Agave is the plant that is used to make Mezcal. While tequila can only be made from one type of agave (Blue Tequilana agave), Mezcal can be made from any type of agave. Though there is no official count of how many different types of agave are currently used in Mezcal, it’s commonly said that over 40 types are featured in different varieties of Mezcal. This more diverse use of agave, equals more diverse variation in flavor, aroma, and feel.
Agave Espadin is (for the most part) the only agave used in mezcal that you will see planted in long straight rows. All other varieties of agave are either wild or semi-cultivated. Wild agave are scattered throughout Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico, and semi-cultivated agave are often used to replenish the countryside. A semi-cultivated agave is typically started, from seed or pup, in a nursery before being planted in a field or on a hillside in a manor that can mimic wild disbursement. It can be difficult at times to distinguish between a wild or semi-cultivated agave without verbal or written record of their planting.
The agave is important because it carries a good deal of the Mezcal’s character. The agave is the sugar, which works with the natural airborne yeasts in fermentation to create alcohol. You may hear people talk about terroir when referencing wine, and similar terminology can be applied to Mezcal. Terroir refers to the environment in which the agave is grown, which greatly impacts the final mezcal product. For example, agave that is grown near coniferous trees can often carry hints of pine, and an Espadin from San Luis del Rio may produce very different flavor notes than an Espadin from Santiago Matatlan. The terroir seeps into the agave, and these environmental factors amplify as the agave grows for 8-25 years before it’s ready to be harvested.