Anytime I find myself near a campfire, or even a smoking grill, it transports me to the side of an agave oven in Mexico. Billows of smoke waft in every direction as the pit is gradually filled by a hard-working team, carefully layering each agave heart. The smoke permeates my clothes, hair and skin, leaving a pleasant reminder that follows me for a few days. I’ve come to love the fading aroma of smoke on my jeans and jackets. The olfactory sense is one of the strongest for memory, and it feels as though I am carrying a piece of the ritual with me.
Mezcal has been distilled in Mexico for centuries. Unlike Tequila, which can only be made from blue agave and must be produced in specific regions of Mexico, mezcal can be made from various types of agave and is produced throughout the country.
The history of mezcal dates back to pre-Columbian times, when the indigenous peoples of Mexico were already producing a distilled beverage made from cooked agave. In fact, the word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which means ‘cooked agave’. The production process has evolved over time, but the basic principles remain the same: the agave is cooked, mashed, and fermented before being distilled. And the smokiness in mezcal comes from the way the agave is cooked.
Traditionally, the heart of the agave plant, known as the piña, is cooked to convert starches into fermentable sugars before fermentation and distillation. The piñas are cooked in a pit oven that is lined with rocks or clay or remains unlined, depending on the region. Rocks are added to the conical oven and are heated with wood or charcoal until they become red- hot. At that point, the piñas are placed in the oven and layered with fibres from a previous batch to prevent them from being scorched on the red-hot rocks. Once the oven is filled, it is sealed with earth and straw mats and left to cook for several days. During the cooking process, the agave is slowly roasted by the heat of the wood-fired stones, imparting a smoky flavour.
More important than the amount of smoke any given wood produces is the flavour
The type of wood used to light the fire depends greatly on the region and what is accessible. Some regions have rules and regulations about which types of wood can be used, while in other regions, wood is simply foraged from riverbanks. The most common wood used are the various oak varieties in the Quercus magnoliifolia family that is native to Mexico. Each wood produces a unique smoke profile, as well as tending to produce more or less smokiness during the cooking process. More important than the amount of smoke any given wood produces is the flavour. While it is subtle, some people claim to be able to taste the differences between two types.
Even the type of rocks used in the oven can vary from one area to the next. In Oaxaca, for example, producers often use river stones, which are plentiful in the region. In other parts of Mexico, like Durango, volcanic rock is more commonly used by the likes of Cuero Viejo, El Malpais (Sacro Imperio) and Origen Raíz. Different rocks absorb and impart flavours in different ways – for example, porous volcanic rock may absorb more of the smoke, leading to mezcals that are less smoky.
Yet another factor that affects the cooking process is whether or not water is added to the oven before it is covered, to create steam during cooking. Some producers add water to aid in temperature control and create a humid environment inside the oven, reducing the amount of smoke and thus the smokiness in the final spirit. However, other makers believe that adding water dilutes the flavour of the agave so choose to forgo this step.
The type of agave used also plays a role, with some varieties requiring more or less cooking time depending on their levels of hydration and sugar. The length of time the piñas are roasted can also affect the level of smokiness in the final product: the longer the roasting time, the more opportunity there is for smoke to permeate the agave and, in turn, the resultant mezcal. One well-known example of a characteristic long and deep roast is Del Maguey Chichicapa, which takes on a sweet caramelised, roasted flavour and ample smokiness.
While the cooking process of mezcal is the key step that imparts smokiness, it’s not the only one
All of these terroir aspects are at the intersection of regionality and the hand of the maker. This speaks to how unique each and every mezcal is, with seemingly infinite possibilities in each batch.
While the cooking process is the key step that imparts smokiness, it’s not the only one. Once the agave is cooked, it is mashed and fermented before being distilled. The type of still used may play a part, depending on what it is made of. Copper and stainless-steel stills, for example, are neutral materials that preserve the smokiness, while clay pots and wooden still elements can absorb some smokiness during distillation. Essentially, any time the agaves, mash or distillate come into contact with porous materials, it is an opportunity for the smoke flavour to be absorbed into those materials and out of the mezcal.
While the vast majority of artisanal mezcal is made in this way, it is worth noting that not all mezcals are made with agaves cooked in traditional pit ovens. When above-ground masonry or brick ovens with chimneys are used, no smokiness is imparted, since it is the time the agaves spend buried in the ground with wood-fired coals that is responsible for imbuing them with smoke.
The best mezcals express their terroir, conveying the flavours of the plant and land they hail from. Although smokiness is an essential and enjoyable characteristic of mezcal, it should be well integrated and not detract from the other flavours in these fine spirits. From the different types of rock used for lining ovens, to the addition of water for steam, countless factors can influence the final flavour of mezcal. It’s this complexity that makes mezcal not just a spirit but a work of art. Ultimately, the smokiness of mezcal comes from a carefully crafted production process that has been refined over centuries. While each producer brings its unique spin to the process, the result is always a spirit that is complex, flavourful and deeply rooted in tradition. These nuances can create subtle differences in the final product, making each mezcal a unique expression of the land and the people who produce it.
Five mezcal brands expressing different levels of smokiness
Sample mezcal from these producers to experience a balance of smokiness and other unique flavours that show off the many aspects of mezcal terroir
- Macurichos is made in an ancestral method, using clay-pot distillation, downplaying the smokiness to feature the pure flavours of the agave varieties, along with a subtle hint of earthy and creamy clay.
- Lágrimas de Dolores is distilled using metal stills, keeping the flavours of the agaves front and centre, with a subtle smokiness in the background.
- Tosba is made in a unique climate that favours tropical plants, creating completely unique flavour profiles in its one-of-a-kind mezcals. See if you can pick out any tropical-fruit notes
- Origen Raíz makes most of its expressions in Durango using a traditional Oaxacan method, including copper pot stills. They have a slight smokiness and bright, cooked agave flavours.
- Don Mateo is distilled using a wooden hat still and tends to be agave-forward, without too much smokiness.