The agave spirits category has been blowing up for a few years, with new brands of tequila and mezcal popping up on store shelves and back bars constantly. Tequila and mezcal sales climbed 17.4%, or $587 million, to reach $4 billion in 2020, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
Mezcal alone was up 17.7% or $19 million, totaling sales of $124 million. The spirit has come a long way from the harsh liquid—often packaged with a worm (technically moth larvae) in the bottle—that was rumored to make you hallucinate found on the market a few decades ago.
So what exactly is mezcal?
Like tequila, but technically not a tequila
Mezcal is the over-arching category of Mexican spirits fermented and distilled from several varieties of the agave plant. Contrary to popular belief, the agave is not a cactus but rather a member of the lily family.
Mezcal can be and is made all over Mexico, but primarily in Oaxaca. It can be produced from a number of different agave types.
All tequilas are mezcals, but tequila must be made exclusively from the Weber blue agave variety grown only in five Mexican states (chiefly Jalisco) following strict regulations.
Perhaps the biggest difference between tequila and mezcal is production processes. For tequila, the heart of the agave, called the pina, is shredded mechanically and then cooked in closed-kiln ovens.
For mezcal, the pinas bake in ember-lined pits that give the spirit its characteristic smokiness. The roasted pina are crushed by a volcanic millstone towed by a horse or mule. Whereas many tequilas are produced in quantity at large distilleries, mezcal is still made primarily by small independent artisans.
Growing infatuation with tequila has led to increased interest in and availability of mezcal; several large spirits companies have acquired mezcal brands. The popularity of mezcal has some concerned about the spirit’s supply and sustainability, as demand for it shows no sign of slowing.
Mezcal placed behind only tequila, hard seltzer and ready-to-drink cocktails among emerging categories that retailers expect to stock more in the next year, according to alcohol ecommerce company Drizly’s monitor of North America’s independent alcohol store owners and managers. Drizly sales show that mezcal’s share growth in 2020 vaulted 57% ahead of the previous year.
How to enjoy mezcal? A fine mezcal is suitable for sipping, but the spirit also mixes well. Use it in classics to add a smoky note to Margaritas, Palomas and Mules, among others.
Here’s an easy recipe to try the Tiger Lily, from the folks at Mezcal Ojo de Tigre.