Sarah Bowen answers questions on the production and regulation of the most famous distilled agave spirits.
For centuries, people in Mexico have battled over the right to make and sell mezcal and tequila. Both have been awarded denominations of origin, meaning they can only be made in certain parts of Mexico, but the conflicts over how they are defined and protected have continued.
Editors note: This publication contains the video of the talk from the Fermentology webinar series, as well as a lightly edited transcript of the lecture.
For centuries, people in Mexico have battled over the right to make and sell mezcal and tequila, two of its most iconic products. The first mezcals, or distilled agave spirits, originated in the Colima volcanoes region in western Mexico. As distillation techniques spread into indigenous communities and mining centers and along trade routes, mezcal producers adapted their techniques to each region. As the distilleries near the town of Tequila began to expand in the late 1800s, people began referring to their mezcal simply as tequila, and Mexico’s most famous distillate was born. The tequila distilleries industrialized quickly. In contrast, most mezcal is still made by small distilleries. Eventually, both tequila and mezcal were awarded denominations of origin, meaning they can only be made in certain parts of Mexico. But the conflicts over how they are defined and protected have continued.
Cover image: Extracting sap from the maguey plant, Oaxaca, Mexico by unknown creator (public domain).
I'll start out by talking a little bit about where this all started. How did tequila and mezcal originate? People in Mexico have been battling over the right to make and sell mezcal and tequila, which are two of Mexico's most iconic products, for centuries. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl, meaning agave, and ixcalli, meaning cooked or baked. The colonial settlers first used the word mezcal to refer to the agave plants which they saw the Indigenous populations consuming and drinking in fermented beverages. There are more than 200 species of agave, which is also known in Mexico as maguey. Agave is a succulent that thrives in dry climates and is endemic to Mexico. Of those 200 species, 150 are found in Mexico, spread out all over the country.
Indigenous populations in Mexico have relied on agave for thousands of years, using it for food and fermented beverages (pulque is the one that's best known) and to make textiles, rope, and paper. Eventually, the word mezcal shifted to refer to the distilled agave spirits, which is how we understand it today.
There's some debate over whether the Indigenous populations in Mexico were distilling mezcal before the arrival of the colonialists, but there is agreement that it became really widespread starting in the 1600s. The first distilled agave spirits likely originated in Colima and the volcanoes region in western Mexico. The earliest documented references to mezcal are from 1619, but many people believe they were making it well before then.
If we're going to talk about making mezcal, we start with the agave. Historically, agave grew wild. People would harvest it and bring it back by donkey or on maybe even on their own backs. Over time, people started cultivating it, although people in some regions still use wild agave. The spines of the agave plant make it look like a big cactus, but botanically it's more closely related to flowering plants like hyacinths or asparagus.
Mezcal is made from many varieties of agave. There are some producers that still use wild agave, but tequila is made from one species only, Agave tequilana Weber, or blue agave. It's almost always grown in huge monoculture fields using chemical intensive practices.
One of the unique things about agave, and also one of the factors that has always made it hard to manage supply and demand, is that the blue agave that's used to make tequila takes six to eight years to mature after it's planted. The tequila companies are trying to push this to be shorter, and they have succeeded to some degree although that is not without controversy. Some of the other varieties of agave take much longer—as long as 15 years—to mature.
Once the spines of the plant have been chopped away by a jimador, an agave harvester, the piña, which means pineapple because it resembles one, is revealed. The jimador is a romanticized figure you might see on a distillery tour, chopping away at the piñas and wearing all white clothes. But these romantic images conceal how terrible the working conditions are for the jimadores in terms of both pay and the work itself, which is really hard on the body. People can't do it for all that long.
Once we have the piñas, they need to be roasted. Traditionally, mezcal producers would roast them in earthen pits. They would line these pits with stone, then cover the the piñas with layers of dirt, stone, and fiber mats. This is a process that takes several days and it gives mezcal its characteristic smoky flavor. Tequila has traditionally been made from piñas roasted in masonry ovens, and that's why it's less smoky in its taste. Some tequila and mezcal producers, the more industrial ones, also use autoclaves to cook the agave, which is faster and (they would say) more precise in terms of cooking.
