It is born from an ambition to stir and share the love of mezcal with people around the world. Many people are interested in mezcal’s social, cultural, biological and economic background. We strive to share the past heritage and present reality to support a future of respect and sustainabilty for the master craftsmen and natural resources that produce this complex and valuable spirit.

We include mezcal definitions, categories, and production processes, as well as information on the natural history of the extraordinary agave plant —the natural resource upon which all mezcal is based. We are focused on 100% agave mezcals, particularly those produced by traditional methods, regardless of whether they are produced inside or outside the legally designated areas.

This site aims to build a more aware, educated and interconnected community that can appreciate the value of mezcal. Please become a member by entering into our Facebook website at Anatomía del Mezcal. If you are interest in collaborate, please email us. This site is bilingual and our collaborators can share their contribution either in Spanish or English. Find out more on how to contribute in the section The Platform.

Comprendamos al mezcal tanto como él nos comprende.


Anatomy of Mezcal focuses on four themes: Agave, Terroir, Process and Mezcal. Each section is designed to provide you relevant information on each topic despite they are all interconnected.

This platform is bilingual and our collaborations can be in Spanish and English.

This material is an adaptation of the original book The Anatomy of Mezcal, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-9754632-0-8, an educational initiative led by Dr. Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal, agave plant, agave distillates and spirits specialist.

If you are interested in collaborate please email us at

In order to start building our community please join our Facebook Page: Anatomía del Mezcal

© 2013 Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or recorded in or transmitted by an information retrieval system, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photochemical, electronic, magnetic, electro-optical, photocopying, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.



To understand mezcal, we need to define and identify mezcal as one thing, but at the same time as a result of many parts.

Mezcal is one and has an identity built of all its expressions. On one hand, is a distilled alcoholic beverage with an ancient cultural heredity, produced from the fermentation of agaves and aloes species endemic to Mexico. On the other, mezcal is expressed in various forms, tastes, cultural heritages, and biological technology, offering the most diverse heritage alcoholic expressions produced by man today.

We try to understand mezcal by dissecting the ingredients that make it different. Each one is, in itself, a way to get to it.

It is within our capacity to keep alive the rich heritage of mezcal through the many biological and cultural expressions in which this drink is based.

The diversity of mezcal comes from the combination of many different factors that confer a broad range of tastes and aromas. It can be said that there are three main sources of diversity in mezcal or agave distillates that should be considered to create classification axes:


Refers to the species of agave used —either a single type or a combination, whether wild, cultivated or semi-cultivated— and how the plantations are managed, be they certified organic or using herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. These factors greatly determine the outcome of the mezcal.


Refers to the methods used throughout the process, such as: jima, cooking, milling, fermentation and distillation. Additional processes include aging in wood, using fruits and herbs for flavoring effects and adding insects or larvae. Cultural heritage and family traditions define which technologies and recipes are used by the maestros mezcaleros (master mezcal distillers) in their palenques (rustic distilleries) and greatly influence the taste of the drink.


The concept of “terroir” includes the sum of the geological, climatic and environmental factors that give character to a mezcal. Cultural characteristics may also be considered part of the terroir. Differences in terroir contribute substantially to the wealth of variety in mezcal.

Even after following the same production process and using the same species of agave, the area in which the plant grows can greatly affect the final taste of a product. An agave can express certain aromatic compounds more dominantly than others depending on the land where it grows. Moreover, humidity and temperature affect populations of yeasts and microorganisms active in the fermentation processes.

There is still very little technical or scientific information to explain the effects of the specific terroirs on mezcal. It is important to understand that the use of the term “terroir” (or terruño) refers to many factors, including the climate on the hillside where the agave grows, the location of the palenque (where fermentation and distillation occurs) and the decisions made by the maestro mezcalero.

To preserve its richness, we must avoid promoting only a few production methods based on efficiency, or the use of only select varieties or species of agave. We must not promote artificial regional restrictions on the production of this drink. This may be a significant challenge but in order to preserve many expressions of this patrimony, we must ensure that the only regulations in the production and sale of mezcal and other agave distillates are based on quality and sustainability, not political or economic factors.



