a-mezcal
Image courtesy of Los Danzantes.

You’d have to live on a faraway desert island to not know—or have heard of—tequila, Mexico’s emblematic distilled spirit made from the agave plant. And if you’ve visited Puerto Vallarta before, chances are you have heard of raicilla, another distilled spirit made from agave. For that matter, it’s very likely that you’ve tried both and may have embraced and learned to love them. What if we told you about mezcal, yet another distilled spirit made from the agave plant?

Once considered rural and primitive, mezcal is experiencing a surge in popularity, reaching gourmet status in Mexico City and other cosmopolitan destinations, Puerto Vallarta included. And it’s crossed the border. According to BloomburgBusinessweek, Latin-America, mezcal exportation increased by 54 percent in 2010, reaching gourmet eateries and serious cocktail bars in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other destinations.

Mezcal is hardly a novelty, however. In fact, its origin can be traced beyond that of tequila itself. It is unknown whether distilled drinks were produced in pre-Hispanic Mexico, but when Spanish conquistadors were introduced to pulque, a fermented beverage made from a type of agave, they began experimenting with it to create a distilled spirit, the origin of mezcal. While tequila blossomed in the state of Jalisco, most mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca.

a-mezcalini
Café des Artistes' Cucumber Mezcalini

To properly understand mezcal, some preliminary information is helpful. For starters, the word itself is a generic term used to describe any alcoholic beverage distilled from the agave plant—tequila and raicilla included. Official norms and regulations dictate, however, that for a mezcal to be referred to as tequila, it must be distilled from a specific type of agave—Agave tequilana, commonly known as blue agave—and originate in specific areas of Jalisco and neighboring states. Mezcal, on the other hand, is mostly made from Agave americana, commonly known as maguey, using centuries-old artisan methods. Raicilla is also an artisan beverage, but it is made from a broader variety of agaves.

Then there is the whole business of the worm. Yes, a fair amount of Oaxacan mezcal is bottled with a gusano de maguey. It is, in fact, the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis, which lives on and frequently infests the agave plant, added as part of the bottling process. There are as many explanations behind the worm—caterpillars, actually—as there are hangover remedies. Some believe it originated in the 1940s as a marketing gimmick. Others claim that the worm adds a certain flavor to the mezcal or indicates that it is suitable for drinking. The one thing we are quite certain of is that it is not an aphrodisiac! Parenthetically, when fully matured, the caterpillars are known as chinicuiles and are considered a delicacy in Mexican cuisine.

Drinking mezcal presents a challenge or two. It is not as smooth as tequila, and its strong, smoky flavor presents a complication when it comes time to mix it in cocktails. This, however, has not deterred creative mixologists, including Puerto Vallarta restaurateur Thierry Blouet, from coming up with tantalizing treats. Aside from offering several artisan mezcal brands for sipping at P’yote Lounge, the bar in his signature restaurant, Café des Artistes, chef Blouet has developed an entire martini menu of aptly named mezcalinis for those who would like a milder introduction to the spirit. La Palapa on Los Muertos Beach also offers their own line of drinks, and Mexican specialty restaurant El Arrayán is said to be exploring some new menu offerings that feature mezcal.

Expect to hear more about this intriguing spirit around Puerto Vallarta in months to come, and do not hesitate to inquire about it at your favorite local restaurant!