Our Ultimate Guide to Mezcal

Nicknamed tequila’s smoky cousin, mezcal is finally coming into its own. Sales in the U.S. jumped 24.8 percent in 2019!

There are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding Mezcal. No, it isn’t made from the same plant as mescaline and isn’t psychedelic. No, it doesn’t have to have a worm in the bottle. And yes, like its cousin, it is made from agave and often enjoyed with a slice of lime. 

So, here are the things you need to know about Mezcal from plant to bottle. Let’s explore this sometimes-overlooked agave spirit.

Historically, Tequila is Mezcal. But not all Mezcal is Tequila

If you’ve been following our Ultimate Spirit and Wine Region guides, you know about legal definitions from the U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits to the E.U. Standards of Geographical Indicators. Before legal standards, all distilled agave (aka maguey) spirits from Mexico were called mezcal. (The name is derived from the Nahuátl words metl (agave) ixcalli (cooked).)

The use of maguey (agave) as a source for alcoholic beverages in Mexico dates back over two thousand years. Before distillation arrived, likely imported by the Spanish, the sap of the maguey plant was simply fermented. This created a milky white, foaming, bitter beverage called pulque that was used for celebrations and sacrifices.

Mezcal and Tequila Diverge

In the 1600s, the distilled “wines of mezcal” became popular. A subset of mezcal, tequila was the first to take off. It was originally sold as Mezcal de Tequila. But in 1893, the “Mezcal de” was dropped and tequila became just, well, tequila.

Tequila became defined as an agave spirit produced in and around the town of Tequila. (There are five designated tequila-producing regions in its designated domain.) It’s distilled exclusively from the Agave tequilana cultivar called “Weber Azul.”

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from various agave species. In 1994, six states were recognized as the only areas able to create an agave spirit under the name mezcal. Currently, the Denominacion de Origen Mezcal (DOM) has expanded to recognize nine states. Mezcal production is now certified by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM).

The legal definition of tequila and mezcal has put the two Mexican agave spirits on very different trajectories. Tequila quickly moved to modern distilling practices. Mezcal, though, is being kept closer to its roots using historical processing and distilling methods. Mezcal is defined by the Official Journal of the Federation (DOF) as a

“Mexican distilled alcoholic beverage, 100% from maguey or agave, obtained by distillation of fermented juices with spontaneous or cultivated microorganisms, extracted from mature heads of maguey or cooked agaves, harvested in the territory covered by the DOM.”

Denominacion De Origin Mezcal

For more on the history of tequila and agave spirits in Mexico, check out our Ultimate Guide to Tequila.

Mezcal Producing Regions of Mexico

As of 2022, there are nine states in Mexico defined as mezcal-producing regions. Each has its preferred agave species and, like wine, its own specific terroir.

The earliest mezcal production began in the state of Oaxaca, which is still the largest producer of mezcal in Mexico. Along with Oaxaca, the original six mezcal-producing states included Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. The states of Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato were added later.

Mezcal production is increasing and producers in each state are working to differentiate themselves from the herd. In time, we will likely learn more about how soil and altitude affect mezcal’s flavor profile. At this time, most mezcal is differentiated by the agave species used as its base.

A Primer on Mezcal Agave Species

Although there are around 200 species of agave, only 40 to 50 of them are used to create mezcal. Here is a list of some of the most common.

Mezcal Agave Field

Agave Angustifolia

Related to its cousin tequila’s Weber Blue, Angustifolia is the most common of the agaves used to create mezcal. It is less fibrous and therefore easier to pulp and simpler to cultivate. And since it’s high in inulin, it allows for higher-proof products. Like all agave, its flavor is affected by soil and altitude.

Agave Karwinskii

A prolific agave species with a handful of varieties used to create mezcal, including Cuishe, Madre Cuishe, Baicuishe, Barril, Tobaziche, and Verde. Karwinskii piñas mature at around ten years and are known for their flavors, which include mineral and herbal notes.

