There are few spirits as misunderstood as mezcal. For one, you should never buy a bottle of the liquor if it contains a worm—those mezcals are for tourists and contain cheap alcohol. But fortunately, there’s now a growing selection of fine mezcals available in America from a range of producers.
Mezcal, like its cousin tequila, is made from agave, which, contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus but is actually part of the asparagales botanical order, making it a relative of the yucca plant and Joshua tree. While tequila can only be made in the Tequila region and from just blue Weber agave, mezcal is usually produced in Oaxaca (it can legally come from anywhere in Mexico) and can be made from many types of agave, some of which only grow wild. Historically, producers used whatever agave they found locally.
The other big difference between the two types of Mexican liquor is that mezcal distillers traditionally slow-roast the agave by burying it in pits with hot rocks, which infuses the final product with its signature smokiness. (Tequila’s agave is generally baked in stone ovens or autoclaves.)