The smokiness is one of the characteristic features of this agave spirit. But Mezcal is not solely about the smoky flavor. In fact, it often shows a complex flavor profile with many fruity notes. And also, depending on the agave plants, the aging time, and the production process, flavors do vary. To help differentiate the various Mezcal types, I want to shed some light on this topic.
Read on to find out more about the Mezcal varieties, the different Mezcal agave plants, and the differences in aging. I'll also discuss the most common expressions of the agave spirit and how its best imbibed.
So what is Mezcal?
Let's start by shortly clarifying what Mezcal is. Mezcal is an agave-based spirit closely related to the more prominent Tequila. Or actually, it's more than a relation. Because, what many still don't know, Tequila really is a specific type of Mezcal. You can read more about the differences between the two agave spirits here. But right now, a quick summary should do.
Mezcal is a spirit made of agave plants. More specifically, from the heart of these plants - the piña. The piñas are roasted, ground, and finally distilled. You can use any agave to make the spirit and produce it in all states approved by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM). Although, as a quick check of the current situation shows, most Mezcals are from Oaxaca. In contrast, Tequila can only be made of one specific type of agave - the Blue Weber agave. And it can be produced in designated areas only.
That is because the agave plant used has an immense influence on the taste of a spirit. And as Mezcal can be made of many different agave plants, flavors can and will vary. Therefore, the name of a Mezcal typically contains the agave type (or types) used to produce the spirit.
Depending on the production process and the tools used, Mezcal types are classified in the categories defined by the CRM. This organization defines criteria and standards to guarantee quality. Additionally, like Tequila, Mezcal is available in different age expressions. They range from Joven, Reposado, Añejo, to Extra Añejo. I'll explain more about the aging of Mezcal further down.
Different aging times of Mezcal
Mezcal is typically available in the four different expressions mentioned above: Joven, Reposado, Añejo, to Extra Añejo. The unaged Joven expression is the most common type, but you can also find many Mezcals that have aged for a long time.
Joven: A young and fresh Mezcal. Typically unaged but can be aged up to two months.
Reposado: Reposado Mezcal is aged 2 - 12 months and therefore has a light golden color. A Reposado is mellower than a Joven Mezcal and typically shows a rounder flavor profile.
Añejo: Aged for 1-3 years, the Añejo shows a darker color. The extra aging time reflects not only in color but also in taste. It's a rich and complex expression of Mezcal.
Extra Añejo: Aged for three years or longer, the Extra Añejo Mezcals premium products with a well-rounded and complex flavor profile.
As with other aged spirits, the longer the Mezcal ages in wooden barrels, the darker the color of the agave spirit gets. And not only the color evolves with time. Also, the flavor profile gets more complex as it absorbs aroma from the wood and further develops pre-existing flavors.
On rare occasions, you can come across another variation, the Madurado en Vidrio. This traditional method uses glass containers to store and age Mezcal underground for a maximum of 12 months. Today, however, this aging process is often performed in warehouses instead. But even though it has a similar aging time as Reposado Mezcal, the Madurado en Vidrio expressions are crystal clear. Because the spirit can't absorb any oak wood particles, it doesn't change color.
Categories of Mezcal explained
At the moment the CRM defined three different categories for Mezcal:
- Mezcal Artesanal
- Mezcal Ancestral
And depending on the category, only specific methods, equipment, and tools are allowed.
Mezcal is the most modern and industrial category. Here, high-tech equipment like modern roasting ovens, steel tanks for fermentation, and continuous column stills are allowed.
For producing Mezcal Artesanal, only a few modern tools are allowed. The Mezcaleros also have to deploy specific traditional techniques.
Mezcal Ancestral is taditionally produced Mezcal. Only old, traditional methods are allowed. That means that piñas are roasted in pit ovens, the fermentation takes place in wooden or stone vessels only, and distillation is exclusively happening in clay pots placed over a fire.
As you can guess, only a handful of producers create Mezcal Ancestral. The rules are super strict. And though the results may be different, the quality isn't higher than what you get with the other methods. It's just a different style of Mezcal.
The Different Mezcal agave plants
I said above that producers can use any type of agave plant for Mezcal. That's not entirely true, to be honest. In total, there are more than 200 different agave plants out there. And only a subset of these species of agave is allowed to be used.
And which species do qualify gets defined by the CRM. Currently, there are almost 50 different agave plants allowed for Mezcal production. And each of them has different agave varieties. These varieties usually are very, very similar but not entirely identical.
The species always is referred to under its Latin name, while the variety uses a common name. What you find on your Mezcal bottle is the common name of an agave plant variety. The most popular agave varietiy for Mezcal is Espadín. It belongs to the species Agave Angustifolia. On a bottle made from this variety, you will find something like "Mezcal Espadín Joven", which reflects the agave variety and the aging of the Mezcal.
Unfortunately, there's even more complexity to this topic. In Mexico, depending on the state, Espadín can refer to agave varieties of different species. That doesn't happen too often, though. And lately, things are getting more standardized. But still, it could happen, and who knows. It might come in handy one day to know that this problem exists.