After the piñas are roasted, they need to be chopped or mashed. Historically, this was done by hand. And some people still do it this way as we see here. This man is using a hollowed out canoe and a wooden mallet or ax to chop the piñas. And then as you can see, we haven't started talking about fermentation yet, but he's going to do that directly in the ground, which is relatively rare, but still happens. For chopping, other producers use a stone wheel called a tahona which can be pulled by a donkey, a horse, or a tractor.
These were introduced in some places during the colonial period and then the larger distilleries in Tequila started using mechanical shredders around 1950. But most of the small producers like this one still chop their agave by hand or use a tahona.
Once the piñas are chopped or shredded, the mezcal producers ferment the mash. Most traditional mezcals are fermented with the agave fibers mixed right in with the juices. The mechanical shredders and some of the tahonas press the juices out of the mash.
Fermenting just the juices is more efficient, and is much, much more common in the case of tequila. The process could take several weeks, or it could be a little shorter. Some mezcal producers ferment their mezcal in pits in the ground, while others use wooden, plastic, or cement vats or animal hides. Most mezcal producers do not add anything during fermentation, which makes the process take a long time. Industrial producers might add yeast or other things to speed it up.
Then we're finally ready for distillation. Mezcal producers slowly distill the fermented juices in wood fired stills. The first mezcal producers several hundred years ago likely used a version of what archaeologists call the Filipino still, which is an adaptation of the stills used by Filipino settlers to make coconut wine in the 16th and 17th century. The Filipino still consists of an earthen, stone, or wooden base, two metal pans, and a hollow tree trunk.
They build a fire in the base below the tree trunk, then one of the metal pans holding the fermenting mash is placed on top of the trunk directly above the fire. The second plan sits on top and cool water continually runs in and out of the top kettle. When the heat from the mash rises and hits the cooktop created by that water, condensation occurs. That resulting condensation, or mezcal, drips into an agave leaf that runs through a piece of bamboo and into the collection container.
After the first distillation, the liquid is drained and the mash removed so it can be distilled up to two or three times. The Filipino still was quickly adopted by mezcal producers because it was small, easy to transport, and made out of local materials. It can be installed and used to distill a batch and then disassembled and moved quickly without leaving behind a lot of evidence, which was important because mezcal production has been illegal throughout a lot of the last 400 years.
The larger distilleries in the case of both mezcal and tequila use copper or steel pot column stills. Tequila companies started adopting these as well as using masonry ovens to roast the agave in the late 1800s. They argued then, and still do, that the combination of the continuous stills and the masonry oven produce mezcals that are “purer” in terms of their taste and composition.
Distilled agave spirits likely originated in western central Mexico in the Colima volcanoes region with that Filipino still. Distilled spirits were subject to frequent and ongoing periods of prohibition by the colonial authorities, which drove production into isolated rural regions. Distillation techniques then spread northward into mining communities and along trade routes, and also southward into Indigenous communities.
As this happened, the mezcal producers adapted their techniques to every region. I think that what really makes mezcal unique and special is both that it is incredibly diverse and that that diversity is still tied to particular places. Today there are at least 200 species of agave, probably more like 40, that are commonly used to make mezcal. The type of agave, the production practices, and the equipment vary between regions, and sometimes even between towns or communities.
Agave might be wild or cultivated, and mezcal might be made with just one kind of agave or a blend of several different ones. Most often with mezcal, the piñas are roasted in the ground, although some of the larger distilleries use masonry ovens or autoclaves. They might then crush those piñas by hand with a tahona or with a mechanical mill. Most mezcal producers don't add anything during fermentation, but in some places they add a little bit of pulque and in industrial distilleries they might add yeast or other things to speed up fermentation.
The small producers often use clay or copper pot stills, which are often heated by a wood fire. Some use the Filipino still, and then some use column stills. So we can't say there's any one kind of mezcal, that would be like saying there's one kind of cheese or one kind of barbecue. The diversity of mezcal is really, I think, what defines it and what makes it special.
