The word Mezcal originates from the ancient Nahuatl word Mexcalli. Divided in two words, Metl and Izcalli, which translate to cooked maguey, or Agave. It’s well thought that over twenty types of Mezcales are currently distilled from the Agave plant within the Mexican Republic. The Agave has a current population of over two hundred species, a hundred and fifty of them native to Mexico, with the state of Oaxaca leading the way with thirty-eight species native to its region. Eight of which, are used for Mezcal production, including the Agave Angustifolia, better known as the Espadín Agave. Other Agave species included the Tepeztate, Mexicano, Tobalá (Potatorum), Cuixe (Karwinskii), Jabalí, Arroqueño and the Sierra Negra. Other states within the Republic use the Agave which are native to their region, to produce other variations of Mezcales. The state of Sonora for example, 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. Because of the vast variation of Agave, the artisanal process utilized to cook, distill and ferment, as well as the water chosen to distill Mezcal, whether it be river or well water, each Mezcal is miles different from one the next. As such, Mezcal must be treated with the utmost respect while consumed, as a bottle of Mezcal can take on average ten years to produce. On account of the years it takes for the Agave to mature. The domesticated Espadín Agave for example, can take between seven to ten years to mature, and the Agave found in the wild, as the Tobalá or Karwinskii, can take anywhere between thirteen to fifteen years to mature.
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 Agave and Mezcal. The final product depends on the species of Agave employed, the climate in which the Agave matured, the specific fermentation and distillation process 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 or Maestra Mescalero(a). 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 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 lightning bolt struck the Agave, causing it to cook and the ancient peoples then enjoyed this sweet nectar, giving birth to the sacred spirit of the Gods, Mezcal. Other versions the legend state that Mayahuel transformed into the Agave to hide from her Grandmother Tzitzímitl. However Mezcal came to be, its widely accept its roots are heavily planted within the state of Oaxaca.
During the 1920’s, contribution by the women of Oaxaca to the history of Mezcal has virtually gone unnoticed. Through their contribution, the women of Oaxaca marked a decisive factor of the industry's survival during Mexico’s prohibition era. An era when Mezcal was fabricated and distributed clandestinely. Women working in the industry were known as Mezcalilleras or Mezcaleras. During prohibition, women turned to its distribution as a perfect complement to their husband’s work, acting as business administrators and pillars of the family during the long periods of time when the men would go into the mountains to produce Mezcal illegally. Up until the 1970’s, women primarily sold Mezcal in bulk, door-to-door in neighboring communities within Oaxaca and at the time, Maestra Mezcaleras were unheard of. As with cooking, the feelings and emotions of the Maestro or Maestra, are infused into the Mezcal during its production. If they’re were happy or of sweet nature, the Mezcal will be sweet, however, should they have strong tempers, the Mezcal will have a more, dry, punchier aroma.
Mezcal runs through the blood of every Oaxaqueño. Aforementioned, it’s almost impossible to know everything there is to know about Mezcal, as new information of its origin are constantly being discovered, new stories of its Maestros and Maestras in the field are told and new Mezcal labels are introduced into the market as its popularity grows. And this is why I love Mezcal, 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. Having 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.