Mezcal Artesanal – History of the Mexican drink fallen from heaven: mezcal

Mezcal what is …

The drink known as mezcal arises from the distillation of fermented agave juice and, when the penca reaches maturity between six and twelve years, the leaves are cut, leaving only the pineapple or heart, which then goes through a cooking process , it is ground and finally it is left to ferment. It is subsequently distilled at least twice. There are different types, such as breast mezcal, espadín mezcal, worm mezcal, tobalá mezcal, and even mezcal with worm.

Of the more than 200 known agave species, 150 are endemic to Mexico and only 40 of them allow the distillation of mezcals, each with distinctive characteristics.

In addition to the type of agave, it is also important to know the designation of origin of mezcal, since only seven states of the Republic have it, such as Guerrero, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Durango, six districts of mezcal Oaxaca, a municipality of Guanajuato and eleven from Tamaulipas.

The mezcal-producing species are distributed mainly towards the west, center and south of Mexico, along the Sierra Madre Occidental, Eje Volcánico Transversal and Sierra Madre del Sur. There are 14 species that are used commercially, eight are used locally and six more are used occasionally. The most used agave is the Agave angustifolia and its distribution ranges from Sonora to Chiapas. It has more than 30 common names, some are: chacaleño, mezcal espadín, espadilla, ixtero, mezcal, lineño and tepemete.

The term mezcal comes from a double Nahuatl root: melt, which means agave, and ixcalli, which means cooked. That is why to understand the history of mezcal, we must first know the history of the agave.

It is popularly believed that the agave is a cactus, however, it is a plant that belongs to the agavaceae family. It has a structure with long bluish-green leaves and has a part called the pineapple or head, which is used to make alcoholic beverages.

“Legend has it that Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, the Cosmic Wind, visited the beautiful virgin Mayahuel one night in heaven, a beautiful Tzitzimin star who slept with her sisters and her grandmother who cared for them. He spoke in her ear like the wind does. , whispering, and seduced her with his sweet words. And the young Mayahuel, tired of her heavenly paradise, then agreed to go down to the earthly world sliding on the backs of the Wind. Quetzalcóatl and Mayahuel joined, and when they joined they transformed into a tree of two branches. The grandmother, swollen with anger, found the fugitive hidden in a branch, which she tore off to feed her sisters. The splinters, leftovers from the feast, were the bones of Mayahuel, which Quetzalcóatl collected and buried, disconsolate . From the divine bones the maguey of the earth was born, the body of the goddess Mayahuel, mother of the 400 rabbit lords, who would provide sacred water in the middle of the arid plateau, a moon-fountain in the center of terrestrial desolation “(Nahuatl Legend de Mayahuel, in version of Dominique Dufétel, 2004).

With this legend, the Nahuas made reference to the origin of a very important plant in pre-Hispanic Mexico: the maguey, which was represented in different codices and was considered heavenly. But what is the difference between agave and maguey? It can be said that they are the same, since both are used to name the plants of the Agavaceae family. The difference lies in how they are used.

The word maguey was brought by Hernán Cortés from the name given to this plant by the Tainos, inhabitants of the current Dominican Republic. In 1520, in his second Letter of relationship written to King Carlos V, Cortés says: “They sell honey from some plants that they call maguey in the other islands, which is much better than syrup, and these plants make sugar and wine that they also sell.”

The name agave comes from the ancient Greek Άγαυή which means admirable, noble or illustrious, and was given to this plant due to the great variety of uses among indigenous peoples. In 1753, when the Swedish naturalist and botanist Carlos Linnaeus made this word known as the scientific term to refer to the genus of the so-called “tree of wonders” or maguey. That is why when using the scientific term for a tobalá, it will be Potatorum Zucc agave, while its common name is maguey tobalá or maguey papalomé.

The genus agave comprises two subgenera: the Littaea and the Agave. The first is spiky in shape, with a high content of saponin, is used for decoration and contains smilagenin, an essential raw material for making steroids. The species that make up the agave subgenus are exploited to produce fermented beverages such as pulque, and distilled, such as tequila or mezcal; or to extract fibers, forages and food.

Before the production of mezcal, pulque existed, a sacred drink that could only be consumed by priests on certain occasions and by older people on festivities. This drink is made with the ferment of the sap (mead) of maguey species that grow in the temperate zones of Mexico (Agave mapisaga, A. salmiana, etc.), the hearts or pineapples of the plant are cooked, then they are crushed to extract the juice and ferment. In this way, pulque and must are currently made to distill and obtain mezcal.

However, in some regions like Chiapas, pulque is distilled to produce a type of mezcal: the comiteco. Some agaves can produce both pulque and mezcal.