One of the questions that people ask me pretty often is the difference between tequila and mezcal. I've already hinted at it, but tequila is just the most famous version of mezcal, named after the town of Tequila in Central Jalisco. In the late 1800s, the tequila producers, or tequileros, in that town began to expand and industrialize, and as they did they started to differentiate themselves and industrialize faster than people who were making mezcal in other parts of Mexico. The tequileros were also among the first to start exporting their mezcal to the United States. By the late 1800s people started talking about the mezcal from Tequila and just shortening that to “tequila,” and there we have tequila. Technically, all tequila is actually mezcal. But all mezcal is definitely not tequila.
In the 20th century, the market for tequila was growing. The tequila producers sought protection from imposters outside of Jalisco who were trying to pass off their products as tequila. In 1949 the Mexican government established the first official quality standard for tequila, which stated that tequila could be made from just one variety of agave, Agave tequilana Weber, and that it had to be grown in the state of Jalisco, in western Mexico not so far from the Colima area where we think mezcal originated.
In practice though, it didn't do a whole lot to actually protect the tequila producers from people who were trying to produce tequila abroad and in other places. In an attempt to solve this problem and legally establish tequila as Mexico's national spirit, in 1974 tequila became one of the first products outside of Europe to get a denomination of origin.
Denominations of origin are generally established by countries and they give people in particular places the exclusive right to produce a certain food or drink. They also set the rules for how those foods or drinks must be produced. The idea is that the place confers a certain taste to the product and deserves to be protected. In the case of tequila, the denomination of origin gave Jalisco and small parts of four other states the exclusive right to produce tequila.
Twenty years later in 1994, mezcal followed suit and the Mexican government declared a denomination of origin for mezcal, and defined a territory which was the only place that mezcal could be produced. So even if you were to grow some agave, which you could definitely do, you couldn't call what you made mezcal or tequila unless you were in Mexico. You have to come up with a different name.
The controversial thing about mezcal is that although it is definitely Mexican, and so it makes sense that it would have this kind of protection, it's also a generic term. It's not a product from a specific community or a specific part of Mexico, so having a denomination of origin for mezcal is a little like having one for wine or beer in general. The other controversial part is that when they created a denomination of origin for mezcal they had to define how to make it, too.
At first, the government basically copied the standards for tequila almost exactly despite the fact that, as we've seen, mezcal is generally made by much smaller producers who use very different methods. This means that the original standard worked pretty well for producers like industrial tequila distilleries, but not as well for small-scale artisanal producers.
Most of the people that I talked to in the world of mezcal, most of the producers and retailers, wanted to follow in tequila’s footsteps. The intention was to scale up and standardize production in order to get as many people exporting and certifying as possible. But as the movement and the demand for traditional small-batch mezcals made by small producers have boomed, and in some cases even given these big distilleries a run for their money, the conversation has changed in ways that I think are pretty surprising.
The mezcal boom started six or seven years ago, and in the last few years US imports of mezcal have soared. In 2019 they increased by more than 50% and surpassed consumption in Mexico for the first time. Mezcalerías, or mezcal bars, have popped up in Mexico of course, but also in the US. There's a growing group of bartenders, consumers, and retailers that are aiming to promote, consume, and protect traditional artisanal mezcals.
These mezcals are presented in contrast to what one mezcal bar called “flavored or flavorless agave spirits”, those industrially produced tequilas and mezcals that they would say have no tie to Mexican history or heritage. With this have come some shifts in the rules that I did not predict when I started studying tequila back in 2003.
Throughout nearly this entire time that I was doing the research and then writing the book, there was really one story: that every negotiation of every standard, every change to the rules to define both mezcal and tequila was pushing in the direction of standardizing and industrializing production to benefit the biggest companies. This happened again and again. In 1949, they said tequila had to be made from 100% agave. And then they decreased it to 70% and then 51%, and at one time even tried, unsuccessfully, to decrease it to 30% agave.
Another example is that flavorings were allowed to be added to tequila. They didn't require that the agave used in tequila be fully matured. So a lot of the debates and the standards they were pushing just led to more industrialization. At first mezcal seemed to be following in the same footsteps and in many cases literally copying the same standards even though that really didn't make sense. Then a few years ago, right before I published my book, the Mezcal Regulatory Agency announced that it was proposing a huge shift in the rules.
