I have recently become a convert. Yes, from tequila to mezcal. Actually all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila must be made from at least 51% of the blue agave and like champagne must be produced only from the Tequila region of Mexico, the place is actually called Tequila, Mexico (in the state of Jalisco)
Mezcal can be made almost anywhere and from any type of agave. By the way agave is not related to the cacti, it is more closely related to the Lily (who knew).
In Oaxaca, a state in Southern Mexico, where most mezcal is produced, they use the term “maguey” to refer to the agave plants.
The maguey was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Hispanic Mexico and it had a multitude of uses. The juices were fermented for religious ceremonies and medicines were made for the elderly and for pregnant women. The leaves were used to make ropes, cords and clothing and the dried leaves were used for roofing and the paper for their codices. The spikes were used to make needles and nails.
There are about 28 varieties of agave that have the sugar content necessary for producing distilled spirits. Most mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca. Today, mezcal is still made from the heart of the maguey plant called the "piña" (because of its resemblance to a pineapple), much the same way it was 200 years ago, by cooking the hearts of the maguey which are then smashed to release it's juice. The juice is then distilled. Distillation techniques probably arrived with the Spaniard conquerors who learned this technology from the Arabs when Spain was conquered by the Moors.
Mezcal producers in the villages of Oaxaca still use the same traditional method of roasting agave in underground wood-fired pits and distilling in small-batch, copper pot stills. That's why it has that great smoky flavor. For tequila, the heart of the agave plant is steamed before distillation, so it doesn't have that great smoky flavor. Once I tasted that smokiness, I was hooked. SOOOooooo
The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl (Aztec language) which means "oven-cooked agave" and the word tequila, also from Nahuatl, means "place of tribute". It would be remiss of me not to mention the famous worm that certain mezcals have. They are sold "con gusano", a practice that began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis that lives on the agave plant. None of the mezcals I've tasted had a "Hypopta agavis" in them, thank goodness, it might have been a deal breaker!
During the Mexican Revolution in the early part of this century tequila gained national importance, when it became a symbol of national pride by a patriotic fervor for Mexican goods in Mexico. Tequila quickly became associated with the hard-riding rebels and gun-slinging heroes of the period from 1910-1920.
However now in the 21st century, mezcal is coming into its own. Imports of mezcal to the US have increased by 54%. Mezcalerias have surged, as the trendier precincts of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities find there is more to Mexican liquor than margaritas. I'm not knocking tequila "Luv it" but there is nothing like a shot of mezcal. Often called Mexican Cognac, it is sipped and swirled about the mouth like the finest of wines. Really a class act.
There is a saying attributed to the Oaxacans… "para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también" ("for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well") There is also a special toast… arriba (above), abajo (below), al centro (the center), para dentro (for within).