When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they discovered fermented drinks the Aztecs and other indigenous people drank, notably “pulque,” a thick, sourish drink made from the agave cactus plant.
The Spaniards, familiar with the process of making liquor by distilling, soon discovered how to produce a stronger distilled liquor from the same plant, specifically the maguey agave; the Aztecs gave the drink the name “mezcal.”
Over the next few centuries, an important region emerged in the production of mezcal, made from the blue agave instead of the maguey, with a cleaner, easier flavor. This newer, distinct form of mezcal was given the name of the valley in the state of Jalisco where it was invented and is still is primarily produced to this day: “tequila.” (Jalisco is the state where Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta are located.)
While it was the tequila variety of mezcal that gained the most popularity throughout Mexico and the world, other forms of mezcal continue to be produced on a large scale. The most significant region for production of the older form of mezcal is Oaxaca.
Even though they are simply two forms of the same drink, people simply call the older form “mezcal” and the one from Jalisco “tequila.”
Anyone who has had tequila will also notice the difference in flavor as well. Mezcal has a fuller, smoky flavor. People say it’s stronger, this refers only to the robust flavor; commercially produced mezcal and tequila have the same alcohol content. Some varieties are sweetish.
Typically, from what people have told me, those who enjoy whiskey will usually enjoy mezcal.
In the U.S. and Canada, people often associate the worm in the bottle with tequila. In reality, this custom was started in the 1940s as a marketing gimmick for mezcal, and not tequila.
Mezcal, however, goes a few steps further, and you can find bottles being sold with a scorpion in it! Now, they say you’re supposed to drink the worm – but what about the scorpion?!?
If you like hard liquors, especially stronger-flavored ones, I recommend trying mezcal. It’s not very common north of the Rio Grande, but it’s becoming easier to find. Here in Mexico, you can find it in most liquor stores and souvenir shops. In places like Playa del Carmen, they also have some mezcal bars, right on the main strip so they’re easy to find.
-by Thomas Lloyd