Types & Qualities
Contents of the standard NOM-070-SCFI-1994
There are three categories (categorías) for Mezcal according to their age, similar to Tequila.
- Mezcal Joven: Unaged, of clear colour.
- Mezcal Reposado: Aged minimum two months in containers of holm oak (encino – Quercus ilex) or white oak (roble blanco – Quercus alba), light caramel in colour.
- Mezcal Añejo or Añejado: Aged for minimum 1 year in similar containers, limited to a capacity of 200 litres. Dark caramel in colour.
All three types can be processed to Mezcal Abogado, which allows for certain natural products to be added such as colourings or aromas. Mezcal de Gusano (“with worm”) is a Mezcal Abogado.
Further requirements that meet the standard and are important to know for the consumer:
- Alcohol strength between 36% and 55%.
- Mezcal tipo I: Distilled from 100% agave, needs to bear the information “100% Agave” on the label.
- Mezcal tipo II (mixto): Distilled from minimum 80% agave and maximum 20% other sugars, which are added to the mash.
- When bottled at its place of production the label bears the remark "Envasado de Orígen“, when bottled elsewhere in Mexico: "Envasado en México“.
Furthermore there are chemical requirements which have to be checked in certified laboratories.
The application of the standard is controlled by COMERCAM, products without its label are officially not marketable. The concept of this standard is derived from the Tequila standard CRT. This is the reason for the widely spread discontent with this regulation. On the one hand political lobbying of the Tequila companies is responsible to a certain degree for the mediocre reputation of Mezcal, on the other hand the standard for Tequila had negative effects on its quality level. Mass production spoiled the diversity of different products from various types of agaves in favor for Agave tequilana Weber , which is by no means the best, but just the most effective one for alcohol production. The unspeakable mixto were allowed for, which contain foreign sugars up to an amount of 49%. Also the “aging” in barrels –mostly simple coloring- and rather low grades of alcohol up to 40% have made an industrial commodity out of an artisanal product.
Different processes and the use of regionally varying species of agave and their mixtures are responsible for the wide range of tastes of Mezcal. Especially for wild agaves, the natural surroundings, altitude, orientation and habitat are important for the forming of different tastes, as is the case with wine. Furthermore all the steps of the process, handled by the master distiller, leave their traces in the final product. The temperature while cooking and distilling, the types of yeasts, the climate of the location of the distillery and many other factors produce the final flavor of the spirit.
The regulations of the standard cover these realities only partly, hence the discontent about it. Some critics have founded the group "Mezcales tradicionales de los Pueplos de México" to work out new criteria on the basis of the old techniques.
- No chemicals to be applied in any stage of the process.
- Full acceptance of the local cultural and technological processes, including the “historic taste” (gusto histórico), which has been developing over time at the place of production.
- Production in discontinuous distillation in stills from ceramics, copper, agave, reed, wood, stone and other materials.
- Alcoholic strength minimum 45% and according to local tradition at the place of production.
- Processes and products are subject to a social monitoring by the local population and its experts (maestros mezcaleros). Those who do not comply with the requirements are not allowed to sell their products in the locality.
- The product should form part of the local culture such as celebrations or cuisine meaning it will be consumed within the local community.
- Mezcal should always be consumed as Joven, never aged in barrels.
- For quality control only traditional methods should be applied –as described under PRODUCTION - such as dropping the liquid and monitoring the bubbles as well as smell and texture in addition to any other commonly practiced and local methods for testing used by the producers.
The approach of "Mezcales tradicionales" is much more precise than the standard and it also respects the product much more. Nevertheless the chemical check-ups by COMERCAM mean –especially for the foreign consumer- a level of product safety which had not existed before. To cut it short: A COMERCAM-passed Mezcal definitely will not leave you blind, but this doesn't mean it is a premium product.
Quality checks for the final consumer
Some hints at what could be a decent Mezcal:
- Alcoholic strength minimum 45%, distilled from 100% agave
- When pouring the beverage or shaking the bottle bubbles should appear. This requires an alcohol content of at least 45%. The bubbles should be small and durable. When alcohol is higher than 55% the bubbles are bigger and less durable.
- When rubbed into the hands the smell should be from cooked agave, not from sugar cane or sugar cane alcohol.
- When swaying the glass the oils should drain off the rim very slowly.
- The label should bear information on the location of the distillery, the master distiller and an individual bottle number.
Mezcal de Pechuga
A special form is Mezcal de Pechuga (“Mezcal from the chest”), a triple distilled Minero, where different fruits, spices (raisins, cinnamon, pineapple, banana, apple etc.) and sugar are put into the still and a raw chicken breast hung in its helmet. The vapours pass along the meat, which balances the strong flavors from the spices, but not touching them.
Mezcal de Gusano
The most famous Mezcal product is Mezcal de Gusano (“Mezcal with worm”), which contains one or more larva from the Hypopta agavis (gusano rojo, chinicuil, belatobe), a type of moth.
The origin of this product is not completely clear, some sources claim it is a marketing gimmick by the brand Gusano Rojo from the 1950s. In Europe people think the insect indicates a high grade of alcohol, which prevents its decomposition. In Japan the increase of sexual virility is attributed to the “worm”, so Mexican producers put several of them in the bottles dedicated for the Japanese market.
What is certain is that these larva belong to local diet and that they give a distinct flavor to Mezcal. Normally, however, a Mezcal de Gusano is rather mediocre in quality and it can be assumed that the insect is meant to level unwanted flavours in the spirit. A premium Mezcal never contains a “worm”!