What’s the worlds trendiest liqour? Mezcal. It’s tossed into copper “mule” mugs, Old Fashioned’s, and of course, margaritas throughout the country; Quiote in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has already gained fame for its bar dedicated exclusively to the smokey liquid.
The popularity of mezcal is something most restaurateurs can pinpoint, but most drinkers know very little about where it comes from, how it differs from its counterpart tequila, and how exactly its sudden boom will affect the alcohol markets. To even begin understanding mezcal, it’s important to understand that it is a misnomer.
Firstly, despite mezcal seeming like a niche varietal, its production is in fact a far more “inclusive” process than that of tequila. While tequila can only be made with blue agave, mezcal can be made with upwards of 30 different types, notably Agave Espadin. The latter can also be made in nine different regions of Mexico, though Oaxaca is by far the greatest producer, with over 80 percent of mezcal coming from that region. A piece on NPR noted that the increase in production in Oaxaca has greatly boosted the local economy, with ⅔ of its product heading to the United States.
Moreover, it’s important to know that mezcal is not by any means “new.” It’s not new to Mexico either, and has arguably been around for centuries. Researchers Jesus Carlos Lazcano Arce and Mari Carmen Serra Puche at the Anthropological Research Institute at Mexico’s National Autonomous University discovered mezcal production nearly 2,500 years ago in the pre-Hispanic city of Tlaxcala. The 10-year investigation reveals that it was not the Spanish who brought distilled goods to the country, but the product has been ingrained in local cultures for a millennia.
Finally, what a modern historiography of mezcal will quickly reveal is that American, high-class cocktail branding is in of-itself a fascinating misnomer. As a “tour of Oaxaca” in the New Yorker describes, mezcal traditionally functioned in Mexico as “hooch,” a home-distilled concoction that has eluded and overcome the many regulations thrust upon it. For many Mexicans even 15 years ago, putting mezcal in a fancy margarita would be analogous to putting moonshine in a Tom Collins.
Ultimately, this is an inexhaustive and incredibly brief analysis of mezcal, an alcohol that is sure to evolve into a staple behind the bar. But even equipped with this limited information, bartenders and restaurants can not only better reflect mezcal’s complex history and origins, but develop innovative ways to serve it up.