Mezcal, in its oldest and most accurate definition, is a spirit distilled from the fermentation of sugars derived exclusively from any species or variety of agave plants.

Agaves are succulent, rosette-shaped, spiky plants commonly known as “maguey” which are distributed throughout the Mexican territory.

History and politics have alienated the technical and legal definitions of mezcal from its original definition. The commercial use of the word “mezcal” has been artificially limited to products coming only from specific regions in Mexico, preventing producers outside the designated area from legally calling their product Mezcal.

Currently, agave-derived beverages of various qualities are available. Unfortunately, most of the liters of agave distillates sold in Mexico are not 100% agave, but are combined with other sugars from cane or corn, affecting product quality. Additionally, there is a huge ethical problem among certain novice and established producers who adulterate their spirits to lower costs and increase volumes.



Science, which aims to describe the number, structure and relationships of the different parts of something. Dissection or separation of the parts of a whole.


Refers to the particular features or characteristics developed in plants or products —such as mezcal— as a result of geography, geology and climate of where they are grown or produced. This concept is central for the creation of appellations of origin and geographical indicators.


It is the most abundant group of essential oils in plants. Terpens have a wide variety of functions, one of the most important is to serve as a repellent to insects, bacteria, fungi and herbivores. They are responsible for specific aromas and flavors, and are widely used in the food industry when isolated for perfumes and food additives.


Esters are formed when fatty acids come in contact with alcohol. In agaves, esters are used for building the waxy layer of leaves, which reduces water loss by insulating the plant tissues and preventing water evaporation. Esters provide important organoleptic characteristics to spirits, giving notes of ripe fruits and flowers. During fermentation, esters can build. In mezcal, long periods of fermentation lead to the intensification of notes like banana, mango and berries.

Fermentation Congeners:

Compounds typically formed or modified during the fermentation processes. Congeners usually have a volatile nature and get into the final product after distillation. These compounds are of different chemical nature with higher alcohols, esters, ketones, acetyls and aldehydes. Their organoleptic properties give flavor to spirits and can be manipulated by changing the distillation patterns.

Scientific Name:

Biologists and naturalists often use single-reference naming devices for each type of organism. They are typically adaptations of Latin root words, naturalists’ last names or places where the organisms come from. The first word refers to the “genus”, or the biological group they belong to, and the second refers to the precise species. A specie may or may not posses subspecies and varieties within itself. The surname of the scientist who named it is commonly placed in parentheses after the scientific name.



Agave plant and agave distillates specialist.

PhD in biochemistry from the University of Sussex, England. Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal was born in Guadalajara, México and grew up with agave as part of his family’s business. From a young age, Dr. Saldaña worked on environmental and social projects in rural communities of central and southern Mexico, as well as in conservation areas in the United States and Chile. His thirst to understand more about nature led him to study biology and pursue graduate studies in various countries, and his academic research has focused on understanding the evolutionary path of the agave plant, the biological mechanisms that have shaped the agaves diversity and the biochemical characteristics that have allowed their adaptation to arid climates. Dr. Saldaña has worked with various companies as a specialist in scientific and technical matters of agave, as well as issues related to quality assurance in production, product innovation and environmental responsibility. In 2011, Dr. Saldaña founded Montelobos Mezcal ( and dedicated himself to developing and producing an organic, artisanal, Oaxacan mezcal. He maintains an advisory role in the spirits industry and remains devoted to agave and mezcal education, presenting at industry conferences and events and overseeing the current platform.


This section discusses origins of agave and their adaptation processes developed in order to survive.

It also explains the relationship between agave and man: domestication, culture and utility.

Finally, it lists botanicals provided by the agave and their uses.

© 2013 Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or recorded in or transmitted by an information retrieval system, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photochemical, electronic, magnetic, electro-optical, photocopying, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.




Agaves are flora native to the New World that are distributed primarily between Mexico and the southern United States, and to a lesser extent the Caribbean islands and some other countries in North and South America.

