The two tipples have many similarities, not least that they are both exported around the world, as Mexico's contribution to drinks cabinets globally. (The Prague Post, in the Czech Republic, is currently featuring a Mezcal based cocktail recipe: 'From the Bartender: Mezcalihna'.) The USA and Japan remain the biggest buyers of Mezcal from Mexico.
Tequila and Mezcal are also both distilled from the agave plant. In fact, the name Mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl words, 'Melt' and 'Ixcalli', which translate as 'oven-cooked agave'. In this way, tequila is a form of Mezcal too, though it tends to be considered separately. This is where the drinks start to diverge. Tequila is made from blue agave and it is twice fermented. Mezcal is made from maguey agave and it is only fermented once.
Milking a Maguey Plant
The maguey agave plant is huge. It can stand up to 2m (6.6ft) tall, with thick, spreading leaves reaching out another 4m (13ft). When it is in flower, the petals stretch a further 8m (26ft). With such a towering structure, even the younger plants can dwarf a human being. It's an impressive sight and it has attracted its legends and folklore too.
Maguey is often referred to as the Divine Plant; in great part because it was born from the remains of the Goddess Mayahuel. The story comes to us from the Atzec people, who honored her as one of their most important deities. There are carvings of Her in the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). She is associated with truth, fertility, nourishment, inner journeys and, of course, the agave plant.
Mayahuel lived in the sky, with her Tzitzimitl grandmother. The all female, warrior Tzitzimimeh were seen as stars, particularly those only apparent around the sun, during a solar eclipse. This was also when they were most dangerous.
Ordinarily, the Tzitzimimeh were the protectoresses of women; but they also created all mankind. Particles of stardust reached the Earth and formed themselves into humanity. (Interestingly enough, it is now scientific fact that life on Earth is possible because of the elements forged in the stars.)
However, when there was a solar eclipse, the Tzitzimimeh could descend to Earth and devour human beings.
Mayahuel grew up amongst them, but She, Herself, was not Tzitzimitl. Yet, from Her home in the starry paradise of Tamoanchan, She could watch all that happened below and all who lived there. She could also see the Gods and Goddesses. In particular, She spotted the feathered serpent God, Quetzalcoatl. Mayahuel fell in love. At the very next solar eclipse, as the doors of Tamoanchan opened to emit the Tzitzimimeh on their deadly pillage, Mayahuel rushed out too.
The lovers met and ran away together, determined to live out all eternity in each other's arms. But no-one had asked the permission of the Tzitzimimeh and they saw everything. The couple transformed themselves into trees, side by side, to escape notice. It was too late. They had been seen. The star deities swooped down and tore Mayahuel limb from limb.
Quetzalcoatl tearfully took her remains and buried them in the ground. Immediately something began to push back through the soil. It was the first, mighty maguey plant, with a glorious flower reaching back towards the skies. Mayahuel lived again, anchored into the ground from Her roots, and filled with the divine love of Quetzalcoatl.
Mayahuel by Ehecatzin
Mayahuel is a dark goddess now. She saw all from the stars and She is the beloved of a God. She can see inside our very souls and give us visions to access our spiritual journeys. It is said that She grew 400 breasts to nourish rabbits with Her milk. The first drink made from the sap of the maguey was pulque. It was the ritual draft used in Atzec ceremonies, inducing wild hallucinations and the ecstatic dance.
This same milk is now distilled to create Mezcal. Despite common misconception, it does not contain mescaline nor any other hallucinogenic substance. It's produced in an entirely different way to pulque.
While on the subject of misconceptions about Mezcal, let's deal with the worm. For a start, it's not a worm. It's the lavae form of a moth. Hypopta agavis is the correct name for this moth, which lives, feeds and breeds in the manguey plant. This is usually at the distress of farmers, as the presense of the moth means that there is an infestation and the crop is ruined.
A worm in the Mezcal!!11!!!!1!!
During the 1940s, some bright spark in Oaxaca apparently had the gift of the gab. Who knows how the lavae got into the Mezcal? Perhaps it fell in during the bottling process. Perhaps someone tried to sabotege the sale. Perhaps it was someone's idea of a joke. Maybe it was even a warning. However it happened, the lavae was in this batch of Mezcal, which was already of lower quality than normal, because of the infestation. Yet he managed to sell it. Bravo the salesman!
Except now no-one can sell Oaxaca Mezcal without a lavae in it, because the urban myth is that the 'worm' adds to the flavour and proves that it's fit to drink. The distillers have to collect tubs of the insects, from infested farms, in order to drop a lavae into bottles of their own high-grade Mezcal. It has long since become one of the most successful marketing ploys ever. It doesn't add to the flavour. It doesn't do anyting. It's killed, scrubbed, sanitized, sterilized and dropped into alcohol. There it stays, mostly for the shock value and people daring each other to eat it.
The Oaxava Annual International Mescal Fair takes place in July. This year's arrangements haven't been made public yet, but they will be announced on official website. It regularly attracts over 50,000 visitors; and it is an excellent place to be introduced to the country's finest Mezcal. ¡Salud!