Mezcal (from Náhuatl “mexcalli” ‘cooked maguey”) has been a significant part of Mexican culture for centuries.
The maguey, commonly known as agave, was a sacred plant in prehispanic Mexico, and mezcal was a luxury enjoyed exclusively by kings and priests. The significance of the agave plant reached far beyond the production of mezcal; it was used in the production of medicines, rope, textiles, honey, tortillas, and more.
The agave plant is native to arid and tropical regions from the southern United States to northern South America, and throughout the Caribbean. About 280 species have been recognized. More than 200 species are found in Mexico, many of which are found in the southwestern state of Oaxaca.
Mezcal refers to beverages obtained by distillation of fermented agave juice, thus making tequila a type of mezcal. The difference between modern tequila and mezcal lies in the species of agave plant used and their distinct production processes. Tequila can only be produced with blue agave and is often produced industrially; mezcal is more commonly produced through an artisanal process.Mezcal has its origins in Oaxaca, where the largest indigenous civilization is the Zapotec tribe.
In the 16th century, the Spanish introduced a specialized distillation process to the ancient Mexican cultures, which they had acquired from the Moors in the 8th century. The process involved a special tool called an “alambique” (from English alembic or still) that was used to improve the ancient spirit.
The Aztec tribe claimed that the goddess of fertility, Mayahuel, was the original source of the maguey plant. Mayahuel’s evil grandmother killed the goddess for running away with the god of human sustenance, Quetzalcoatl. Devastated, Quetzalcoatl buried Mayahuel’s remains while his tears fertilized the earth. The enchanted maguey plant was born from the tears of Quetzalcoatl’s lost love.
The legend describes an evil goddess in the sky, Tzintzimitl, who devoured the sun and forced the people to do human sacrifices in return for just a little bit of light.
One day, Quetzalcoatl, the god of human sustenance and re-birth, ascended to the heavens to fight Tzintzimitl, but instead, he found her granddaughter, Mayahuel, who had been kidnapped by the evil goddess.
Quetzalcoatl fell in love with Mayahuel and rescued her. Together, they returned down to the earth. When Tzintzimitl discovered what Quetzalcoatl had done, she was furious. She searched all over the land for the pair. In order to escape her wrath Quetzalcoatl turned himself and Mayahuel into trees, one beside the other, so that he could protect his love.
Quetzalcoatl’s efforts were to no avail, however, as Tzintzimitl finally uncovered the pair and ripped Mayahuel into pieces. In revenge for the murder of his love, Quetzalcoatl flew to the sky and killed the evil goddess, thus restoring light to the earth.
Devastated by his loss, Quetzalcoatl buried the remains of Mayahuel and grieved for her every night, drenching her remains with his unrelenting tears. The gods of the sky, fire, and thunder looked upon Quetzalcoatl with compassion and placed an enchanted plant on the ground sodden by Quetzalcoatl’s tears. The plant possessed special properties, so that when Quetzalcoatl drank its juice, it would comfort his soul and ease his pain. According to legend, the maguey plant that is used to produce mezcal is the enchanted plant born from the tears of Quetzalcoatl’s mourned lost love.