The Agave genus is a monocot belonging to the Agavaceae family, a member of the Lilliaceae order. The group was first described by Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in 1753, based on the Agave americana, which he called “century plant” as a metaphor for its long life.

It is believed that between 150 and 250 species belong to this genus, but the exact number is unclear mainly due to the limited reliability of the classification methods and variations caused by the crossing between species. New tools based on DNA fingerprinting are becoming increasingly available and the identification and confirmation of agave species will be advancing rapidly in the coming years.

The appearance of agaves dates back 11 million years. Through the complex process of evolution, the agave has developed the ability to grow successfully in arid and semi-arid climates. This is a plant that has some amazing mechanisms to survive in stressful conditions. The succulence of its tissues allows the storage of large amounts of water and its thorns can fend off hungry herbivores. Extraordinary biochemical and physiological mechanisms al- low the plant to “breathe” at night, trapping the necessary CO2 to live and produce sugars. The plant can keep its pores closed during the day to protect itself from heat and prevent dehydration. The agave can also generate complex chemical cocktails in its tissues to combat parasites, such as fungi, bacteria and insects. These defensive chemical compounds have the ability to inhibit plagues. Similar to human taste buds, they represent a huge sensory asset, translated into mezcal as flavors and scents.


The environment has a great impact on the chemical composition and biological development of agaves. The concentration of compounds that contribute flavor to mezcal, the cumulative amount of sugar and the rate of ripening is highly variable, even in plants of the same species.

These differences are the result of environmental conditions, such as soil composition, humidity, temperatures (both day and night), the distribution of yearly rainfall, the amount of water received and the slope of the land.

The enormous biological plasticity of agave —the ability to adjust to different conditions affecting their physiological processes— allows these plants to be successful in adverse conditions.

Two agaves of the same species growing in different conditions may differ widely. The agave espadín, for example, can mature in eight to 12 years, depending on conditions, and the weight of its piña can vary from 40 to 350 kg, respectively. This variability is not yet completely understood. Empirical observations show that agave plantations growing in warm, humid climates have higher metabolic activity, maturing faster but presenting lower sugar concentrations than others that mature more slowly. In this respect, the soil terroir, is treated as the feature that makes a specific geographical name an important basis for the differentiation of the raw material and the mezcal that is derived from it.



Archaeological evidence suggests that agaves have been used as a source of food and artifacts for 11,000 years, since the beginning of the peopling of America.

Agaves and mankind joined paths many years ago, when different species were domesticated and cultivated by Native Americans who used the plants for their medicinal, nutritional and utilitarian richness.

Since then, the genetic characteristics of cultivated agaves have been strongly influenced by human selection. Members of the Agave genus have been domesticated by peoples including the Aztecs, Huastec, Maya, Mixtec, Nahua, Tarascan, Zapotec and others. Medicinal use seems to be the most widespread, followed by the use of the plant in construction of utensils and textiles. The cultivation of agave species outside Mesoamerica occurred in Europe for ornamental reasons, and in Africa, Asia and Australia as a source of fiber, medicines and more recently, biofuel.

Agaves were also commonly used as a food source in pre-Hispanic times. Usually, agave sugars were consumed as aguamiel (a sweet sap rich in fructose) or pulque (a fermented product similar to beer). The last decade has seen an emerging industry that uses the agave to produce sweet syrups like agave nectar and inulin, a dietary fiber that can help improve digestion and other health issues.

The agave plant still serves as an important factor in the welfare of much of the rural population in Mexico, serving as a source of fiber, fuel, building material, food and medicine. There is still much to document about the uses of agave in traditional medicine.

In pre-Hispanic times, the agave was considered an incarnation of the goddess Mayahuel, who was the symbol of fertility and family. The intoxicating powers of mezcal and pulque have been related to the celebrations and spiritual rites of ancient cultures all the way to present day in rural communities where they still occur. Pre-Hispanic religious syncretism mixed with modern Mexican identity is embedded in communities that produce artisanal mezcal throughout the country.



Esters and terpenes are botanical elements contributed by the agaves that influence the flavor of mezcal.

