Mexico's Traditional Spirit Mezcal Takes Over U.S. Bars

A traditional Oaxacan spirit long enjoyed by southern Mexico’s ranchers, mezcal is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity north of the border.

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    Premium producers, however, have relied on careful marketing to sell their products in high-end retail outlets, bars, and restaurants in Mexico City. These bottles are on display in the Abarrotes bakery and delicatessen in the capital city’s trendy Roma neighborhood.
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    Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave.
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    Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from a wide variety of wild and domesticated agave plants. Tequila is only made using agave azul.
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    Although it is the size of a cactus, the agave plant is actually closer genetically to a household lily plant.
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    In the first step of mezcal production, the agave’s long tough leaves are clipped off. The plant’s core, once clipped, is called a piña because it looks like a pineapple.
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    Unlike tequila which is mostly produced in industrial distilleries, most mezcal is still produced by small family operations that use wood-fired ovens.
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    The agave piñas are placed on a bed of hot rocks and smoking wood-fire charcoal and covered with leaves and dirt. It’s a slow-roasting process that softens the agave, releasing sweet honey-colored agave nectar. The smoke and flavor from the fire is absorbed directly into the agave during the roasting cycle.
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    Danzantes is one of the original and most well-known premium mezcal companies that have helped to re-introduce the rustic spirit to a new generation of fans in Mexico City and farther away.
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    Danzantes, like most artisan mezcal producers, uses a giant, stone, grinding wheel to mash the roasted agave.
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    Inside a circular palenque high in the hills above Oaxaca City a grinding stone sits idle.
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    A worker watches the agave mashing process.
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    A worker shovels agave as a horse pulls the grinding stone.
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    Unlike tequila mezcal is still produced using techniques that have been passed down through generations of mezcal makers.
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    Although demand for mezcal is increasing, many producers worry that industrializing production will cause mezcal to lose its essential flavors and characteristics.
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    After the agave is mashed it is placed in wooden barrels called tinas to ferment.
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    After the agave pulp ferments, the liquid is extracted.
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    Most distilleries used woodfire powered copper stills to purify and distill the clear mezcal blanco.
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    At one of Danzantes’ suppliers, the distillation equipment sits directly in front of the stream that serves as the water source for the mezcal.
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    After the mezcal is distilled, it is bottled. Inside the Danzantes distillery, production manager Karina Abad holds up bottles showing the labels the company uses in the U.S. (left) and Mexico (right).
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    Inside Danzantes’ testing room workers check for impurities and measure alcohol content. Most premium mezcals have an alcohol content of near 49 percent.
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    The streets in the hills around Oaxaca City are lined with small stands that market their products to passing drivers.
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    Many small-scale producers sell their mezcal in disposable plastic containers.
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    Most small producers are not currently exporting their mezcal outside of the state. High in the sierra of Oaxaca a man prepares a glass of mezcal for a passing motorist.
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    Mezcal on display alongside wine. Micaela Miguel, Abararrotes’ owner explained “Ten years ago you found [mezcal] in very few places. It wasn’t viewed very highly. Now it’s cool.”
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    High-end mezcals on sale for 790 pesos (US$61) in Abarrotes.
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    Retailers in Mexico City are relying in part on rising interest in local, artisan-produced Mexican products. The sign behind the counter at Abarrotes says, “A selection of artisan products, in the majority national [ones].”
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