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Vice of the Week: Would a Mezcal by Any Other Name Taste as Smoky?

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Mezcal "joven" and orange slices seasoned with red chili powder and salt. Photo by Francisco Macías
Mezcal “joven” and orange slices seasoned with red chili powder and salt. Photo by Francisco Macías

As today is September 16th, which is Mexico’s Independence, it seems fitting to highlight something Mexican. And there’s nothing quite as deeply Mexican as mescal. Many people refer to mescal (or mezcal) as the “tequila with the worm.” In fact, this notion of tequila with a worm is touched upon in the Pura Belpré Award winning children’s book, The Tequila Worm, by Viola Canales. But, it should be clear that mescal is not tequila.

Photo by Francisco Macías of book cover: "The Tequila Worm" by Viola Canales
Photo by Francisco Macías of book cover: “The Tequila Worm” by Viola Canales

What is Mezcal?

Tequila and mescal, both spirits of Mexico, share a common crop source—agave or, as we frequently call it in Mexico, maguey. The mythological origins of mescal, according to oral tradition, claim that it was a thunderbolt that struck an agave plant that resulted in the first roasting of this succulent food crop’s fleshy leaves. The etymology of the word “mezcal” comes from the náhuatl word mexcalli, which roughly translates to cooked agave. It is perhaps for that reason that this is a drink considered to be heaven sent. The Mescalero Apache Tribe gets its name from the practice of consuming this plant. And for those who are interested in edible gardens, according to the USDA, “Agaves have been a source of human food and beverage for at least 9,000 years.”

Naturally, the different types of mescal depend on the variety of agave, the region and climate of provenance, the form of distillation and the vessel in which it is allowed to settle. But perhaps the greater distinction between the tequila and mescal is that of mescal’s artisanal quality.

Legal issues concerning the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal?

On December 10, 2015, draft legislation was set out (PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015) for commentary, which has produced a dossier of feedback from subject matter experts and various stakeholders. The dilemma in a nutshell is that the draft statute aims to enforce Denomination of Origin legislation for mescal to ensure that only the spirits produced under certain specifications and certain geographic spaces be called mescal. All others, that meet the specifications but that are produced outside of the mezcal regions may only be referred to as “komil.” Many of the activists against this legislation claim that in giving these other mescals an illegitimate status and another name threatens to put smaller, artisanal producers of komil out of business. If you read the legislation, the specs are similar. But the Denomination of Origin (much like with tequila and champagne) ensures that the product that bears the label also enjoys a certain privilege.

For folks interested in learning more about the legal details of mescal and its legal composition, I recommend reading: NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-070-SCFI-1994, Alcoholic beverages-Mescal-Specifications; and Resolution by which the General Declaration for the Protection of the Mescal Denomination of Origin is amended, among a few others. The resolution provides for expanding the region of mescal producing spaces, those municipalities listed. The states that legally produce mescal under the name mezcal, are Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. Of course, within each state, there are further regional specification regulations.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! And ¡Feliz 16 de Septiembre!

Comments (6)

  1. It is true that a key point of differentiation for mezcal is that it is produced in an artisanal fashion. So it is funny that you have the brand Creyente in the top picture because it is NOT an artisanal mezcal and it is made by Cuervo! And it is not very good either. True story.

    • Thank you for your comment, John. Living in suburban Virginia, it was virtually impossible to find an artisanal bottle. Thanks, again, for chiming in.

  2. What is the difference between the two spellings?

    • Mezcal tends to be more used in Spanish. In English transcription, it tends to be spelled with an “s” more frequently; however, I did find various instances where these were used interchangeably. So, I did the same here. Thanks for your question and your interest.

  3. As the author of the novel The Tequila Worm that is mentioned here, let me add that I chose this title for two reasons: one, it signals to the reader that the narrative is connected to the Mexican culture (though the protagonist Sofia is Mexican American and living in South Texas); and two, that it also reflects the misconceptions many Americans have about this deeply rich culture, such as thinking that the worm is in tequila.
    Viola Canales

    • Thank you very much, Viola, for chiming in. 🙂

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