Agave is an herbaceous plant whose sugar storage organ —the piña or heart— is used for mezcal. The evolution of the agave through millions of years of difficult conditions has generated chemical cocktails ready to face the attack of insects, bacteria, fungi and fatty compounds, protecting the plant from dehydration.

Terpenes often give notes as basil, mint, asparagus, pine, lemon and grapefruit. Esters give banana notes, ripe fruit and butter, among others. In the cooking process, a huge number of compounds are also formed due to the sugar caramelizing process, transforming the green agave notes.


Donde se echan raíces se deja el corazón.

This section focuses on the variety of agaves according to their geographical location.

There are different types of soil or terroir where the agave grows, with significant climatic differences.

There are agaves that grow wild, semi-cultivated and cultivated. Their uses change depending on their growth and region.

© 2013 Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or recorded in or transmitted by an information retrieval system, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photochemical, electronic, magnetic, electro-optical, photocopying, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.



Mezcal can be obtained from any variety of maguey. Depending on the region, one can find mezcals made from species growing in those areas. These agaves or magueyes can be wild, cultivated or semi- cultivated.

This section contains information on the technology used for mezcal, from traditional to modern methods.

It explains all processes: farming, cooking, grinding, fermentation, distillation.

It also discusses the laws and modern technology that affect the economy and culture due to the agave production.

© 2013 Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or recorded in or transmitted by an information retrieval system, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photochemical, electronic, magnetic, electro-optical, photocopying, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.



Cooking in underground pit ovens (bajo tierra) fueled by wood, the use of small fermentation tanks made of various materials (wood, concrete, stone, animal skin, etc.), and the use of small pot stills (copper, clay, etc.) are examples of traditional production technologies.



Cultivated agaves are grown from baby plants, seeds or floral bulbils either in farmland or mountain slopes.

In the particular case of the tequila industry, agaves obtained by micro propagation can also be used. Agaves will take between six and 15 years (depending on the species) to mature. In the case of craft production, each agave plant is chosen upon reaching maturity, cleaned and cut (or jimada) directly in the field. In many cases, either wild or cultivated agaves are farmed with ancient organic techniques. For more industrialized production, the planted field is evaluated and the jima is done evenly for all plants. These agaves are often agriculturally managed with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, with unavoidable environmental impacts.



The cooking of agave can be done using different technologies and aims to turn the sugars in the piña into fermentable sugars. The way the agave is cooked has a significant effect on the flavor and quality of a mezcal. In general, the slower the cooking, the more complex the compounds and flavors obtained.

  • GROUND OR EARTH OVEN: (Artisanal and Pre-Hispanic) The soil is excavated and a bonfire is made in the pit to warm the volcanic stones inside. Once the required temperature is reached, the agave hearts (or piñas) whole or in pieces, are put inside. The oven is then covered with fiber mats and sealed with earth and stones for between three and five days after the agave is cooked. This is the typical practice in areas of central and southern Mexico.
  • MASONRY OVEN: (Artisanal and colonial) A brick, stone or adobe (clay) oven is fueled by firewood to produce direct heat or steam (with a boiler) where agaves are cooked. The oven is filled with the agave piñas and the cooking takes two to five days.
  • AUTOCLAVE: (Modern colonial, industrial, invented in 15th century Europe) The autoclave uses steam and requires a boiler. It consists of a sealed metal container. If higher pressures are used to increase the speed of cooking, the quality of the cooked agave is poor. However, if atmospheric pressures and low temperatures are used, it is possible to control the cooking process without affecting quality. In industrial productions, the autoclaves are often used to hydrolyze (or cook) raw agave juice, instead of piñas, to lower costs.



This is the process of tearing the fibers of cooked agave piñas to extract their juices. Some separate the bagasse (or fiber) from the juice of piñas, some do not.

