Definition and production
The mezcal market still largely depends on small-scale distillation. Produced on farms, some of which are situated over 2,000 metres above sea level (San Luis del Rio), mezcal production fits naturally into the agricultural cycle, rarely exceeding 400 litres per month.
Mexican eau de vie made from the fermented and distilled juice of the agave fruit, grown in seven legally-authorised states. There are several varieties of agave used in mezcal production: espadin, tobalà, papalote, tripón, tepeztate and largo.
Step 1 - From agave fruit to agave juice
Once the agave has been pulled up from the soil, the fruit is stripped of its leaves to uncover its heart: the ‘piña’. A 70kg piña produces about 10 litres of alcohol. Chopped into two or four, the piñas are then placed in ovens (or ‘palenques’) dug directly into the ground. These ovens are cone shaped, more than 3 metres wide and about 2.5 metres deep; they are paved with stones that are heated for 24 hours before use. The piñas are then covered with moist fibrous remains from previously crushed fruit, buried under a heap of palm and agave leaves and left to cook for two to three days. Once cooked, they are uncovered and left to rest in the open air for a week. A first, natural, fermentation begins at this point. Then the piñas are crushed and mashed by a stone mill, turned by a donkey or horse. The pulp, juice and fibres are mixed with water (about 10%) in order to produce a sugary liquid.
Stage 2 - Fermentation and distillation
The resulting fibrous liquid is poured into a wooden vat. A second natural fermentation occurs which can take from one to four weeks. The mezcal is then distilled twice or, in exceptional cases, three times. The distillation is usually in copper (introduced by the Spanish) or ceramic (introduced by the Chinese) stills. The must is poured into the still with a portion of the fibrous agave residue. When the first distillation has finished the still is emptied before the second distillation.
Step 3 - The mezcal ageing process
Traditionally, mezcal is aged in ceramic jars. However, stainless steel vats are increasingly replacing these. The introduction of casks is relatively recent (1950) and are usually old bourbon casks. Sherry casks are used for the special vintages.