Hundreds of varietals exist, though only thirty of them can be used for mezcal. Once the agave matures, the piña, or heart of the plant, gets hacked out and roasted in a concave stone fire pit, which is how mezcal gets its distinctive smoky flavor. The cooked agave is then pulverized using a giant millstone called a tahona, which is driven by a horse, ox, or mule. In the most ancestral techniques, two people alternatively pound it into a receptacle called a canoa using a wooden hammer called a mazo, similar to a mortar and pestle. The mash, or tepache, is fermented and then distilled at least twice in copper or clay stills.
Espadín agave, native to Oaxaca and one of the easiest varieties to grow, takes up to ten years to mature, though producers insist it yields the best tasting mezcal. Its long reproductive lifecycle is the greatest challenge to mezcal’s industrialization, for the natural supply cannot keep up with increasing global demand, forcing mass producers to clone agave, genetically engineer it, or simply dilute the final mezcal product with water.