Both aficionados of mezcal, and novices to imbibing the traditionally high alcohol agave distillate, at times consider making the spirit at home with their own crop of the succulent. While the idea is both novel and admirable, it has its difficulties and downsides. Just because it’s done in California and perhaps other states in the southern USA, and as I’ve been told in Australia and Africa, doesn’t mean it’s for you.
You may have already noted the phrase Mexican Mezcal in the title of this article, and thought it curious or even absurdly inappropriate. Your impression is absolutely correct, but it was used to make a point. To be termed mezcal, the spirit must be produced in only a fixed number of states in Mexico, and only in those distilleries which have been registered with Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM). In fact each batch must be certified by the regulatory board. And so if you do embark upon a project trying your hand at producing an agave distillate, while conceivably you can quietly call it mezcal, you cannot in any way legally market it as such.
There are well over 200 different species of agave, locally known as maguey. Some commenters have pegged the number at about 300. Roughly 50% are endemic to Mexico, and at least half of that number are used to produce certified mezcal and uncertified agave distillates.
There are three main reasons why not all species of maguey are utilized. Firstly, if the particular varietal of agave only grows well in very remote parts of the country not readily accessible, campesinos and distillers alike will not be inclined to go through the effort of harvesting it. And they may not decide to cultivate those species if they know at the end of the day the agave may not grow well because of terrior and climatic considerations such variation in temperature throughout the year, level of precipitation, annual days of sunshine, and so on. Secondly, the species may be extremely difficult to work with; getting to the heart or piña that will be used in production, or crushing after cooking, or subsequently in the fermentation and distillation processes. Thirdly, and more importantly for present purposes, if the particular species does not have a relatively high carbohydrate content, it will not be economically feasible to harvest, bake, ferment and finally twice distill. Cooking converts the carbs to sugars, and the more sugar derived, the higher the yield of the resultant mezcal. And so just because you live in a climate suitable for growing agave does not mean that the species under consideration will lend itself to making a distillate.
Presumably most who are interested in their own agave distillate production have some experience with distilling. Consideration must be given to the danger inherent in using a live flame when producing alcohol. And of course there is the issue of methanol, that is, ensuring that only safely drinkable alcohol is produced. Finally there is the issue of still composition. You shouldn’t just use any contraption for distillation, because it may have been made with materials not intended to be used for making spirits. You might have heard of spirits drinkers dying or going blind from drinking Tennessee or Kentucky moonshine. One of the reasons that the distillate was not safe for drinking relates to the compounds used in fabricating the “alembic,” whereby used car radiators amongst other less than appropriate equipment have been employed as condensers. They may have been caked with antifreeze which is high in methanol, or soldered with metals and chemicals the compounds in which should not be ingested. The laws in your jurisdiction might prohibit home or even more commercial distillation, certainly without appropriate approvals and licensing. Reasoning typically relates to taxation and safety.
You would likelky enjoy your homemade agave distillate, and others might like it as well. But don’t expect it to approximate the mezcal you’ve tasted which has been produced in Oaxaca, Michoacán or Puebla. And even within each of those states and the others producing mezcal, the flavor profiles can be very different. Each region and microclimate has a unique terroir, water source, series of seasonally distinct environmental yeasts, and so on. There are literally tens of different impacts which determine the quality of mezcal based on environmental factors, necessarily and inevitably different from those where you live and plan to grow, cook, ferment and distill.
The foregoing are but a few of the factors which may come into play in deciding to make an agave distillate. Some may even be unique to the person interested in such a project. As long as you’ve carefully evaluated each consideration, then making your own mezcal, or rather agave distillate, might be a worthwhile endeavor.