Why Does Mezcal Taste Smoky?

If you’ve read our previous post on how mezcal is made, you may already have a partial understanding of why this distinctive spirit possesses its unique smoky flavor. 

However, for those who delve deeper into the subject, it reveals that mezcal’s taste profile is truly unique, making it stand out in the world of spirits either for good or for bad (depending on your taste). 

In this post, we will explore what contributes to the exceptional smokiness of mezcal.

Answering the answer: Why is mezcal smoky?

As we stated before, Mezcal’s smokiness is a defining feature of this unique spirit, and understanding its origin reveals the craftsmanship behind its flavor. 

This smoky essence of mezcal comes from a meticulous production process deeply rooted in tradition.

Cooking the Agave Piñas: The Crucial Step

Cooking Agave Piñas: one of the process to make mezcal

Traditionally, mezcal makers cook the heart of the agave plant, known as the piña, to transform it and being able to start the second process, the smashing of the cooked piñas into fermentable sugars.

This critical step takes place in an earthen pit oven, normally made by hand and may be lined with rocks or clay, depending on the region. 

These rocks, or clay, are heated until they glow red-hot, and then the palenqueros put the piñas carefully arranged in the oven.

The pit is then sealed with earth and straw mats and then let to cook for several days.

During this slow and ancient roasting process, the agave piñas absorb the smoky flavor as they come into contact with the heat of the wood-fired stones.

This also influences the aroma of the Mezcal, which can be associated with the smell of a bonfire. 

The Influence of Wood and Rocks

The type of wood used to ignite the fire varies by region, availability and regulations as some regions have specific laws about the types of wood permitted.

The choice, or availability of wood, whether it’s oak or another variety, can subtly affect the level of smokiness.

Additionally, the rocks used in the pit oven can also be different from one area to another. 

In Oaxaca, for example, river stones are often used due to their abundance, while in other regions, like Durango, the palenqueros due to its availability, they prefer to use volcanic rock

Same as with the wood, using different rocks which absorb and release flavors differently, influence the level of smokiness and flavor profile of mezcal. 

Bottle of Del Maguey's Mezcal Ibérico with man mashing on the background

The Distillation Factor

After cooking, the agave is mashed and fermented before being distilled. In this process, the type of the material of the still used for this process can also play a role in preserving or modifying the smokiness. 

Copper and stainless-steel stills are considered neutral materials that retain the smokiness, while clay pots and wooden stills have the potential to absorb some smokiness during distillation.

Mezcal flavor: not only a smoky spirit

While mezcal is often celebrated for its smoky essence, it offers a diverse spectrum of flavors that extend far beyond mere charred notes. 

This is why Mezcal is growing in popularity and the reason why a lot of bartenders in the world are experimenting with this versalite spirit to produce new and intriguing cocktail recipes.

Mezcal Smoky Taste: Conclusion

In essence, at every stage of the mezcal-making process, from cooking to distillation, the materials used in all these processes result in the mezcal’s unique flavor profile and the opportunity to increase or reduce the smokiness level.

Mezcal’s taste is a matter of personal preference and while some individuals relish the smoky, earthy, and intricate flavors of mezcal, others may find it intense or unfamiliar. 

Those who appreciate the lighter smokiness often have experience with bold spirits like scotch, bourbon, or whiskey. 

On the other hand, if you find mezcal to be intensely smoky, it may indicate that you are less accustomed to drinking spirits neat.