Mezcal, the Father of Tequila

One of the most important contributions to Mexican cuisine and culture that comes to us from Oaxaca has got to be mezcal. It is unclear whether the native cultures ever mastered the art of distillation, but their Spanish conquerors certainly did. It did not take long for them to find that they could distill the liquid that was fermented by the native Zapotecs using the roasted and pressed hearts, called piñas, of the maguey agave. Its popularity grew rapidly. Protectionist economic policies of the Spanish Crown made the traditional European distilling of sugar cane and grapes illegal in the colonies, and a more affordable alternative, such as mezcal, was strongly encouraged by the colonial government as a source of tax revenues. The original mezcals were first known as aguardiente, or literally, fire water. As tequila, made almost exclusively with the blue Weber agave, was discovered and became more popular, the name mezcal became more common for the type of liquor derived from the types of the maguey agave. This is not to be confused with pulque, which is made from fermenting the sap of the living maguey. Today the most common maguey used is known as the Espadín. The vast majority of mezcal now comes from the villages in the highland valleys of central Oaxaca. A bottle of mezcal will often come with a worm in it. This is actually the larvae of a moth that eats the maguey. There are conflicting stories as to why. It is added after bottling. Some say that it is simply a macho marketing ploy. Some say that it is there to prove that the mezcal is fit to drink, if that makes sense, and still others state that the larva is there to impart flavor. Like tequila, mezcal has different denominations, according to how long it has been aged in oak casks. The blanco, or joven, meaning white or young, has a distictive smoky quality found nowhere else. Aging adds what I call a whiskying aspect to the original taste. It is almost always sipped straight, at room temp, often accompanied by a cold beer and a tray of salted peanuts fried with garlic cloves and served with lime. Much like tequilas, the village the mezcal is made in always imparts a special flavor, as soils, small climate variations, the exact type of maguey used, and exact recipes vary. There is some mass production, but the more memorable brands are artesanal. A village can contain dozens of production houses, called fábricas or palenques, each using their own secret methods that have often been passed down through generations, some using the same techniques practiced for over 400 years. As with tequila, the phrase “100% de agave” should be on the bottle. Everybody has their favorite, ours comes from the pueblo of Santiago Matatlán, nick-named the “Mezcal Capitol of the World”. The maguey was one of the most sacred plants in Mesoamerica, the fiber from the leaves, or pencas, was used to make rope, baskets, and even clothing. The spines were used for needles, punches, and nails. Foods were wrapped in the pencas while cooking to impart flavor, the plants themselves used for hedges, fences, and soil retention. The extract from the heart is used for a sweetener and flavor enhancer and, of course, to make mezcal.The Zapotec natives have a story behind the first mezcal. It is said that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it, releasing its juice. For this reason, the liquid is called the “elixir of the gods.” There is also a very popular saying around Oacaxa. “Para todo mal mezcal, y para todo bien también”, “For all things bad, mezcal, and for all things good as well”. Thomas Swanson can be reached at

by Thomas Swanson

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Celebrating twenty years of publishing weekly in Puerto Vallarta! Since 1997.

One comment

  1. A most interesting article regarding alcohol, that does not use the word once. In it’s place it is called “the elixir of the gods”, that has sent many of a man and women to either the underworld, or the upperworld of the Maya. It has been postulated that the Maya used alcohol to make their water drinkable when water contained in their earthen dams and waterways made it undrinkable during the ravaging droughts.

    The problem with alcohol is that it makes the blood acid – thus the name firewater. The pH value of blood normally is around 7.635 . If it goes down below 7, it becomes acid and begin destroying the brain and organs. When overly acid , the blood becomes poisonous and begin destroying the activity of enzymes in the body.

    The body keeps the blood at a constant alkaline value up to certain limits. A diet of green vegetation will provide for an alkaline pH value above 7, and red meat and alcohol will tend to make the blood acid below 7. Myself, I never drink alcohol, nor do I worry about the Maya upper and lower worlds.

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