Agave Potatorum

A popular but problematic and rare species, Agave potatorum, is grown in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and Michoacan. Unlike other species of agave, which reproduce by seed and clone, Potatorum can only be propagated by seed and requires bats and birds for fertilization. It takes between 10 and 15 years for the piñas to mature. But even then, they do not yield as much sugar, making mezcals from this agave expensive to produce.

Agave Americana

This is another a rare agave, prized for its beauty and 10-foot spread, as much as for the mezcals produced from it. Mezcals from Americana tend to be floral with what some describe as “green” notes. Americana takes over 25 years to mature.

Agave Marmorata

Like Americana, Marmorata takes over 25 years to mature. It is characterized by its tall quijotes, or stalks, filled with striking yellow flowers. Mezcals created from Marmorata are described as spicy.

Agave Durangensis

Durangensis (variety Cenizo) is common in Durango at altitudes over 8,500 feet (2,590 meters) in cold, dry conditions. This is one of the agave species whose flavor is dependent on its specific terroir.

What About the Worm?

Yes, about that worm. First off, it isn’t a worm, but the caterpillars (larvae) from a butterfly and a moth that frequent agave plants. They’re the Tequila Giant-Skipper butterfly (aka the white worm), and the Comadia redtenbacheri moth (aka the red worm).

Mexico Agave Worms

During much of Mexico’s history, these caterpillars were a highly sought-after protein source. The Aztecs prized them. Even today, you can find the larvae, called maguey worms, at local markets. High-end restaurants are even producing versions of maguey street food. When cooked, maguey worms have a nutty taste which some compare to pork cracklings.

The Making of Mezcal - from Plant to Bottle

Making mezcal is a mostly manual process beginning with the cultivation and harvesting of agave. Mezcal producers or palenque, like Scotch distillers, have to take the long view. Scotch may stay in the barrel for a decade or more, and most agave plants take a decade or more to mature. 

Mezcal Distillery in Oaxaca Mexico

Processing the Piñas

Smoked Agave Piñas

Agave is processed by first removing the fibrous leaves with a machete, a labor-intensive task, leaving just the piña, or heart. The piña is then most often cooked in the traditional style, in a clay or brick oven or a pit dug in the earth. This is done to break down the inulin. Inulin is an oligosaccharide of fructose and glucose units that, once broken down, can be fermented by yeast to create alcohol. It is this baking process that gives mezcal its trademark smoky flavor.

Once baked or smoked, the piñas are pulped or pressed to extract the sugars. This process can be done by hand, with a hand mallet, or via a tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill. Although they are described separately, the tahona, Chilean, and Egyptian mills all seem to work on a similar mechanism: a large stone wheel is worked in a circle by either human, animal, or mechanical power.


A traditional tahona or mill

Maguey Juice Meets the Yeast

Once the sugary syrup, called maguey juice, is extracted, it’s time to ferment. Fermentation is done in everything from animal skins to earthen pits, or tanks made from stone, concrete, trees, or wood, simply by letting the maguey juice sit for a few days. Like creating a traditional sourdough starter, wild yeast from the environment infects the maguey juice.

Not all yeast is created equal, and work has been done to isolate wild yeast strains from different mezcal distilleries to investigate which strains are doing the heavy lifting in the fermentation process and which contribute to specific mezcal flavor traits. Those strains are then cultured, and the maguey juice is inoculated with them, rather than relying on yeast colonies from the crushing equipment or storage containers. A benefit of using cultured colonies is a decrease in fermentation time. It’s the same way that baker’s yeast speeds up breadmaking versus beginning with a sourdough starter.

Yeast strain impacts the final mezcal flavor profile and is considered key to creating exceptional spirits and retaining regional characteristics. Research on Mexican indigenous yeast strains is ongoing.

Distillation - from Ancestral to Modern

Traditional mezcal distillation takes place in Filipino-style stills made of clay, or a mix of clay and wood, over a fire. At this stage, maguey fibers from the baking process, called bagasse, are often added back into the process to add flavor. Modern distillation equipment, from copper and stainless-steel alembic pot or columnar stills are used for some mezcal productions. Others use modified Filipino stills made with copper or stainless-steel bottoms. What type of distillation equipment is allowed is delineated by the three classes of mezcal as defined by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal.