  • TAHONA OR STONE MILL: (Artisanal) Using animal or human power, the cooked piñas are pressed in a wheel mill by turning a large stone pulled by force. The result is a mixture of fiber and juice that serves to prepare the fermentation broth.
  • PRESSES: (Artisanal) This technology is rarely used because it is not as efficient. It consists of the mechanical squeezing of the piñas.
  • MANUAL GRINDING: (Artisanal) Involves hitting and smashing the piñas with sticks, machetes or emboli to obtain juice and fiber. This process is mainly used in some villages in Michoacan, Puebla and Guerrero.
  • MILLS: (Modern, industrial) Consists of a series of mechanical mills that tear, squeeze and wash the fibers of cooked piñas for a juice rich in sugars. The fibers are separated and do not participate in subsequent processes. This system is very common in medium and large production.
  • DIFUSOR: (Post-modern, industrial) The diffuser works with raw agave. Through a system of mills, it tears the raw piñas and uses steam for extracting the sugars. It is very efficient. Tens of tons can be processed per day. The raw juice is then hydrolyzed at high temperatures in high-pressure autoclaves. Many tequilas and some low-quality mezcals use this technology.



Agave juices (and sometimes their fibers) are placed in tubs. Then, water and yeasts are added. Microorganisms transform juices into fermented musts.

  • FERMENTATION VATS: Fermentation tubs come in various sizes and materials that affect the final taste of the product. Smaller sized vats are usually between 200 to 500 liters and often made of clay, cement or cowhide. The typical fermentation vat used in Oaxaca is between 1,000 to 2,000 liters and made of wood, normally pine or oak. Unfortunately, plastic containers are also used that can range from 1,000 to 5,000 liters. Typical industrial level fermentation vats are usually stainless steel and can range from 5,000 to 50,000 liters.
  • YEAST, MICROORGANISMS AND ADDITIVES: The fermentation of the juices is conducted primarily by microorganisms called yeast. Other organisms, like bacteria, contribute very significantly to the flavor of mezcal, as well. Most artisanal mezcal producers wait for the natural yeasts and bacteria to slowly ferment musts and juices. Others will use selected or isolated yeasts, as these generally offer more consistent results in the product. In addition to yeast, some producers use nutrient salts to accelerate the fermentation process.



Fermented musts already contain a huge amount of flavorsome compounds that must go through at least two stages of distillation in the process of creating mezcal. The first distillation produces the ordinary and the second distillation produces the mezcal. For the distillation, mezcaleros use:

  • STILLS: Stills can be of different sizes and materials, but they generally operate on the same principles. The juice is loaded with or without fiber, then heated using wood, gas or steam to start the evaporation process. A cap on the back (called the “overburden”) captures fumes and leads to a serpentine, which is generally immersed in a water tank or in contact with a cooling system. This is where the fumes cool and condense into fluid again. The stills are usually made of metals (like copper or steel), but you may find some traditional stills made of mud, stone or even reeds. The product is usually distilled at least twice, and it is very important to know where to “cut,” or select those pleasant distillates from the unpleasant ones.
  • DISTILLATION COLUMNS: These are large columns where high-temperature steam interacts with the musts or juices, producing an instantaneous evaporation of the latter. Due to the weight and density of the evaporated compounds in the column, it is possible to “milk” them, or remove a selection. The columns are industrially used not only for beverages but in the petrochemical industry to reduce costs and deliver very clean products (which have little complexity of flavors and aromas).

    The resulting alcohol proof in the mezcal is variable. The one obtained directly from the still delivers mezcals between 47% and 65% alcohol by volume. These are often adjusted with water, either by adding water in the same still or from another source after the distillation is finished. The alcoholic strength of artisanal mezcal depends on the flavor profile that the producer is looking to establish.



Although the finished mezcal does not require any process to be extraordinary, it is common to add flavoring or abouchement process. Some of these are traditional to their regions, using local fruits and herbs like lemon verbena or nanche. Others, inspired by European processes, use barrels for aging. Adding worms and insects, like scorpions, also has an effect on the taste, and is not necessarily always positive. It is typically a response to marketing rather than quality. In industrial products, it is not uncommon to use artificial flavorings and additives.



The identity of beverages and their qualities are inevitably linked to their production methods.