With this background info, let's look at the main agave species. For all of them, I listed the main Mezcal agaves with their scientific name and the non-scientific name of the variety.
Species: Agave Angustifolia
Should you have tasted Mezcal before, you most likely remember this type of agave. Espadín is also known as the "workhorse" amongst Mezcal plants. Around 85 percent of all Mezcal comes from Espadín. And there's a good reason for that.
Firstly, Espadín is less fibrous than other agave plants. That means it is much easier to process the fruit after the roasting process. And that's not all. This specific type takes a relatively short time to mature fully (6-8 years) and contains a lot of inulin. And a high level of inulin allows for very efficient alcohol production.
And finally, the Espadín agave plant is closely related to the Agave Tequilana (Blue Weber agave) used to produce Tequila. They both belong to the same species and share a similar flavor profile. The differences in taste mostly derive from how the spirits are manufactured and not from the raw ingredients.
Species: Agave Potatorum
Tobalá is a very rarely used agave plant. That is not due to its taste but because it's hard to grow and not the easiest plant to make Mezcal from. It occurs naturally in the southern parts of Mexico. Especially in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacan.
These Mezcal agaves take between 10 to 15 years to reach maturity. That's almost double the time a regular Espadín agave needs. On top, Tobalá agave has a significantly lower amount of inulin, making it harder to produce Mezcal out of it.
Yet, the resulting Mezcal is often of superb quality. It's famous for its earthiness and delicate fruity notes. But as it's so hard to grow and process, Tobalá Mezcal is usually quite expensive. A good illustration is the limited edition that Dos Hombres Mezcal released.
Species: Agave Americana
Arroqueño Mezcal is rare find. These Mezcal agaves not only look stunning with their leaf span of up to 10 feet. They also make for a light and delicious Mezcal with floral notes. In reviews for Arroqueño Mezcals, you'll often find the term green notes mentioned along with the floral aroma.
The Arroqueño agave plant grows wildly and needs at least 20, sometimes 25 years, to mature. As the popularity of Mezcal, rare Mezcal plants, in particular, rises, people in Mexico fear that this agave might turn extinct. Therefore producers started sustainability projects to help replace the harvested plants with new ones.
Species: Agave Marmorata
Varieties: Tepeztate or Tepextate
Once Tepeztate agave plants reach maturity, they grow bright yellow flowers called quiotes. Those flowers turn into seeds that lead to new plants. But because it takes up to 25 years for that to happen, you have to be patient to be able to see that.
This type of agave grows mainly in southern Mexican states. Interestingly, these agave plants flourish best on steep rocks cliffs. Not the ideal location for most plants,e but Tepeztate seems to love it.
Mezcals made of these Mezcal agaves often have intense flavors and contain peppery spice notes.
Species: Agave Durangensis
Cenizo is another agave that typically grows in the wild. It mainly does so in the state of Durango, therefore the Latin name of the species. Similar to the Tepeztate, it grows under pretty harsh conditions. The plant typically occurs in high altitudes up to 8500 feet in cold and dry weather conditions.
Cenizo is also a perfect example of the problem described above. The term Cenizo stands for various things, making it hard to categorize. Mezcal from Durango and Michoacan usually means Agave Durangensis when Cenizo shows on the bottle. In Puebla, Agave Potatorum is often referred to as Cenizo. And in Oaxaca, it stands for Agave Karwinskii.
Thankfully the CRM eventually decided to restrict the use of the term Cenizo. Since 2018, all certified Mezcals using the term Cenizo have to come from Agave Durangensis. However, uncertified spirits still use it as they please, so be careful what you buy.
Other types of agave spirits
The range of different types of Mezcal is tremendous. And apart from all those Mezcal types (including Tequila), even more spirits are made of agave. Namely Raicilla, Bacanora, and, if you're being generous, also Sotol.
Sotol is technically no longer an agave spirit, but it used to be. And if you want to know why you can read more about it here.
Technically, Raicilla isn't far from being a Mezcal. However, it is not produced in one of the designated states and therefore isn't allowed to name itself a Mezcal.
Bacanora is a rare spirit made of only one specific agave - a variation of the Espadín agave. Grown and manufactured only in the mountains of Sonora, it's challenging to taste test Bacanora. Most distilleries don't produce it commercially, and even less have an export license. So your best chance to taste this rare spirit is by visiting Sonora.
The different types of Mezcal get defined by three characteristics: The category that reflects the style (modern or traditional), the variety of agave used for the Mezcal (Espadín, Tobalá, etc.), and the time the agave spirit aged (Joven to Extra Añejo).
This information usually is printed on most Mezcal bottles. If you look for a specific type and are unsure about it, there's no shame in asking for help. This topic is complex, and if you're new to it, the variety of options will most likely be overwhelming.
Learn more about Mezcal
- Learn how to drink Mezcal as Mexicans do
- Find recipes for Mezcal cocktails like an Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Mezcal Sour, Mezcal Margarita, and Mezcal Negroni
- Read reviews about Sombra Mezcal, Clase Azul Mezcal, and Casamigos Mezcal
- Find the best bottles of Mezcals to buy in 2022
- 7 of the best Mezcal cocktails to try