Mexico has a rich tradition of spirit production, focusing on two well-known spirits: tequila and mezcal. Both are distilled from agave plants but have distinct characteristics and production methods.
Tequila is primarily made from blue agave (Agave tequilana); the plants are typically harvested after 8-12 years of growth. The Mexican government regulates production, and it can only be produced in certain regions, primarily in the state of Jalisco and small parts of four other states (Guerrero, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas).
The agave plant leaves are removed during harvesting, leaving the core, called the piña, harvested and traditionally cooked in ovens or autoclaves to convert the starches into sugars. The cooked piñas are crushed to extract the juice and then fermented. This results in a liquid called "mosto", which is then distilled to create tequila. The final product can be either Blanco (unaged), Reposado (rested, aged 2-12 months), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), or Extra Añejo (aged more than 3 years).
On the other hand, mezcal can be made from various agave species, not just blue agave, giving the spirits a broader range of flavours. Production is not as strictly regulated as tequila. It can be produced in several states, with Oaxaca being the most famous.
During harvesting, the leaves are removed to reveal the piñas, typically roasted in underground pits with hot rocks and covered with agave leaves or canvas. This imparts a smoky flavour. After cooking, the piñas are crushed, and the juice is extracted for fermentation. Mezcal is usually distilled in small batches in pot stills made of clay or copper. The final product can vary widely in flavour and intensity.
Both tequila and mezcal hold cultural significance in Mexico, and the artisanal production methods contribute to the distinct qualities of each spirit. Recently, there has been a growing interest in premium and craft spirits, leading to the emergence of small-batch and boutique distilleries producing high-quality tequila and mezcal.