Unfortunately, the economic dimension and business ambition of this industry have pushed many rules and technologies that sacrifice the quality of products in search of greater efficiencies —higher production volumes in less time and lower costs.

Several technological developments and lax laws have caused some denigration to the prestige and quality of the mezcal and tequila tradition, allowing the market release of products of poor quality and poor expressiveness.

Among the most representative of modern technology is the diffuser, used to maximize the extraction of sugars, and the distillation column equipment that delivers faster distillation and low energy usage. The cost is a sacrifice of flavor and complexity in mezcal and tequila.

On an agricultural level, agrochemical technologies such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that accelerate the growth of agaves and kill pests and weeds have also been introduced. Unfortunately, these are toxic to the environment and have been unable to solve the problem of disease. Another issue is that some of the pests have become more resistant. In the case of tequila, these technologies have failed miserably in the long run. Diseases in vast plantations and poor yields are almost a given. Another technology that did not deliver the expected results was the micro propagation or “in-vitro culture,” which, from a single agave plant, will produce hundreds or thousands of new plants.

Presently, the production rules governing agave distillates allow the use of indefinite occurring sugars and the use of artificial added flavors. Labeling rules are also poor. Mixtures of cane spirits and agave are unfortunately common in low-quality brands. Important debates about the relevance of the rules are happening across the country. Academic and committed producers are seeking to better protect the consumer using information describing the strongest-quality agave products.

This section discusses the factors that influence the taste of mezcal.

What defines a mezcal and the processes to do it, from modern to traditional methods.

Furthermore, it presents the three most typical mezcals.

© 2013 Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal

All rights reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or recorded in or transmitted by an information retrieval system, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photochemical, electronic, magnetic, electro-optical, photocopying, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.


Although legally there are types and classes for mezcal and tequila, a consistent system by which to order the enormous diversity of these drinks has yet to be developed.

Currently, commercial labeling classifies mezcal and tequila according to only two criteria:



This mandatory classification system is informational for consumers but does not describe the nature of the product in its very essence. For this reason, many producers of highquality artisanal mezcal choose to give supplementary information, such as the variety or species of agave used and its geographic region.

Many mezcal lovers have criticized that the current norms allow mixed products (agave mixed with other sources of sugar) to be recognized as mezcal, tequila or even as agave distillate. We believe that this is detrimental to the reputation of these drinks.

The nature of mezcal provides axes of differentiation that are much more important than aging. Aging was not originally used in production and was a practice copied from products like rum, brandy and whiskey. In the case of agave spirits, aging is far from essential in achieving high-quality products

With some exceptions, aging was meant as more of a business or marketing strategy than a search for defined flavor or complexity. It was used to soften the product and bring the profile closer to what’s already been accepted by the consumer. The use of wood for flavoring needs to be evaluated carefully by producers. Wood is not automatically synonymous with a higher quality of mezcal.


The classification of mezcal and other agave distillates requires additional criteria to distinguish the product based on plant diversity. Considering this, mezcal could be better appreciated if more information was exhibited on labels, such as:


This is equivalent to knowing the grape variety in wine. It is important to know if using cultivated or wild agave, like Organic espadín agave or wild tobalá.


Naming the region, town or state where the mezcal is made helps establish a geographical relationship and, in many cases, an understanding of the flavors associated with the locality or terroir of the agave. Matatlán, Oaxaca; Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca; Arandas, Jalisco; Tequila, Jalisco are all places of origin.


The character and sensory quality of the product varies significantly depending on the technologies used to produce agave distillates. It is advisable to have a brief description of the manufacturing methods used as they strongly affect the sensorial characteristics of the product. For example, in some regions, wood vats are used for fermentation; in others, clay vessels. In some regions, copper stills are used in distillation; in others, clay stills with bamboo tubing.


It is important to know whether the mezcal we are tasting has been subject to flavoring processes and if so, which ones. Although the practice of placing external elements to add flavor and color to the product is not strictly necessary to obtain a good mezcal, there is a long tradition of infusing white mezcal with herbs, fruits and sometimes meats, and then distilling it for a third time. Mezcal de pechuga is a good example of this. The mezcal is first in direct contact with fruit and spices. Then a chicken breast is suspended inside the still during a third distillation.


