The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl mexcalli. Mezcal is made
principally from the agave plant, commonly referred to throughout Mexico
as maguey. In the Tequila region, the indigenous people call the plant
mezcal. The Family name Agavaceae (a Greek word meaning "noble") was
assigned to the 400+ species around a hundred years ago due to the large
number of uses that the plant offered ancient peoples, and has become
the more common term in English.
How Mezcal is Made
After the agave matures (6–8 years) it
is harvested by magueyeros (agave farmers) and the leaves are chopped
off using a machete, leaving only the large piñas ("pineapples") or
corazones ("hearts"). The piñas are then cooked and crushed, producing a
mash. Traditionally, the piñas are baked in hornos: large (8–12 ft
diameter / 6 ft deep) rock-lined conical pits in the ground. A 3–4 cubic
foot pile of trunk oak in the bottom of the pit is covered by rocks 6
inches in diameter and the wood is burned, turning the rocks red hot.
Next the rocks are covered with a layer of moist fiber remaining from
the last production to prevent the hearts from scorching and the piñas
are piled to 5 – 6 feet above ground level, then covered with banana
leaves or moist used fiber from the last process, or agave leaves, then
petate (woven palm fibre mats), and finally earth. The piñas are allowed
to cook in the pit for three to five days. This converts the starches
to fructose and lets the piñas absorb flavors from the earth and wood
smoke coating the rocks.