“Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien.”
(“For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well’)

In our region, and in the Chavez family, we are accustomed to measuring the quality of a mezcal by checking the perlas, or very small bubbles. The perlas are visual indicators that the mezcal is at an appropriate ABV. The range in which perlas persist most is between 45% to 55%, with the sweet spot usually at 48% to 51%, from our experience and gusto.

When Abuelito Miguel Chava, former catador de Cotija, conducts his criteria test, the first thing he does is shake the bottle to observe the perlas. If no perlas persist, he deems the mezcal malo; if they persist, he says “Éste sí está bueno,” and he proceeds to the next criterion — is it pleasant on his palate? We keep this standard in mind for all our batches and do not produce mezcal that is below 45% ABV.

Espadin (A. augustifolia var. espadín) is not endemic to the state of Michoacán as it is to Oaxaca. With its common availability to mezcaleros and brands in Oaxaca, typically there is one Espadín expression in every product line from that state. In Michoacán, the most commonly found agave is the endemic Cupreata, also referred to as Chino, which we feature in our black label and other ensambles. The only similarity between Espadín and Cupreata is that they are each the most available in their respective region. They differ dramatically in their physical characteristics, color tones, and flavor profiles.

From mezcal came the birth of the category of tequila. That we can say with certainty. Without the history and tradition of mezcal, no one would have followed the rules exclusive to the narrower category now known as tequila.

With the exception of diffusor-produced tequila, piñas of the agaves for both mezcal and tequila go through the hydrolysis process in enclosed heating vessels. For traditional mezcal, this would be in historic fire-heated conic earth ovens; for tequila, it would be in autoclaves or steam-heated brick ovens. For tequila, the only agave that can be used is blue Weber, also known as Azul or Tequilana, while in the world of mezcal there are over 100 different types. So the first major difference between the two is the limitation of tequila to a single type of agave while mezcal uses a wide variety of them.

The second major difference between traditional and artisanal mezcal versus tequila is fermentation method. An array of vessels is used for mezcal fermentation, ranging from wood vats, cowhide, and radiators to clay pots, plastic cans, and bathtubs. Tequila fermentation usually occurs in stainless steel tanks. Additionally, juice extraction from the cooked agaves for tequila production usually involves sophisticated machinery for greater efficiencies, while traditional mezcal extraction, depending on the region, may employ wooden mallets, tahonas, exprimidores, wood chippers, or axes, which are much more labor intensive and less efficient.

Once in the fermentation vessel, traditional mezcal usually relies on airborne, natural yeast through the whole process, whereas tequila is most often made with commercial yeast. Traditional mezcal is typically made in an open-air facility exposed to ambient temperatures, while most tequila is produced in enclosed facilities with more regulated environments. As a result of all these factors, the flavors found in tequila and mezcal vary tremendously, with some differences due to controlled as opposed to uncontrolled conditions.

A third major difference is the form of distillation. Every region of Mexico seems to possess a different vessel for distillation, but the similarities in capacities, heating sources, and simplicity overlap considerably in all traditional mezcal. Because all the mezcal regions have preserved historic practices, they tend to have much smaller capacities than tequila facilities. For example, we use a Filipino pinewood still that has been traditional since Michoacán began producing mezcal; the cazo holds a maximum of 200 liters at a time. A tequila alambique still holds upwards of 1,000 liters in smaller versions, while large stills hold closer to 10,000. We use a fire to heat our still to temperature while tequila makers would use a gauge-controlled boiler-steamer, another example of less versus more controlled techniques.

The differences between mezcal and tequila are complex and nuanced. We believe that it is exactly all of the less controlled facets of mezcal production that make it the most beautiful of spirits. It is undoubtedly the most expressive clear spirit produced, meaning that without time spent in oak barrels, or infusions, additives, or even filtration, it offers more in robust aromas and flavors than any other category. As we always say when we have the opportunity to sit with those willing to hear our story and taste our spirits, it is the imperfections of mezcal that make it perfect!

Both have denominations of origin that govern their category. This situation makes the conversation about differences much more technical, but still worth noting. The CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) regulates the certification of mezcal and has limited the number of states for certified mezcal to nine currently. The CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) allows five states to produce certified tequila. Of the two regulatory bodies, the more controversial has been the CRM because there are many producers who have made mezcal for decades that aren’t easily granted access to certification because their region is not one of the nine current certified states and municipalities. Regulation is an evolving process and today’s realities may change in the near future.

Probably the most simplistic, and unfair, generalization of mezcal is that it is simply smoky. A traditional mezcal will speak to you with so many layers, aromas, and flavors that smoky would be the last adjective you use to describe it. That said, this is a very common question. Traditional mezcal is typically roasted underground in a conic earth oven. What occurs in that oven once it is sealed by, in our case, petates and dirt, sheds light on where the smoke flavor comes from. Earth ovens are typically built up first with wood, then volcanic or river rock, then a protective layer of pencas (in our case) or wet bagazo, then the agave piñas, then petates and dirt. We turn on our ovens by lighting the kindling as early as 2:00 am to be able to load them around noon or 1:00 pm.

The beautiful diversity of agave that makes up the world of mezcal involves differences in rates of maturity as well. Many raw materials used to make alcoholic beverages have annual crops to harvest and the crop matures at about the same time. Not so with agave, although the market will pressure agave spirits to be line-priced with almost all categories, even though the least amount of time a particular agave requires to mature is five years.

All agave mature differently. The genus agave (or maguey in Mexican Spanish) includes an abundance of species, subspecies, and varieties. Some species of agave require as little as five years to mature, while others take multiple decades. Here are maturity times for the agaves endemic to Michoacán that we use to produce La Luna Mezcal:

  1. A. cupreata (Maguey Chino): 7-10 years
  2. A. tequilana (Maguey Azul) 5-7 years
  3. A. sp (Maguey Manso Sahuayo, aka Cenizo) 6-10 years
  4. A. inaequidens (Maguey Bruto) 10-25 years
  5. A. sp (Maguey Espadincillo) 5-7 years
  6. A. salmiana (Maguey Verde) 10-25 years