Called "the nectar of the (Aztec) gods" by Cortez, mezcal is a potent, clear liquor that originated in Oaxaca, a state in southeastern Mexico. The word "mezcal," sometimes spelled mescal, comes from the Náhuatl mexcalmetl ("agave species"). Like tequila, mezcal is produced from the agave plant but, whereas tequila must be made from the blue agave and produced from plants grown only in a specified area, mezcal may be produced from any of several species and can be made anywhere in Mexico. Bottles of mezcal labeled Mezcal de Gusanitos contain a small worm (the gusano), said to give strength to anyone who swallows it. Most mezcal, which has a smoky, peppery character, is quite crude and is often flavored and sweetened, presumably to mask its rough flavor. Although mezcal is enjoyed all over Mexico, it's just beginning to catch on elsewhere. See also pulque; tequila.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.