As a result of peculiar variations in process or subsequent flavoring, different mezcals will have particular flavors and aromas.

These can be classified into four distinct groups according to their origins.

The complexity of mezcal can be surprising, particularly because white mezcal (the base of all others) is a distillate not subject to any maturation process. This means that everything found in the product is derived from the raw material and the basic processes with which it was created.


Scents and flavors come from the wood used to heat the stones in underground pits or kibas. Smoke flavors come from molecules released during combustion and are often expressed in the mezcal as notes of chili pepper, chocolate, ash, wood and fire. The higher the alcohol content is in a particular mezcal, the less intense the notes will be perceived. Variations occur in the smoke notes according to the type of wood, amount used and size of the ovens. Mezcals using steam as a cooking method do not enjoy the contribution of these notes.


Agaves are plants with extraordinary aromatic and flavor compounds, most notably the terpenes and essential oils. Approximately 30 terpenes that survive cooking have been identified in agave distillates. These plants contain fats in the cuticle and cell walls, which in alcoholic solutions such as mezcal, are converted into esters. Some notes from the raw agave include: anise, citrus, green and floral fragrances. Vanilla notes can come directly from the agave, as it is a natural compound, without any contribution of aging or wood participating as fuel in the production process. In the mouth, green notes can also impart bitter flavors characteristic of mezcal.


During the cooking process of agave piñas there are chemical reactions. Proteins are combined with sugars, releasing compounds that powerfully influence the flavor of mezcal. In typical artisanal mezcals, very slow, underground cooking will produce sweet and roasted notes like those of walnuts, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cooked pumpkin, brown sugar, honey and caramel, among others.


The fermentation process converts sugars to ethanol (common alcohol), and creates furan, esters, acetals and organic acids that are modified chemically from substances present in the fermented juice. In most crafted mezcals, long fermentation times (up to 10 days) and the absence of added yeast causes a lot of bacteria to be actively involved in the formation of compounds impacting the sensory experience of the product.

In processes occurring during wild fermentation —where airborne yeast drives the conversion of sugars into alcohol— additional simultaneous processes are driven by bacteria, such as acetic fermentation and malolactic fermentation. These processes give another layer of complexity to the final product as opposed to the exclusive use of added yeast. The result is the formation of compounds with fruity notes. Some flavors and aromas typical of bacterial fermentations are banana, pineapple, ripe red and dried fruits, as well as other notes like nail polish and white gas. Fats in the mezcal can also deliver leather and animal notes. These flavors can sometimes be overwhelming and perceived as defective notes. The timing, the use of yeast and temperatures of fermentation have an impact on the balance of the final compounds.


Mezcal can show notes as amazing and unique as the elements derived in its preparation. Some examples include:

1. Metallic or mineral notes in fermentation or distillation processes when equipment is made of stone, clay or even certain reactive metals.

2. Leather or animal notes in products when animal skin bags are used in fermentation or storage.

3. Plastic notes due to the use of uncertified containers that release compounds. Unfortunately, the high cost of infrastructure has made it very common for some mezcaleros to use plastic without examining the impact it may have on their product.


Classic examples of mezcal modifications common after the initial production of mezcal joven include aging and adding insects, fruits and/or herbs without subsequent distillation. Mezcal de pechuga, or “breast mezcal,” is a good example of a mezcal that is normally obtained by a third distillation. Additionally (and unfortunately), the law allows the use of flavorings totally foreign to the nature and tradition of mezcal that are added to mask or enhance flavors, especially in cheap or high-volume products.


These are the most commonly known mezcals according to processes, fermentation, smoke and terroir.

High flavor complexity with well-defined notes of smoke, ripened fruit and acetone (petrol-like notes).

Bold flavor with predominant cooked agave notes like caramel followed by fermentation and green agave notes.

Poor expression in terms of complexity and intensity. It is common to use flavor agents and a secondary source of sugar (Mixto).


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