It’s the agave. No other spirit has the same base fruit and there’s nothing like agave in the world. It’s a true dinosaur in horticultural terms, totally different from nearly everything else humans cultivate, and truly extraordinary because of this. Consider this, if you want to make whiskey you get some grain, soak it, ferment, it, distill it. If you want to make more whiskey, you get more grain. You can grow multiple crops of grain annually. It grows in a wide variety of places and it has a very predictable growth cycle. The same story is true of whatever else you like to drink; corn = bourbon, grapes = cognac, grappa, and many other spirits, sugar cane = aguardiente, rum, etc, and fruits are the basis of eau de vie. All of the fruits mentioned above produce fruit annually and you can either, like grain, grow it every year, or like grapes, get a new crop every year.
Agaves take a minimum of four years to mature, usually more in the range of 8-10 years. And once you harvest them, you kill them. Yup, you heard me right. Once you spend all that time raising agave and you harvest it, you have to start all over again and spend another decade before a plant is ready for harvest. If you’re smart you have crops scheduled for maturity so that you know that you’ll be able to make mezcal consistently years down the road. Of course, you only know that you’ll be able to make as much as you plant now so if demand increases you may not be able to deal with it. Or, if no one wants mezcal in a decade, you may have a lot of bottles eating up space and lost revenue. If that wasn’t tough, agaves also have rather unique methods of reproduction which have made it difficult to grow them from seed with the regularity of other fruits. That’s changing with an increased amount of experience and research but most agaves still aren’t grown in a straightforward seeding method.
While worms do live in agave roots and are an intrinsic part of some Mexican cuisines, the worm in the agave bottle can be dated back to a marketing campaign in the post-WWII era. Someone had the brilliant idea of putting a worm in a bottle to distinguish their mezcal on the liquor store shelf, and that little marketing twist came to define mezcal for North Americans. Worms aren’t necessarily terrible, some mezcals with worms have a wonderfully savory flavor, but they aren’t intrinsic to mezcal. Nor are they hallucinogenic. So get that idea out of your head as well.
If you’ve had gusanos, it has most likely been in a sal de gusano, accompanied by orange slices. Dried and then ground with chile, salt and lime, it packs an umami punch and makes for a great “secret” ingredient in cooking and cocktail making. The dried gusano itself is full of intense flavor which can be overwhelming for people trying it for the first time. But why is the gusano paired with mezcal? In fact, it lives in the agave, mostly on the penca leaves and is just one of the living creatures that finds shelter, and food, from the agave.
Other agave residents or frequent visitors include rabbits, foxes, bats, birds (hummingbirds and bats), butterflies and more. It’s a little ecosystem unto itself, and the worms are part of a healthy, symbiotic relationship.
The main ways of distinguishing mezcals are by the type of agave in them and where they’re from. Oaxaca produces most mezcal and most of that is made from a single agave called espadín. So, most of what you’ll find will be Oaxacan espadín. But there are also a wide variety of other agaves from Oaxaca on North American shelves with names like tobala, arroqueno, madrecuishe, and many others. Other emerging mezcal producing states include Michoacan and Guerrero both of which generally use an agave called cupreata. Durango is another mezcal producing state with bottles appearing on North American shelves. Much of the mezcal in Durango is made from an agave called duranguese (of course!)
Just to add a bit of complexity to the topic, there are a few other names that describe mezcals from a particular area and they each have their own DO, Raicilla and Bacanora. Like tequila, Raicilla is a mezcal made in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which falls outside of the DO for Mezcal. Also, because the blue agave is not used to make Raicilla, it falls outside of the DO for tequila. Then there is Bacanora from the Mexican state of Sonora.
Sotol isn’t actually made from an agave plant but it’s made the same way as other mezcals and tastes similar, hence why it is often lumped together with mezcal. It also has its own DO and includes the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango.
Everyone has a theory but the easiest answers are:It’s new: While you’ve been able to find mezcal for a while it really has only been widely available in North America for the past decade.It’s strange and distinct: It doesn’t quite taste like any other spirit which means that you can sit around playing the adjective game for hours or, if you’re a bartender, you can base a cocktail on mezcal and deploy that depth and variety of flavor in your favor.People love the story behind it: Much mezcal is still hand made in tiny distilleries with dirt floors. The people who make it learned how from their fathers who learned it from their fathers and so on. The entire process remains deeply ingrained in traditional Mexican cultures and varies by location.It’s the most artisanal product in the world: It resonates with our obsession that everything be artisanaly produced in a very traditional manner. Mezcal doesn’t get much more artisanal than pretty much anything else out there.