Q&A: Mezcal For Dummies with Niki Nakazawa, the Oaxaca-based co-founder of Neta

Mezcal is all the rage, but how much do you really know about Mexico's storied spirit?


What is mezcal? Is it different from tequila? Why is it so expensive? Niki Nakazawa has all the answers.

Mezcal is all the rage, but how much do you really know about Mexico's storied spirit?

Traditionally, mezcal refers to all spirits that are distilled from agave. Technically, mezcal is a denomination of origin (DO) that includes ten states in Mexico, but the tradition of mezcal making extends beyond those ten states.

What about tequila? If mezcal traditionally encompasses all the agave spirits, then what is the difference between tequila and mezcal?

. If we’re going to be very pure about what the meaning of mezcal is — a word that belongs to Mexico and encompasses all of the different spirits that are made with agave — then tequila is a type of mezcal.

, and associated with a certain geographical area. Mezcal is also associated with a certain geographical area, but it can be made from any agave.

Does cooking the agave underground give mezcal an inherent smoky quality?

Depending on the type of wood that you use and how much you shave down your agave you might have more smoke permeating through the oven. A higher sugar content and more caramelization can also affect smokiness, but it’s really regional and to the taste of the community. Where I work in Miahuatlán smokiness is not the primary note.

When you compare it to other spirits, the primary material is what’s unique to mezcal. Depending on the species, agaves can take anywhere from five to thirty years to be ready for harvest. And then you have the unique cooking process and fermentation, which in traditional mezcal is a natural, open-air ferment. Plus, there are different styles of distillation — you could be distilling twice in copper pots or using clay. There are so many diverse methods of production and they all affect flavor.

What about if you’re at the liquor store trying to decode the bottles? What should we be looking for when we read the labels?

Neat. It’s not that mezcal cocktails aren’t delicious, but I think that it’s important to enjoy mezcal alone because of the tremendous amount of effort that goes into making it. It’s made from a plant that takes so long to grow. It’s pure expression of terroir, and you’re going to put sugar and lime in it? That doesn’t seem right.

, then it puts a lot of ecological stress on Oaxaca and other producing regions to grow low-price-point, high-yielding agave.

You bring up price point, which I think is one of the biggest barriers to entry with traditional mezcal. Bottles start around $50 and can go up to $180. Why is it so expensive?

A Torrance restaurant with 400 mezcals behind the bar »

There has been an effort made by Del Maguey and other brands to push education, and you have places like Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca, Pare de Sufrir in Guadalajara and Bósforo in Mexico City where people can taste and learn about mezcal.

You also see a lot more brands coming to Oaxaca. There are a lot more bartenders from the States who think they can come down and make a mezcal brand without understanding how complicated it is.

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