The word Mezcal originates from the ancient Nahuatl word Mexcalli, which divide into two words, Metl (cooked) and Izcalli (Agave). It’s well categorized that over 20 types of Mezcales are distilled from Agave within the Mexican Republic. The Agave succulent has a current population of over 200 species, 150 of which are native to Mexico, with the state of Oaxaca leading the way with 38 species native to its region; 8 of which are used for Mezcal production. One being 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 own 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 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 unique variants of the Agave, the artisanal process utilized to cook, distill and ferment the Agave, as well as the water chosen to distill the Mezcal, 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 seven 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 13 to 15 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 Maestro or Maestra Mescalero(a). These influences set Mezcal apart from other spirits, not to mention its immense pre-Hispanic and Mesoamerican history it has under its belt. We don’t know exactly where Mezcal originated from as major influences derived from different cultures and peoples, this gives Mezcal a rich history that makes it near impossible to know everything about it. Even now evidence is being uncovered of the first stills that are traced back to ancient China and the Middle East, not to mention the various legends as to how this, spirit of the Gods came into the possession of humans.
One such legend tells of Quetzalcóatl (feathered serpent and God of Wind) falling in love with the virgin Goddess Mayahuel the sacred fountain of water and granddaughter of Tzitzímitl, the celestial demon of darkness intent on preventing the Sun from raising. Upon learning of this forbidden love, Tzitzímitl killed Mayahuel by ripping her limb by limb and 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 from the charred body of the Agave, 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. But wowever Mezcal came to be, its widely accept its roots are heavily planted within the state of Oaxaca.
During the 1920’s, 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 Mezcal 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. And 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. However, in recent years thanks to labels as Cuish and Mezcaloteca which promote local distillers, more Maestras are gracefully represented within our industry.
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. 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, such as a wedding or even a death in the 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.
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- Artes De Mexico #98: Mezcal Arte Tradicional