Any spirit that's distilled from agave can be called Mezcal. There are many different factors that influence the quality of the Mezcal, including the terroir where the agave is grown, how the agave is harvested and methods of distillation including the type of still used, the temperature at which fermentation takes place, the method of cooking the agave and the maturation techniques used to produce the spirit.
Tequila is distilled from fermented aguamiel (honey water derived from the agave plant, which is also called a Maguey). Agave is actually a succulent, as opposed to a cactus, and is a member of the lily family. There are 400 agave species, all with the botanical name of agavacea. Most quality Tequila is produced from one type of agave called agave tequilana, agave azul, or blue agave, grown in areas around the Jalisco region. The mezcals produced in other regions of Mexico are often made with other types of agave, including Espadin, Sotol and Tobola.
Only the heart of the agave (the piña
), at the peak of ripeness, is used in mezcal production. In order to produce mezcal, the starches from the agave are converted to sugar with the use of heat. The piñas can be baked in an oven in the tequila highlands, steamed in industrial tequila production, or baked in pits dug into the ground in mezcal production. Once the starches are converted, the piña is shredded on a stone wheel, and the pulp is fermented.
The fermented agave can be distilled in either copper pot stills or in continuous stills, but most quality Tequila is produced through double distillation in pot stills. Some old-fashioned spirits are still produced in ceramic stills with bamboo components.
Every bit of the distillate is used. The heads are used for rubbing alcohol, the pure heart is used for the base and since the tails have the most flavor, they are added back to the spirit to add depth and aroma.
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