They decided to require that mezcal be made from 100% agave, that producers list the type of agave used to make the mezcal, and a proposal that small producers have been telling me they wanted for years: to have separate definitions for mezcal, artisanal mezcal, and ancestral mezcal. They had public forums and invited people from throughout Mexico to debate, and then in 2017 the new rules were published with these three categories that defined certain types of mezcal.
Mezcal is the most open category. Producers can use pit ovens or autoclaves, they can use pot stills, they can use column stills. There's a lot of flexibility in terms of the mezcal producers. But to make ancestral mezcal, the most restrictive category, producers have to cook the piñas in direct fire pit ovens. They have to use the clay stills, which are pretty rare and mostly concentrated in a few communities.
This was a huge break. I had to rewrite the end of the book because I was so surprised and it was so different from anything else. I think it is really important in terms of trying to define the diversity of mezcal a bit more, to try to account for these ties to particular places and traditions. The process was more democratic than some of the previous iterations and at the same time it still defines mezcal, which is clearly the most important category, as being produced in a specific region. Other than that, it's really anything you want.
Of course, the categories also don't say anything about how the workers or farmers are treated, or even how sustainably the mezcal is produced. Still, I think it's a huge step in the right direction.
What does the future of mezcal and tequila look like? And what should you look for when you're shopping? People ask me that a lot, so I am cautiously hopeful. I think consumers are more informed than ever before. I think that for the most part things are changing for the better. We should be choosing mezcals and tequilas that are made from diverse and sustainably-produced varieties of agave, according to practices that have developed in particular places.
At the same time, the labels don't tell us everything. As I said, they don't tell us much about how the workers or farmers are treated. Some of these changes can't come from the market. They have to come from laws. They have to come from the outside. But I'm still hopeful about the future of mezcal and the people that make it. And before I take questions, I'm going to show you a few bottles of my own and kind of talk a little bit about some of the things you might look for on a label.
I thought I'd start with a tequila. I'm in North Carolina, and all of our liquor is sold in state-owned ABC Stores so we don't have a ton of options here. But here is a pretty normal bottle of tequila. Tequila really doesn't have a lot of information on the label, so there's not much for me to say. I think the most important thing to look for, if you remember nothing else, is that your tequila should always say 100% agave. That's true no matter what you're using it for.
If it doesn't say 100%, that means it's almost definitely 51% agave and then 49% something else. It's usually sugarcane that's making up that spirit. Tequila is also going to tell you if it is blanco, or joven, or reposado, añejo, or super añejo. Those are categories that are regulated. They just mean how long it's aged. People have preferences about that, but I don't think that is indicative of the quality. I like unaged tequila, which is also the cheapest, because I think it's the purest but other people like the more aged tequilas.
But really, there's not a lot of information about tequila on the label. It's going to tell you where the distillery is, and if it's 100% agave it's definitely going to be bottled in Mexico. If it's not, it can be shipped in bulk and bottled outside the country. But the label doesn't usually tell you a lot about the production methods.
Now I want to show you two mezcals. The labels on both of these are a little bit old, so they are from before when they had the three categories.
Here's one I got in Mexico. If it had been sold in the US, it would look a little bit different. On the back of the bottle it says the type of agave. This one is from one type of agave: cenizo gigante. The label also has the name of the producer, the community of that producer, and the state. Then it describes how the agave was cooked, crushed, fermented—this one took only eight days—and distilled. This one was made in clay pot stills. And of course it lists the alcohol percentage.
That is a lot of information, especially if you compare it to the tequila. I think it's an especially good sign when it says the name of the person that produced it, when it's not hidden by the brand. In some cases, they might even mix mezcal made by different producers altogether and kind of homogenize it. This mezcal is tied to a specific batch, and the label actually says how many liters were produced in that batch and the year.
I will just point out, this is a mezcal. I would consider it a mezcal, the producer that makes it would consider it a mezcal, and the community and family that make it have been making mezcal for several generations. But at least when this label was made, the region where it was made was not within the denomination of origin so it doesn't say mezcal at the top. It says Mexican agave distillate. That's the heart of the controversy.
Here is another bottle from the ABC Store in North Carolina. You can get more traditional mezcals here, although it's pretty hard. This label has many of those same categories: the type of agave, the name of the person who produced it, the grind, the still, the parcel, and how it is made. I think that is the really fascinating and important thing about mezcal, that there is that much diversity.