How is mezcal different to tequila?
"Mezcal" defines two categories, one historical and one official.
Historically, "mezcal" was used to refer to any agave distillate. On this interpretation tequila qualifies as a type of mezcal.
However, since 1994 the term mezcal has been refined. Officially, mezcal is now a distillate made from any of 47 different varietals of agave, produced in one of the Mexican states within the denomination of origin - Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla or Zacatecas. Conversely tequila must be made out of Weber Azul agave produced in a different denomination of origin centred on the state of Jalisco.
Unofficially the typical differences between mezcal and tequila are of quality and scale. Mezcal must be 100% agave creating a higher quality product than the common entry level tequila which can be up to 49% neutral spirit (a.k.a. vodka). Mezcal production also tends to be small scale compared to the predominantly industrialised tequila industry.
Mezcal is also smoked. And smoking is cool.
Why is the alcohol content so high?
Traditionally, mezcal has always been produced to between 45-55% ABV - strong compared to tequila, vodka, and gin which tend to be around 40% ABV. With this in mind, when I first met Atenogenes I asked him if he could make me the same mezcal but at a lower ABV. Normally a calm and accommodating man, he suddenly became very stern.
"If it's not 48 percent, it's not mezcal"
I quickly came round to his view. As well as giving it a wonderful thick mouth-feel, the high alcohol content lowers the evaporation temperature meaning that each sip is elevated. A small amount of liquid bursts into gas, filling your mouth and nose with flavour.
The high ABV is also a source of the commonly referenced stimulating sensation of mezcal. Unlike the sedation of wine or whisky, mezcal is an "upper".
Hows the hangover?
With such a high alcohol content is fair to expect that mezcal hangovers would be testing. But in fact a night on the mezcals is dangerously consequence free.
Most of this claim is based on experience, but there is also some science here.
Two of the biggest causes of hangover: Acidity and Congeners. A lot of alcoholic drinks have a high level of acidity - wine and cider being particular offenders. And it is this acidity which contributes to the feeling of nausea the morning after. Congeners are also often blamed for our throbbing heads. These are particles which help to give drinks colour, entering either artificially of through barrel ageing. Mezcal is gloriously low in both acid and congeners.
Agave also produces fructose high "good sugar", as opposed to the glucose high "bad sugar" of grains and sugar cane - the bases of most other spirits. Without wanting to go into too many details here, I will point out that you can buy agave syrup at Holland and Barrett. So it must be good for you.
Does it come with a worm?
The gusano rojo, or red worm - in fact a type of agave eating caterpillar - was added to bottles of mezcal as a marketing gimmick in the early days of exportation. The worm does not taste good, and so was added by brands who were not concerned with producing a tasty mezcal.
You can still find some brands containing a worm, but on the whole it is best to avoid them.
does it contain mescaline?
This question comes up a lot.
For a while we were tempted to encourage it. A lot can come from a session of mezcals. And the power of placebo is strong.
But the reality is no, Pensador does not contain the hallucinogenic drug Mescaline. That would be very illegal. And also extremely hectic.