To Age or Not to Age?

Aging, in modern tequila production, is a thing. In mezcal, not so much.

Aging is often seen as a measure of a spirit's quality and worth. But most mezcal drinkers and distillers find that barrel aging removes the more delicate flavor profiles associated with the various agave species and their terroir.

Categories and Classes of Mezcal – Yep, More Legalese

In 2017, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal created three different categories of mezcal. Each one has its own constraints based on processing and distillation methods. All mezcal, regardless of category, must be bottled between 70 and 110 Proof (35-55% ABV). When buying a bottle of mezcal, it is important to know what each of the terms means, so you know exactly what you are buying.


If there is mezcal on your liquor store shelves, this is the one you are most likely to see. The “Mezcal” label allows the most modern cooking, processing, and distillation methods of the three categories.

Cooking can be traditional, in a stone or bricked-lined pit, an above-ground brick oven with wood, or an autoclave oven. With the autoclave oven, you get efficiency but lose the smoky flavor created by cooking over wood. So this process, used in tequila making, isn’t as common for mezcal.

Milling of the piñas can be done using a Chilean or Egyptian mill. These are most often mule-drawn. Human or machine power may also be used, as well as grinders or shredders.

Fermentation can be done in wooden vats, masonry basins made of concrete or earth, or stainless steel.

Distillation can be performed in continuous or pot stills made of copper and/or stainless steel.

Mezcal Artesanal

Artesanal mezcal limits the methods of cooking, milling, and distillation to more historic methods. Cooking is by pit oven or raised masonry oven only. Grinding is done either by hand with a mallet, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or a grinder.

Fermentation is done in animal skins, pits, or tanks made of stone, tree trunks, and basins made of masonry or wood.

Distillation is done by direct fire only in pots made of clay, wood, or copper and stainless steel. Bagasse, agave fibers from the grinding process, may be added in addition to the Maguey juice.

Mezcal Ancestral

Ancestral is the most restrictive of the three categories of mezcal and, by extension, the most labor-intensive.

Cooking is restricted to pit ovens lined with stones. Grinding is done by hand with a mallet or by donkey power using a Chilean or Egyptian mill. Fermentation is limited to stone cavities, tree trunks, animal skins, pits or tanks made of stone or earth, masonry basins made of earth or concrete, or wood.

Distillation is done with clay or clay and wooden pots (Filipino-style stills) and may include bagasse added back into the maguey juice. 

Mezcal Classes

Yes, like tequila, mezcal comes in classes. These include Joven or Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo which are based on “resting” or aging time. Just remember, most mezcal connoisseurs eschew the aged bottles. As mentioned above, they feel it interferes with the flavors produced by the terroir, agave species, and local fermentation microorganisms. In your exploration of mezcal, depending on the sophistication of your tastebuds, you might want to keep to the Blancos.

Blanco - Reposado - Añejo

“Blanco” or “Joven” is an unaged and unadulterated spirit. This is the most popular and most common form of mezcal. It allows for the expression of the various species of agave used as a base. Differences in terroir, local yeasts used for fermentation, and differences in production come through.

“Reposado” - like Tequila Reposado, this mezcal is “rested” in wood for two to twelve months.

“Añejo” - Mezcal aged for more than twelve months in wooden vessels of less than 1000 liters.

There are also a few classes unique to mezcal that have nothing to do with age.

Madurado en Vidrio, or “matured in glass,” is a class of mezcal bottled in glass and stored underground for a minimum of twelve months. Using wood to “rest” alters the color and flavor. Madurado en Vidrio, on the other hand, does not lose its sense of place. Resting the mezcal underground limits temperature and humidity variation and blocks UV radiation. This traditional aging method mellows the spirit without negatively impacting its alcohol content.