And speaking of agave, the difference between mezcal and tequila is worth mentioning. As is well known, the blue agave plant occurs in different parts of Mexico and from this plant different drinks are obtained that receive the generic name of mezcal and take the surname of the population from which they originate. The most famous is the mezcal de Tequila, originally from Tequila, Jalisco.

There are several species of agave that can be fermented and distilled for the production of alcoholic beverages, however, only the Weber tequilana agave in its blue variety is authorized for the production of tequila.

The cultivation of this plant requires factors such as an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level; favorably volcanic soil, clayey, permeable and abundant in basalt and iron; constant temperature of semi-dry climate that oscillates between 20º; sun exposure and between 65 and 100 cloudy days of the year.

This type of agave can reproduce anywhere on the planet. It is a fleshy plant in the shape of a rosette, fibrous, blue or grayish green due to its high content of waxes that prevent the plant from losing water. It has rigid leaves with thorns, stores inulin in the stem and is a producer of fructose.

But where does the history of mezcal begin? Several scholars agree that Mexico is the center and origin of the maguey dispersal, since in this immense territory agaves of less evolved forms exist in the wild, as well as the largest number of varieties. Its presence in Asian and Mediterranean countries is due to the fact that man took it to those places for its exploitation.

It is said that for 14 thousand years, the inhabitants of Mexico and the southern United States have already burned and chewed maguey.

According to a study published in December 2009 by the Yucatan Center for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (Inah), the knowledge and use of distillation existed in Mexican lands since approximately 400 BC.

In Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla, maguey cooking ovens were found dating back to 400 BC, and in southern Arizona extensive crops of different types and charred residues of maguey inflorescences, spines and teeth, as well as stone tools that culture Hohokam used in 1400 AD

In 1577 Francisco Hernández de Toledo describes the maguey in his Natural History of New Spain as a plant that “alone could easily provide everything necessary for a frugal and simple life, since it is not damaged by storms or the rigors of the climate, nor wilted the drought ”.

By 1590, the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta would say in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies that:

“The marauilla tree is the Maguey […] that gives water, and wine, and azeyte, and vinegar, and honey, and syrup, and thread, and needle, and another hundred coſas. He is a tree, which in the new Eſpaña the Indians […] greatly esteem […] and grow and cultivate it in the fields. […] The trunk that is thick[grueso] when he is tender, they cut him off, and he is left with great caution, where[sube] the ſuſtance [sustancia] de la rayz, and it is a liquor that drinks like water, and is fresh, and sweet: it is cooked the same as wine, and leaving it azedar, it is good vinegar: and pressing more to the fire it is like honey; already half cooked coirue de arrope, and it is of good ſavor and ſano, and in my opinion it is better than arrope de vuas ”(Book Quarto 165).

In pre-Hispanic Mexico the agave was considered a sacred plant and its oldest records date from codices such as the Nahuatl Tanalmatl, Nutall, Laud, Florentino and Mendocino. In them it is recorded that the indigenous tribes found different uses for the agave and its by-products, and the Mexica learned to cook the agave pineapples.

In 1898, the Norwegian ethnologist Carl Lumholtz found that the Huichols of Nayarit made mezcal using a very simple clay distiller, like a distiller of Filipino origin. This discovery, together with the recent discovery in Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla of maguey cooking ovens dating back to 400 BC, has led to the formulation of a theory about the pre-Hispanic origin of distillation.

During the conquest in the area of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit and Aguascalientes, a brandy from the agave plant began to be made, which was taken at festivals and religious ceremonies and the Spaniards took it from the horn of a cow.

According to UNAM publications, in 1619 the first record of the existence of maguey alcohol in Nayarit appeared, in the Description of the New Galicia of Arregui:

“Mexcales are very similar to maguey and their roots and base of the leaf are burned and eaten … they extract a must from which they obtain wine by distillation, clearer than water and stronger than brandy to taste. And although there are many virtues of the mexcale from which it is made, they (the Indians) use it with such excess that they discredit the liquid as well as the plant ”.

Due to the success of the new drink made from maguey, the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages of non-Spanish origin was decreed by King Carlos III of Spain. The production of mezcal in Colima and Jalisco was done clandestinely in taverns far from the supervision of the crown, which made the establishment of large plantations impossible.

By 1795, King Carlos IV ended the prohibition and granted a license to sell what was then called “mezcal wine” to José Prudencio Cuervo, at the “La Cofradía” farm in the region of Tequila, Jalisco. From then on, the industrialized production of mezcal was established.

In Michoacán, the mezcal tradition dates back to the time of the sugar plantation in La Concepción, when its owners welcomed a family from Jalisco or Michoacán to teach them how to make mezcal. This is how the oldest antecedent of the reference in the town considered as the cradle of the artisanal mezcal of Michoacán, and the main state producer, is from a first vinata installed within the most important hacienda of the region where the knowledge.

