Mezcal Industry: Overview
Mezcal is any spirit produced from the agave desert plant, which has close to 200 types. It can be made from about 30 agave varietals, particularly agave Espadin. Due to the widespread popularity of the use of mezcal in cocktails, new and discerning consumers have become attracted to mezcal.
WHAT IS MEZCAL?
- Mezcal is any spirit produced from the agave desert plant, which has close to 200 types. By this definition, tequila is also a type of mezcal.
- However, while tequila is made from only one varietal of agave — the Blue Weber, mezcals can be made from about 30 agave varietals, particularly agave Espadin (90%). Other types of agaves used for mezcals include Tepeztate, Tobala, and Arruqueño agaves.
- Mezcal has a smoky flavor, which results from its production process — it is deeply roasted in pits known as palenques.
- Agaves, which are very hardy plants, are cultivated in dry climates, with mediocre soils that don't need irrigation. They have natural defenses that deter large predators and are sometimes mistaken for a type of cactus.
- Agaves grow from onion-sized plants cut off from the mother agave plants at about one year old, with 30-50cm of leaf still attached.
- They grow into maturity in about 7-10 years (when they are harvested), and have a long life-span of between 25 and 30 years. When they are ripe, they have sharply pointed leaves that can reach a height of over two meters.
- The plant flowers once in its lifetime, after which it dies.
- After harvest, the sharply pointed leaves or spines are cut off, leaving the heart called the piña, which translates to pineapple, as it resembles the pineapple fruit. The piña can weigh up to 200 pounds (100 kg).
HOW MEZCAL IS PRODUCED
- The production process for mezcal begins by cutting the harvested agave piñas into halves or quarters and placing them in a pit with red-hot river stones, "which are then covered up with agave leaves and fiber and straw mats, piled up with earth, and left to roast for four days." Roasting the agave piña brings out its very sweet natural sugars.
- Next, the roasted agaves are removed from the palenques (the roasting pit), and using a stone wheel being pulled by either a mule or horse, the roasted agaves are crushed at a special grinding mill.
- With a pitchfork, a person is required to move the agaves in the mill to ensure that they are grounded up consistently while the animal pulls the roller.
- After crushing, the agaves are placed in wooden barrels to ferment.
- First, they add hot water to the barrels and leave them for a few days. Next, they fill the barrel up to brim with cold water and allow the agaves to ferment for several days. The length of time allowed for fermentation depends on the weather; the fermentation process takes less time in hot weather.
- The mash is then distilled twice. Low-grade alcohol is produced during the first distillation, after which the fibers are removed from the still, then the resulting alcohol is distilled a second time.
- The mezcal is then blended to derive a consistent grade of alcohol and is either bottled immediately or left in oak barrels to age.
- Based on the time allowed for aging, mezcal is sold in various formats, including:
- Mezcal Blanco or Joven (aged for zero — two months)
- Mezcal Reposado (aged for two months — one year) (Sometimes, a larva (Chinicuil), found inside the agave plant, is added to the mezcal reposado at the time it is bottled.)
- Mezcal Anejo (one—three years)
- Extra Anejo (older than three years)
- In addition to these, there are also cremas de mezcal, which is sweetened and come in different flavors, including coffee, coconut, and passionfruit.
- Legally sold mezcal, which also has the NOM stamp of authenticity, is produced in any of the nine legally recognized states in Mexican. These states include "Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, Durango, San Luís Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas."
- Oaxaca is, however, the epicenter of mezcal production, responsible for over 90% of the world's mezcal supply.
WHAT MEZCAL IS MOST USED FOR AND HOW
- While mezcal was traditionally sipped straight in Oaxaca, it has grown popular as a great substitute for tequila in cocktails like Palomas and Margaritas. Due to its rising popularity and availability, enthusiasts now feature mezcal in drinks such as Old Fashioned, Daiquiris, and others.
- "Mixto" mezcals are also available, but they must be at least 80% agave.
- Bars offer mezcal flights along with different mezcal cocktails. For example, a bar mixes "Del Maguey Single Village Vida mezcal, Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Solera Reserva Sherry, falernum and ginger syrups, and lime juice."
- According to Michael Gardner, Del Maguey's global business leader, mezcal "is highly popular among key influencers and discovery seekers, and within the cocktail space, it's particularly vibrant."
THE STATE OF THE GLOBAL MEZCAL INDUSTRY
- Premiumization, which has become common over the past five years, is one of the key emerging trends in the global mezcal market. The trend has been vital in driving the overall performance of the mezcal market in various regions.
- In Western European countries like the UK, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and France, there has been an immense growth in the demand for premium mezcal products.
CONSUMER DEMAND FOR VARIETY
- Leaning on tequila's success, the demand for mezcal grew from fewer than 50,000 cases to about 360,000 cases between 2009 and 2017. This growth is driven by consumer demand for variety, as tequila consumers, especially millennials, are keen on trying out something new and exciting.
- The use of mezcal in cocktails is driving growth in the industry by exposing consumers to its complex flavor profile.
- Bartenders and producers consider the mezcal's mixology potential as essential for consumer education.
- Due to the widespread popularity of the use of mezcal in cocktails, new and discerning consumers have become attracted to mezcal. In addition, this popularity is also helping to reset mezcal's image for those with negative past experiences.
- A significant part of mezcal's consumer base includes those who enjoy other spirits such as tequila and Scotch that have sophisticated flavor profiles.
INTEREST IN ARTISANAL MEZCALS
- Artisanal mezcals are also driving growth because of their rich history, which consumers find who would prefer spirits with an authentic provenance find appealing.
- Factors like "Single Village" (referring to mezcals produced using agave from one area, with ambient features) and the use of wild agave places mezcals in line with the artisan spirit movement, about which mixologists and spirits nerds are getting increasingly excited.
- As a result, as more multinational companies are venturing into the market, they need to remain committed to authentic methods of production and quality as they scale.
ON-PREMISE IS DRIVING GROWTH
- While off-premise consumption of mezcal is growing, especially in metropolitan areas, on-premise consumption in restaurants and bars is a primary driver for mezcal. For example, the mezcal brand, Del Maguey, which does equally well with men and women, sells 80% of its product in restaurants and bars.
To provide details about the state of the global mezcal industry, including the trends driving the industry and the growth of the industry in the last few years, we compiled corroborated findings from different articles, which also included comments from experts in the industry.