Avocado is a flavored or infused mezcal. Everything from “worms” to lime, orange, mango, honey, and damiana are common. Some distillers are also playing with other fruits, herbs, and the caramel commonly used in Tequila Joven (or Gold) as a colorant.

Destilado con (“distilled with”) is the last of the classes of mezcal. During either the second or third distillation, other ingredients are added to the still. These include fruits, herbs, and even meats.

The Odd Duck (or rather, chicken) - Mezcal de Pechuga

Mezcal de Pechuga, the most popular of the “Destilado con” mezcals, is a strange and unique expression that we just couldn’t leave out.

Historically, Mezcal de Pechuga was created for special occasions from recipes handed down for generations. To create this unique spirit, mezcal is redistilled with a chicken or turkey breast to add flavor. The meat is hung over the boiling Mezcal as it is distilled. Family recipes may also include vegetables, fruits, and spices.

The tradition of Mezcal de Pechuga has given rise to a lot of experimentation. Celebrity chef José Andrés came up with one that uses Iberico ham, while others infuse the mezcal with mole or poblano peppers. We were able to find some examples of this odd bird for sale at Old Town Tequila.

How to Drink Mezcal? Do I need to eat the worm?

No, you don’t need to eat the worm (usually a red maguey worm aka Comadia redtenbacheri moth). And modern Mezcals don’t usually add them, anyway. So you won’t even be tempted.

Mezcal Drink with Maguey Worm and Orange

In Mexico, mezcal is usually imbibed straight with a slice of lime or orange with worm salt. Yes, we are back to the worm. Worm salt, sal de gusano, is made from ground-up maguey worms, salt, and red chile. The flavor is smokey and when paired with citrus, makes an excellent accompaniment to the Mezcal.

Sustainability of Mezcal Production

According to a recent article in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, mezcal production has increased from “<1 million liters in 2011 to almost 8 million liters” in a single decade. This has put enormous pressure on the two key resources for the production of Mezcal: agave and wood. Some estimates double the production amount due to the hundred or so producers who have opted out of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal certification process. This is usually because of the cost/paperwork or because their processing methods do not fall in line with the three legally-defined categories of Mezcal.

Uniqueness has a Cost

There is also concern that some wild agave species may disappear as the demand for singular and unique mezcal drives over-harvesting.  Wild populations risk extinction when harvesting is not managed well, and they are not given time to recover. There is an odd balance to be achieved here as consumers. We enjoy these unique products, but we also have to understand that our consumption may be driving some agave species to extinction. Investment in the region focused not only on production but sustainability will be critical to mezcal's future.

Although most of the agave used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca is cultivated, many other states use wild or semi-wild agaves. Each process – removing agaves from the wild or creating monoculture fields – has its drawbacks. Monoculture tends to limit access to pollinators in the limited cases where agave is allowed to flower. It also increases issues around pest control. Removing agave species from the wild, especially without any methodology around repopulating, leaves those species fighting for survival. Some agave species reproduce asexually. The creation of daughters or pups can easily be moved to a cultivated or semi-cultivated production, but this limits genetic diversity. Those agave species that only reproduce sexually via pollination experience difficulties as well, since the creation of mezcal circumvents sexual production. In order to force the plant to build up the sugar content, the flower stalk is prevented from developing.

Final Thoughts

With mezcal production booming, now is a great time to experience some of the unique expressions created in Oaxaca and beyond. As investment in the area grows, research is being done on what local yeasts and other microorganisms are involved in fermentation and which produce the best mezcals. This is yet another method for delineation of producers and an opportunity for imbibers. There is so much more to learn about how soil, elevation, and climate impact agave flavors. Mezcal drinkers will have lots to look forward to as they expand their palates!

Mezcal is a wide-open market, and the possibilities for creating unusual variations appear endless. We look forward to seeing how the industry changes and matures over the next decade.

Have a question about Agave Spirits? A favorite story of a drinking expedition to Mexico, or a unique local spirit you stumbled upon? Drop us a line in the comments.

~ Cheers!