The word Mezcal originates from the ancient Nahuatl word ‘Mexcalli’ which is divided into two words, ‘Metl’ and ‘Izcalli; which translate to cooked maguey (Agave). It is well known that over twenty types of Mezcales are currently produced within the Republic of Mexico. With a current population of over two hundred species of Agave, a hundred and fifty of them being native to Mexico. With the state of Oaxaca leading the way with thirty eight Agave species native to the region, while eight of them are used for Mezcal production, which include the Agave Angustifolia, better known as the Espadín Agave, Tepeztate, Mexicano, Tobalá (Potatorum), Cuixe (Karwinskii), Jabalí, Arroqueño and the Sierra Negra. Other states within the Republic use the Agaves native to their region to produce other types of Mezcales. The state of Sonora produces Bacanora, made from the Agave Angustifolia and Agave Rhodacantha. The state of Durango produces its Mezcal from the Agave Cenizo (Durangensis). While the state of Jalisco produces the most popular of Mezcales, Tequila, made from the Blue Tequilana Weber Agave.
As such, each Mezcal is miles different from one the next and must be treated with the utmost respect while its consumed, as Mezcal is an integral part of the Mexican culture. Full of history, legends, aromas, flavors and folklore, all of which incorporate a vast amount of traditional wisdom, regarding the cultivation and use of the Agaves. The final product depends on the species of Agave employed, the climate in which the Agave matured, the specific fermentation & distillation processes and finally, the container used to age it. Each Mezcal bottle contains aspects of an age old tradition, of the land that gives it life and the vast knowledge of each individual producer, known as the Maestro & Maestra Mescaleros. This alone sets Mezcal apart from other spirits, not to mention its immense pre-Hispanic and Mesoamerican history. The fact that we don’t know exactly where Mezcal originated from, as major influences derived from different cultures and peoples, give Mezcal a rich history that makes it impossible to know everything about it. Still a controversial issue within the Mezcal community, as historical evidence of the first stills can be traced back to ancient China and the Middle East, not to mention the various local legends as to how this, spirit of the Gods, came into the possession of humans.
One such local legend tells of Quetzalcóatl, a feathered serpent and God of Wind, falling in love with the virgin Goddess Mayahuel, the sacred fountain of water, granddaughter of Tzitzímitl a celestial demon of darkness intent on preventing the Sun from raising. Upon learning of this for forbidden love, Tzitzímitl killed Mayahuel, ripping her limb by limb, scattering her pieces throughout the ancient world of the Aztecs. Quetzalcóatl cried with the deepest of sorrow on the burial sites of Mayahuel and thus the sacred Agave plant was born. In his rage, Quetzalcóatl killed Tzitzímitl, causing the Sun to rise every day, and during the fight, a lighting bolt struck the Agave, causing it to cook and the ancient peoples then enjoyed tis sweet nectar, giving birth the the sacred spirit of the Gods, Mezcal. Other versions the legend state that Mayahuel transformed into the Agave to hide from her Grandmother Tzitzímitl. But however Mezcal came to be, its roots are heavily planted within the state of Oaxaca.
My personal self discovery and love affair for this spirit started with El Rey De Matatlán in 2017. Located in the central valley region of Oaxaca, in the town of Tlacolula, about an hour outside the city, the staff at El Rey De Matatlán showed me the variety of Agave grown and cultivated within the state of Oaxaca, the different aromas each Agave produces, and most importantly, they showed me how to properly drink Mezcal. I’ve come along way since the first sip of Mezcal when I stood in the bar of Rey De Matatlán. As with any other passion, my knowledge of Mezcal continues to grow and with each morsel of knowledge I gain, I grow more proud to call myself a native of Oaxaca, as Mezcal runs through the blood of every Oaxaqueño. As I stated earlier, it’s almost impossible to know everything there is to know about Mezcal, as new information of its origin are constantly discovered, new stories of its Maestros and Maestras in the field are told and new Mezcal labels introduced into the market.
For your consideration, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite Mezcal labels for you to read on, in hopes that you’ll give them a try and help support our local Mezcal producers back in Oaxaca. Should you be interested, send me an e-mail, and I’ll set up a private tasting for you, in which I’ll talk about the processes of producing Mezcal with a brief history lesson and of course, I’ll have you try three different Espadín Mezcales. And this is why I love Mezcal so much, as it can transcend through different lifestyles and cultures. It can be consumed in times of happiness and in times of sorrow. It brings us together to mark a special occasion in our lives, a wedding and even a death in our family. Making us contemplate that life is measured out in cycles. The land’s cycle is marked by the flowering and maturing of the Agave. For the Agave, a cycle is marked by the coming of the rains. For the horse, whose powerful muscles bear the weight of the massive round stone that grinds the cooked Agave hearts, a cycle is made after every turn of the stone. For the Mezcal distiller, the last drop of Mezcal out of the alembic represents the end of yet another working day. For the Mezcal drinker, the cycle begins every time a new bottle is opened. And what a true drinker looks for in Mezcal is heightened sensitivity, not dulling of the senses. Mezcal uplifts the senses, conversation flows more freely, eruditely even, and far more cheerfully when a bottle of Mezcal is given a place of honor, at the table.