This drink obtained from the distillation of the fermented musts of pineapples or cooked heads of maguey or mezcal was named mezcal more than 400 years ago. Many studies agree that in Mexico the dispersal of the maguey arose, since agaves of less evolved forms exist in the wild, as well as the greater number of varieties.

There are also studies that locate mezcal origin in the west and in the center of Mexico, however, historical data have been found that show that in Guerrero there were indications of mezcal elaboration in the viceroyalty.

It is said that the distillation process is a legacy of the Spaniards, thanks to the Arabs, and it was introduced to Mexico in the 16th century but became widely used from the 18th century on. From that moment on, the manufacture of distilled alcohols such as mezcal, brandy and tequila was possible.

However, there are several theories about the birth of mezcal, one of them is the pre-Hispanic origin or early distillation around 400 BC made by the people of Xochitecatl-Cacaxtla (Tlaxcala) knew the process of fermentation and distillation of mezcal as a ritual drink .

According to Jesús Espina, who is a mezcalero and founder of the Maguey Archive project, ceremonial centers like the one in Cacaxtla were directly linked to lunar deities. Such as with the mezcal whose goddess Mayahuel was directly related to the same star. According to Espina, it would not be surprising to think that the ancient Mexicans already distilled drinks before the arrival of the conquerors.

For him, as for the other researchers who made these discoveries in Colima, Jalisco and Tlaxcala, the slogan is clear: mezcal was made long before the Colony, with techniques that many civilizations in other parts of the world knew how to master until much later.

On the other hand, it is also said that in Colima, Mexico, bule and trifid type vessels have been found that may have been used to distill beverages (1500-1000 BC).

Although pieces of chewed cooked maguey dating back 10,000 years have been found in Yagul, Oaxaca, no traces of distillation instruments have been found.

Another theory is that of coconut wine, which says that during the viceroyalty, one of the trade routes was that of the Manila Galleon in the Pacific Ocean, which set sail from the Philippines to the port of Acapulco and Colima. In this galleon, Filipino slaves were taken to New Spain and it is said that they made a distillate made from the sap of the buds of the coconut palm that they called Tuba and, during the viceroyalty, the distilled Tuba was called Vino de cocos.

This indicates the possible first distillation of mezcal by the hand of the first Filipino sailors, who brought with them techniques and alembics, an object to carry out a traditional distillation process.

The Filipinos, upon their arrival in Mexico, established coconut plantations on the west coast of the country; With these plantations they made a coconut nectar called lambanog that was obtained from the fermentation of the mixture of coconuts. The theory indicates that the first distillations of mezcal took place in the Colima area and it was on these coasts that the Philippine coconut plantations took place.

The theory of the monasteries refers to the distillation made from copper stills brought by the Spaniards on the Atlantic Ocean route for the production of brandy from cane, and brandy from the distillation of wine. It is said that the missionaries spoke in 1539 about the production of mezcal in Zitala, Guerrero, as an abundant drink preferred by the native peoples.

What can be affirmed is that with the European conquest and colonization the derivatives of the maguey had a considerable increase. Pulque ceased to be the ritual drink, leaving it free for general consumption, in addition to receiving an impulse for its sale. The Europeans began the distillation of other agaves with which they made mezcals.

This drink also has a mythical origin in which it is said that lightning struck an agave and the first tatema was created, which is why it is considered a drink from heaven. Mezcal has a ceremonial and festive tradition, but also a healing and medicinal one.

Pulque and mezcal were drinks destined for sacred rituals and their consumption was exclusive to the ruling classes. In traditional medicine, mezcal has had a use similar to that of cane alcohol, used for rubbing and cleaning. As a ceremonial use, cornfields, buildings and crosses are blessed with it.

In the Valley of Oaxaca it is customary to accompany the deceased saints to the pantheon on November 2 and the last drink is poured over the tombs with the intention of dismissing the souls. In Mexico it is a traditional part of patron saint festivities; It is drunk by offering to the four directions or by putting the finger and offering a few drops to the earth. In short, it is part of the traditions of many indigenous peoples in the country.

Currently, Mexican mezcal, the spirit drink, is considered the purest alcohol in the world for human consumption, according to the Beverage Testing Institute of the United States. This is because most alcoholic beverages are monosaccharides, but the mezcal It is composed of polysaccharides that begin to disintegrate from the first contact with the mouth.

In this way, the human body absorbs and discards it more quickly. The speed of this process avoids the “hangover” the next day, which is why it is considered the most perfect alcohol for human consumption.

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