Agave has a history of being a nutritional source for about 10,000 years. Its use in fermented beverages goes back 2.500 years and contributes to what we now know to be mescal.
Before the Spanish entered ancient Mexico, the indigenous people considered agave a sacred plant. Many stories and legends have passed through the ages relaying agave’s magical nature.
The most known story tells how a lightning bolt struck an agave plant. The heat from the lightning forced the plant to release its juices. This divine intervention resulted in a beverage that indigenous peoples called “elixir of the gods,” otherwise known as “pulque.”
The Olmec and other tribes began pulque production 2,500 years ago. The indigenous method incorporates the fermentation of an agave extract with aguamiel or “honey water.” This agave-derived drink comes from the plant’s sap or leaves that turn milky white when fermented.
Pulque was a social taboo to drink in excess because of its religious significance. So, its consumption was only during certain rituals or ceremonies. These standards relaxed after the Spanish arrived.
Arrival of the Spanish Conquest
When the Spaniards ran out of the alcohol they brought, they had to find a substitute; agave was the next best thing. But they wanted something stronger than pulque and began experimenting with different fermentation methods.
Mezcal is the end result this trial-and-error. Etymologically, “mescal” comes from the Nahuatl, or Aztec language, word for “oven-cooked agave” or “mexcalli.”
The Spanish aren’t the only ones to help develop pulque into mescal. In the first part of the 1500s, Filipino sailors interacted with tribes living on Mexico’s western shores. They created a community of coconut plantations and engaged in trade. Their “tuba,” a fermented coconut beverage, undergoes a similar process to how mescal producers create it today.
The history of agave’s distillation into mescal culminates into an easy-to-make and inexpensive alcohol. It’s been popular since its inception and very prized today. You can even find pulque in Mexico, but many consider it to be something like moonshine in the United States.
Its production is almost the same as the 1500s and often done on a small, non-industrialized scale. This means it has fewer chemicals and additives to make for a purer spirit with a smooth finish. Some claim it keeps hangovers at bay, but take that with a lime and a grain of salt.
The process of mescal hails from Spanish tinkering with Filipino distillation innovation based on indigenous traditions. Most mescal comes from the states of Oaxaca, Michoacan and Jalisco. These distillers pride themselves on the roots and traditions used to make it. Today, they operate similar versions of stills brought by Filipino immigrants in the 16th century.
How It’s Made Today
First, they harvest the agave and remove the piña, a large pineapple-looking fruit rich in carbohydrates. The piña is then put into an underground pit with hot rocks and cooked for three days to five days. This releases a sweet taste.
Next, it’s mashed with a horse- or donkey-driven stone wheel grinder. But some artisanal preparations use wheels made of things like clay or cement. This prepares the plant for fermentation. Although simplified, this is the traditional basis behind modern mezcal.
Drinking Mescal Is Tasting History
You’re consuming a piece of history when you drink magical mescal. Based on the indigenous pulque with Spanish experimentation using Filipino distillation, its methods have changed very little since the 1500s. Because of its simple and easy process, it’s a cleaner alcohol with a smooth finish.