February 10, 2013

Mezcal: “The tree of life”

By Martin Cabrera

Mezcal, formerly known as Mezcalli in the Nahualtl language, is a distilled alcoholic beverage that comes from the maguey plant and is a relative of tequila and pulque (a ritual drink of most of the Mesoamerican tribes).  Mezcal is embedded in Mexican history and has noble roots, as only priests and rulers drank mezcal for rituals and special ceremonies. The Aztecs, Mexicas, and Olmecas used the maguey plant to make adobe out of the pulp, twine out of the fibers, and aqua miel (honey water) that, once fermented, became pulque. 

It is not certain whether the native people of Mexico had any distilled liquors prior to the Spanish conquest.  Jose Acosta, a Spaniard who settled in Mexico in 1586, was amazed by the versatility of the plant, calling it the “tree of Life.” There are over 200 species of maguey plants, of which 170 grow in Mexico alone, although most of the mezcal production occurs in Oaxaca. 

Maguey prevails in the harshest of climates. It is able to withstand pro- longed droughts because it stores water in its long, broad leaves for years.  


It takes at least seven years for the maguey core to ripen for harvest, at which time the maguey core is cooked in a wood-burning oven. After this process, the maguey core is ready for distillation in clay pots or copper stills. Although there are 200 species of maguey plants, there are three common species used for commercial production: espadine, cenizo and tequilana.

There are two classifications for mezcal: Type I and Type II. Type 1 is 100 percent agave mezcal, while type II can lawfully contain up to 20 percent of carbohydrates other than agave. 

Each of these classifications has various distillation and bottling times. A young

classification means that the mezcal was bottled immediately after distillation. A rested classification means that the mezcal was aged in wooden oak barrels for at least two months. Finally, an aged classification means that the mezcal was aged in oak barrels for at least one year. 


In recent years small-batch artisanal mezcals have surfaced to replace the cheaper versions. Mixologists and chefs have fallen under the spell of mezcals, combining their natural smokiness and floral notes that will elevate any drink or dish. Even the world renowned chef, Ferran Adria, has discussed plans to open a mezcal bar in Barcelona in 2013. 

Born in Mexico, chef and mixologist Martin Cabrera has lived in Argentina and studied in and cooked throughout Europe and the U.S.  He has worked with chefs including Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck, and was mentored by renowned Mexican cuisine chef, Dudley Nieto. Cabrera, whose expertise extends from the kitchen to the bar, now consults for restaurants across the United States and abroad.

To see his recipe for The Smokey Roja cocktail, click here.

For more mezcal recipes, click here.

Interested in learning how to be a mezcalier? Click here.

Watch for more information about how Mexican and Latin restaurants are using mezcals in the Hispanic Cocktails feature coming in the Spring  issue of el Restaurante Mexicano.

February 10, 2013

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