Mezcal, Tequila's Country Cousin, Finds Its Own Spotlight

Arturo Dozal didn’t care for alcoholic beverages until he tried mezcal.

“All the drinks I tried, they seemed terrible to me,” says Dozal, who opened a mezcal bar called Bósforo in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico last year. “But a good mezcal, you try it and it takes you to the cosmos. It’s like every mezcal has its own tiny ecosystem.

Mezcal, a distilled Mexican spirit often stereotyped as tequila’s country cousin, is experiencing a boom in Mexico City, with several new mezcalerías catering to the city’s young hip set. Most of these bars focus on small-batch, artisanal varieties not available in the United States

Mezcal is also finding an audience abroad. Bars specializing in mezcal, not tequila, recently opened in both Los Angeles and New York. Foreign exports of government-certified mezcal have grown 33 percent since 2005, according to SAGARPA, Mexico’s agriculture ministry.

“People used to think of mezcal as the Mexican souvenir with the sombrero and the worm,” says Angélica Cruz, SAGARPA sub-director of agribusiness. “That’s changing.”

Mezcal fans rhapsodize about the drink having a clean, almost plant-like taste. It can be smoky, floral or fruit-infused. Unlike tequila, which is made from only one specific type of agave, mezcal can be made from 30 different maguey plants, including wild varieties.

Some mezcals are still made using artisanal techniques, which include baking the core of the maguey, called the piña, in an earthen oven and then pulverizing the fibers with a giant grinding stone.

The word mezcal can be traced to Aztec times, when it signified the sweet, cooked pieces of the maguey plant, says Edmundo Escamilla, a Mexico City-based historian and co-author of the book “Mezcal, Nuestra Esencia.”

Although the Aztecs didn’t make mezcal -- distilled beverages didn’t arrive in Mexico until after the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century -- the drink eventually integrated itself into Mexican culture, becoming the standard beverage at weddings, baptisms and wakes. Tequila is also technically considered a mezcal, as a distilled beverage made from maguey.

While it was popular among the people, mezcal wasn’t regulated by the Mexican government until the 1990’s. Today the beverage, like tequila, has a Denomination of Origin, meaning certified Mexican mezcales come only from seven states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato and Durango.

According to government law, the drink must contain between 36 and 55 percent alcohol by volume. A small percentage of mezcales can contain up to 20 percent of other sugars. The majority must be made with 100 percent agave.

Not everyone is happy with mezcal’s growing profile. Cornelio I. Pérez Ricárdez, known locally as “Tío Corne,” is a member of Mezcales Tradicionales de los Pueblos de México, a volunteer group that seeks to preserve the beverage as a premium, artisan-made spirit.

He says a traditional mezcal should contain at least 45 percent alcohol by volume, and that it shouldn’t contain any foreign chemicals. He also dismisses the government’s Denomination of Origin marker, because it doesn’t include 14 other Mexican states that make mezcal.

Raul Yrastorza, general manager of Las Perlas mezcal bar in Los Angeles, said in an e-mail that the biggest thing mezcal has going for it is that it’s not tequila. He called aged tequilas as “too sweet.”

“Mezcal is in a class all by itself,” Yrastorza said.

Lesley Téllez is a freelance writer in Mexico City, where she also gives food and beverage tours.

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