Vamos Agave! All about Tequila & Mezcal

The expert horticulturists who tend and harvest agave are called jimadores

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The expert horticulturists who tend and harvest agave are called jimadores. They know the exact moment of ripeness.

The expert horticulturists who tend and harvest agave are called jimadores

© Shutterstock

It takes about one agave plant to make a bottle of Tequila or mezcal – and on average, 400 million agave hearts are distilled every year. But agave’s home nation, Mexico, is now
just a small player in the market: about 75% of Mexico’s Tequila production is exported – and the United States in particular cannot seem to get enough of agave distillates. While Tequila is flying high, mezcal has performed spectacularly well in its slip-stream. An interesting development since every Tequila is in fact a mezcal. Mezcal is the name for all agave distillates. Tequila was coined when mezcal from the Mexican state of Jalisco was exported to America – labelled Mezcal de Tequila.

Over time, the name was shortened and only Tequila remained – the name of Jalisco’s state capital. It was the invention of the Margarita cocktail that ensured its popularity. While mezcal can be made anywhere, Tequila production is restricted to Jalisco which still produces 80% of Tequila and smaller areas in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán and Guanajuato – and only one type of agave is permitted: the blue Weber agave (Agave tequilana Weber). But caveat emptor: the category of mixtos, allows distillates of agave with up to 49% of other fermentable sugars from raw materials like maize – which are obviously cheaper to produce than 100% agave distillates. By law, Tequila must be made of at least 51% agave. 

The agave plant, part of the asparagus family, and distinctly not a cactus, despite its spiky looks, is key to Tequila and mezcal’s quality. The plant thrives in arid and semi-arid regions and roughly 200 kinds of agave are found in Mexico, of which about 50 are used for mezcal production. Some are used for syrup production, some as animal feed, some for their fibre. Most agaves only flower once in their lifetime and then die. They store their sugars in their heart, or piña.

The inflorescence must be trimmed before flowering and the agave heart harvested when its sugar content is highest. Agaves take years to mature and require careful trimming by highly skilled so-called jimadores. Thus, even in periods of great demand, agave production is not easily scaled.

Agave plants are not cacti but belong to the asparagus family. They thrive in arid and semi-arid regions

Agave plants are not cacti but belong to the asparagus family. They thrive in arid and semi-arid regions

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Taste of the land

Mezcal, on the other hand, permits more kinds of agave which gives more scope for flavour – and here is where Tequila and mezcal differ from other spirits: there is a real flavour and taste difference depending on the raw material. In whisky or vodka the provenance of the grain is of little importance. In Tequila and mezcal it is.

Purists thus prefer unaged agave distillate since it expresses its flavours more clearly. Mezcals distilled from coastal or highland agave differ. “The chemical composition differs significantly, depending on the character of agave and the natural yeasts,” says mezcal expert Araceli Minerva Vera Guzmán. In an industry where raw materials are essentially fungible, agave distillates are an exception. Restricted to specific origins and taking years to cultivate, agave is a limited resource.

The golden colour of aged mezcal.

The golden colour of aged mezcal.

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Flavour and demand

Despite significantly increased mezcal production over past years, the four million litres produced annually do not even come close to satisfying global demand. The completely artisanal version of mezcal, called mezcal ancestral, is even rarer with an annual production of just 5,000 litres. Collectors go wild for this spirit. But there are even more unusual versions of mezcal: some artisanal mezcals are re-distilled with tropical fruits and herbs. So if you want a real experience, go for 100% agave distillates and start exploring the different kinds of agave, some of which are made from single varieties: Espadín, Tobala, Tobasiche, Arroqueno, Tepeztate, Madrecuishe, Bicuishe, Cupreata and more are waiting to be discovered. 

 

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