Let’s clear up some confusion that persists in Mexico’s world of spirits.
Agaves have been cultivated by humans in Mexico for thousands of years. They are primarily known for their use in the production of distilled spirits, such as tequila and mezcal, and a wide variety of lesser-known beverages.
Agave is a type of succulent plant native to arid regions of Mexico and the southwestern United States. They have thick, spiny, fleshy leaves and a sugar-producing core known as a piña (“pineapple” in Spanish).
It is this core that is cultivated for the production of spirits, including tequila and mezcal, but also other alcoholic beverages such as sotol (from Chihuahua) and bacanora (from Sonora).
So if all of these spirits come from the same plant, what makes them different? Well, for starters, they don’t all come from the same species of agave. For example, Tequila is distilled from the piña of the species known as agave tequilana or Agave Azul, which has several varieties, including the zingüin and moraleño. On the other hand, spirits like mezcal can be produced from various agave species, including papalote, arroqueño, and cimarron.
There is also the question of the spirit’s place of origin and production, which, just like Champagne, is extremely strict. For example, spirits labeled “tequila” can only originate from the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Michocán, and of course, Jalisco, where the vast majority of this elixir is made. That said, producers in other states, including Yucatán and Quintana Roo, produce a very similar product, using the exact same process but are forced to label their product differently, often with a wink wink, nudge nudge.
Mezcal can be produced in several states, including Sonora, Morelos, and Puebla. However, most of this spirit is produced in Oaxaca, where it is arguably the best.
What to look for when purchasing a bottle of tequila or mezcal
For starters, always ensure the bottle says “Hecho con 100% agave.” If the label does not say this, it is most likely that your spirit will contain only 51% agave and 49% of added sweeteners from sugar or corn syrup. This applies to all agave spirits.
Artisanal vs. mass-produced
Artisanal spirits have a certain cache and are usually your best bet. That said, several mass-produced agave spirits on the market are quite good. Of course, the dividing line between what makes something artisanal can be rather dubious, but still. If you find yourself in an agave-producing region (which by now is almost all of Mexico) — but especially Oaxaca or Jalisco — you are likely to come across very small-scale producers, some of which make only a couple hundred bottles a year, just as the ancients did.
Now, it’s true that many of these artisanal distilleries are unregulated and often even lack a label. So make sure to ask for a free sample before buying. More often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised.
What about the worm?
Called gusanos de maguey (Spanish for “agave worms”), these “worms” are actually a species of larva that grows on the agave itself. But if you look forward to gulping down this gusano for an extra kick, we are sad to inform you that this is simply not the case. The larvae were added to some bottles of mezcal, mostly for export, as a marketing strategy.
Shots! Shots! Shots!
In Mexico, the idea of “shooting” a fine tequila or mezcal is borderline blasphemous. These spirits are meant to be savored slowly, as you would with fine brandy. If you plan to prepare an agave-based cocktail like a Tequila Sunrise, you may as well pick up the cheapest bottle you can find, as wasting good spirits like this is a major faux pas.
There is much more to talk about regarding agaves, especially their production process and differences between young and aged spirits, but we will save that for another time.
Ultimately how you decide to enjoy agave spirits is up to you. Just remember not to overdo it because the myth that only cheap agaves give you a hangover is exactly that, a myth.