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The Spirit of Mexico's Tequila and Mezcal

February 2015


It’s a word you might not be familiar with, but it represents the beginnings of two of Mexico’s most cherished and famous national drinks, tequila and mezcal. These two spirits were created from the rustic mixture known as pulque, and   along with sombreros and luchadores, are now deeply ingrained in Mexico’s culture.

During the pre-Hispanic era of the country, a native Aztec tribe known as the Nahuatl worshipped local maguey plants as divine, earthly representations of their goddess, Mayaheul. They made use of the plants for every day necessities – creating hemp-like fibers for mats, clothing, rope and paper, and fermenting its nutrient-rich sap into a healthful brew that would ease many ailments. El arbol de las maravillas – the tree of marvels – was a part of their every day life and one that inspired the foundations of the tequila and mezcal drinking culture. 

Tequila is known as North America’s first distilled drink, although it was mezcal wine that was first produced from pulque a few decades after the Spanish conquistadoras came to the New World in 1521. It adapted from mezcal brandy into agave wine and then into mezcal tequila, eventually evolving into simply, tequila. While all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila, because the former can only come from the drink’s namesake location situated in the valley of Mexico’s Jalisco state. Located between Puerto Vallarta and Guadalara, this area is marked by rolling hills covered in powder blue agave plants, which flourish in the dry climate and volcanic soil from the dormant Tequila volcano and serve as the seed from which Mexico’s potent tequila is born.

While tequila is described as a smoother and more refined drink, mezcal is described as the earthier, country cousin. Made from a broader class of plants, it’s distilled using a centuries-old process that gives it an alcohol content generally in excess of 45 percent. Many different regions produce their own version of mezcal, with Oaxaca being the most well known, but all share the common selling point with the popular saying “Mezcal for everything bad – and everything good, too.” Tequila is commonly mixed into cocktails flavored with citrus juices, but mezcal is meant to be enjoyed all on its own, allowing the aromas to permeate the senses even before the first sip and resulting in a full flavored taste that is known as one of the finest and most exquisite in the world.

This unique and cherished tradition of tequila and mezcal is certainly not overlooked at José Andrés’ Oyamel in Washington, D.C., where an extensive selection of premium mezcals and tequilas have earned the restaurant the coveted Agave de Oro, the highest “Distintivo T” certification given by the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico. Ranging in blancos and vintages, Oyamel pours renowned labels such as El Luchador Organic and Tequila Ocho, and refined mezcals such as El Silencio and Ilegal Añejo. Every year, Oyamel celebrates their noteworthy collection with an annual festival showcasing creative cocktails and complimentary tastings. This unique event includes an exclusive menu featuring dishes specifically created to pair with the spirits, presenting an unforgettable experience that only José and his team could offer. So next time you order your favorite margarita or try a taste of smoky mezcal, remember the deeply rooted traditions behind these libations and give a toast to Mexico.

Click here to read more about Oyamel's Tequila & Mezcal Festival.  

polanco.pngClick here to see the recipe for a pineapple-flavored tequila cocktail, the Polanco.