Just as Champagne can truly only be called Champagne if it is from this particular region in France, so to is Tequila only from the region of Tequila, Mexico . While there are some similarities between Tequila and Mezcal, there are also numerous things that set them apart from one another.
Translated, Mezcal means "oven cooked agave", and is made from the green agave plant (also called the Maguey plant), and can take upwards of eight years to mature. Once the plant has matured it is harvested and then needs to be re-planted, which starts the entire lengthy process all over again. Interestingly, there is a specific type of Maguey that only grows in the wild, called a Tobala. Every attempt to farm produce this has failed.
As there are different types of Maguey plants, the mezcaleros (people who make Mezcal), will blend different types of agave to produce the various flavors, imparting distinct aromas and tastes just like wine. And because Tequila is made solely from blue agave, the producers of Tequila rely on the manufacturing process and aging process to produce the specific flavors.
At the start of the harvesting process, the spiny leaves of the agave are removed to reveal a core called a "piña", which literally translates into pineapple due to its appearance. After this stage, the mezcaleros are ready to begin the cooking process. Where the blue agave is generally cooked above ground, Mezcal requires a little more attention in order to start extracting out those smoky characteristics.
First, a hole in the ground is dug and a fire started. The fire is then covered with large rocks until they are super heated and then covered with the wet agave fibres from the previous batch of Mezcal manufacturing. Next, the agave piñas are halved and added to the hot rocks and mound of fibres. The piñas are packed in tightly and then covered with tarps, burlap, and plastic before being completely buried in the soil. From here, a hole is cut into the top so water can be poured into the mix of piñas, fibres, and rocks. The goal here is to trap as much steam as possible, thereby transforming the piñas after 3-5 days of stewing...this is the "piña sauna".
Once the piñas are cooked they are ground up into a paste and placed into wooden barrels for approximately 15-20 days of fermentation. The juice is then poured off into a liquid known as Tepache. Apparently a few people drink this "high test" juice, but of course many will wait for the double distilling, which ends up as the bottled product.
So there you have it, the "Coles Notes" version that takes the agave plant and turns it into Mezcal.
Have a great weekend!