Everything you need to know about tequila and mezcal
Author: Sophie Thorpe
Tequila and mezcal are spirits that owe everything to their raw ingredient. It is the character of agave – the spiky succulent that grows in Mexico’s hot, arid climate – that gives these spirits their earthy, smoky flavour. They have inherent terroir; it’s about that plant, in that place.
And we’re drinking more of it than ever before. Last year, Mexico produced more than 350 million litres of tequila, up 45% since 2014. A huge 70% of that is being exported, mainly to the US. While still on a much smaller scale, mezcal production more than trebled between 2014 and 2018, reaching more than 5 million litres. When our Spirits Buyer Rob Whitehead first took over buying spirits in 2010, Berry Bros. & Rudd didn’t stock any agave spirits. Now, there are a dozen lining our shelves from five different producers, with the range rapidly growing to meet customer demand.
So what is it about these unique spirits that have seen their reputation – and their sales – grow so much in the last few years? With some help from Rob, we break down their unique flavour, their styles and their production process.
Tequila and mezcal
While these two products tend to be talked about as though they’re separate entities, the connection between them is still a source of confusion to many consumers. The reality, though, is actually quite simple: tequila has to be made in the state of Jalisco and a few other municipalities in neighbouring states, and only with blue agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, is much more varied: it can be made in eight different areas of Mexico, and can be made with more than 40 different types of agave (also known as maguey).
In layman’s terms, it’s as simple as knowing that all tequilas are mezcals, but only a few mezcals can be called tequila. The confusion that remains, though, is a contributor to some of the misconceptions people have about agave spirits: specifically the idea that mezcal is an upmarket alternative to tequila that’s better for sipping. There are plenty of mezcals on the market that make beautiful sipping spirits, but there are lots of fantastic tequilas, too.
Mezcal’s artisanal history
Mezcal is made far and wide across Mexico, with so many different species of agave. As our Buyer Rob Whitehead explains, this results in mezcal being perceived as “more characterful, and less safe” than many tequilas, often with more intense and varied flavours. They’re often made in a more “traditional” way, and almost invariably in smaller volumes and limited-run batches. Before the last generation of producers, mezcal was almost exclusively consumed by those who made it, or sold to their neighbours. It’s only relatively recently that this spirit has been commercialised.
The core ingredient
Each type of agave offers its own specific flavour profile, thriving in different soils and microclimates, needing more or less time to mature. Espadín is the most common variety used for mezcal, but Tepextate is often deemed the best – largely because this enormous breed has a low sugar content (meaning more is needed to produce the same volume of mezcal), and can take up to 30 years to mature (versus eight to 12 years for Espadín). Today the type of agave, as well as where it grows, takes pride of place on mezcal bottles. Furthermore, where field blends were once the norm, there’s a move towards varietal expressions, celebrating the diversity of agave.
The production process
Of course, it isn’t just about the raw ingredient; there is extraordinary craft involved in producing tequila or mezcal – and very little has changed in the way it’s made. Once mature, a jimador harvests the agave by hand, using an axe or machete to cut down the agave plant and remove its spiky leaves (which would otherwise add a bitter note to the final spirit). The heart of the plant that remains is the piña, which is chopped in half and cooked, softening the piña for milling and converting the complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. Traditionally this takes place in stone-lined pits in the ground, or earthenware ovens – and, generally speaking, the slower the cooking, the better. The cooked piña is then ground: for smaller producers this takes place in a stone pit, with a one-ton stone wheel – a tahona – turned by horse or ox (although this stage of the process is now mechanised at larger producers).
Next comes the fermentation – with all the same decisions that you’d imagine for wine, from the sort of yeast used to the length and temperature, impacting the final flavour. Time is key here: the longer and slower the fermentation, the more complex the resulting liquid will be – and it can take anything from 24 hours to several weeks. The resulting liquid is then distilled, normally twice in small pot stills, with the aim of a lower alcohol level to retain as much flavour as possible. The spirit is then either bottled or aged in oak (normally ex-Bourbon casks) and then bottled.
Most important, Ben Schroder explains, is that there is no recipe, there are no written rules or measurements. “A lot is based on smell and aroma, about knowing when the ferment or fire is ready; it would take a long time for a master mezcalero to train someone else, because it’s all based on feeling.” With such craft credentials, it’s no surprise that mezcal has become the bartender’s drink of choice – and one that’s fast gaining ground with those on the other side of the bar.
Agave and sustainability
As agave spirits rocket in popularity, the road ahead isn’t necessarily easy. Climate change poses a challenge, and there is also the question of sustainability. With such a slow-growing crop, supply is struggling to meet the rising demand – and, as a result, the price of raw agave is increasing. It’s encouraging, however, to see significant players like Patrón pushing for sustainability, especially when it comes to waste management. They take any waste agave (all but the piña) from both their own production and that of any neighbours to make organic compost, which in turn is offered free to other producers; as well as using reverse osmosis to enable them to recycle excess distillate as water.
The future of agave
So what’s next? While historically, tequila might have been destined for margaritas and other cocktails, the emphasis today – especially with mezcal – is on enjoying these spirits solo. But cocktails will undoubtedly remain the gateway to agave spirits for new consumers. From being the top of everyone’s holiday destination wish list, to our enthusiasm for the nation’s vibrant art, culture and flavours, this might just be Mexico’s moment – and it’s possible agave spirits are riding the wave. But these remarkable spirits can’t just be a fad. As Rob Whitehead explains, “Agave is so tasty, so weird, so mad, so characterful: there’s nothing like it.”
Two of our favourites
This is the first Tequila we ever stocked and is the perfect start for any voyage into the world of agave. Deliciously smooth and smoky with vegetal intensity, this benchmark unaged Tequila tastes exactly as it should. (£55.55)
This extraordinary spirit is closer to a fine single malt than anything else. Aged in American oak for a year, then distilled a third time, this Tequila spends time in new French oak, and then ex-Bordeaux barrels (hence the name, Burdeos, which is Bordeaux in Spanish). The result is viscous with layers of toffee popcorn, caramel, vanilla and dried fruit – but still with an underlying earthiness that speaks of its agave roots. (£250)