This article first appeared in the Coloradoan newspaper.
Tequila is a type of mezcal.
It is, in other words, a species of the genus mezcal, and the word itself — mezcal or mescal, depending on which part of the world you’re in — comes from the Aztec word meaning “oven-baked agave.”
Thus mezcal is a spirit distilled from oven-cooked agave plants.
Agave, in turn, is a species of Agavaceae, which is native to the American southwest and to Mexico.
Agavaceae is also known as the Centuryplant. It has sword-shaped leaves, which are greenish-gray and spiky.
The agaves used for mezcal are roasted and smoked in underground pits and then wild-fermented in open-air cauldrons. It’s a large and laborious process, which requires, among other things, the uprooting of big heavy agaves and the shearing of their sword-shaped leaves. When the leaves are sheared, all that remains is the core, also called the “piña,” which means pineapple because that is what it looks like, and pineapple, for the same reason, derives from the word “pinecone.”
After the leaves are lopped, the heart is sacrificially roasted, in true Aztec fashion, and then this precious heart is broken and pulverized and fermented inside antiquated wooden stills — until, at last, her ghostly vapor is transfigured into a potent potable spirit.
The elegant, punky, petroleum-like smokiness which imbues every good meszcal, and which is its quiddity, comes from the burning of the agave heart.
In the harvesting process, tequila and mezcal are virtually identical.
The significant differences start in the cooking of the piña.
Tequila, understand, originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is about the size of South Carolina. To this day, tequila can by law only come from certain government-specificed regions of Mexico — Jalisco principle among them. Also by law, tequila can only come from one variety of agave, and that is the blue agave.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from over thirty different varieties of the agave plant (though espadín is the most popular).
Mezcal has always been the outlaw, the blacksheep, burned and bottled and bootlegged among the snakes and scorpions in the sun-drenched mountains of Mexico.
Tequila, meanwhile, is the prissy and prude offspring, the clean and legal tender one, priggish, precious, popular, incontrovertibly safe.
In this hemisphere, only two lasting spirits have been invented — rum and mezcal — and of those, mezcal is the most ancient. It is the juice of the magic agave plant: a plant brought down by the Aztec gods, the bat gods and the serpent-jaguar deities who haunt the hills and the grottoes of the sun-baked southern world.