in the 1500s.

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