There are few spirits with a greater sense of place than mezcal. One sip of the smoky, agave spirit and you are immediately transported to the palm tree-lined, sunny climes of Mexico. To be specific about it, you are taken to Oaxaca, a mountainous, largely rural state in the southwest. Locals have been producing the spirit since the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers introduced distillation techniques to the region. Today, both in and outside of Mexico, mezcal is having a moment.
Production surged from just under one million liters in 2011 to 7.1 million in 2019, according to the Mezcal Consejo Regulador, a Mexican regulatory body—a 600% increase.
“People are learning there is more to mezcal than the homogenized flavors we’re used to from the spirits world,” says Lou Bank, the Chicago-based founder of Sacred, a nonprofit that supports mezcal producers. “They’re then diving into that different world to better understand it.”
For American consumers, mezcal provides a smoky, sophisticated alternative to tequila (which is, in fact, a type of mezcal.) And because mezcal still lags way behind other liquors, making up just 0.06% of the global alcohol market, there also remains a whiff of exclusivity about it, which appeals to a certain hipster-leaning sipper. Popular brands like Ilegal, Madre, and Doña Vega lean into this aesthetic with art-forward, edgy branding.
What Is It?
Watching mezcal be made is almost as enjoyable as drinking it. First, the agave plant is stripped of its leaves down to its heart, or piña, which does, in fact, resemble a pineapple. The piñas are quartered and roasted for up to a week over river stones in an earthen pit, layered with dried and shredded agave pulp. Afterward, an enormous stone wheel, powered by donkeys, crushes the piñas. After fermentation, the mash is distilled in copper stills. Most mezcaleros still insist on doing it in this old-school way, proudly spurning modern efficiencies.