Find mezcal and its history in San Diego

Tahona Bar in Old Town
A taste of mezcal at Tahona. | Photo via Monica Garske + SDtoday

We’re raising a glass to the second day of Drink Up Week, and celebrating with some mezcal. This may be a new term to you — or maybe you’re always in the spirit for a taste — but this agave-based liquor has a rich history that made its way from Mexico to San Diego. With local establishments putting mezcal on the menu, we’re excited to get out and #DrinkUpSanDiego.

IZO spirits mezcal
What’s your flavor? Cantina Mayahuel has a wide variety of mezcals. | Photo via @cantinamayahuel

🥃 The origin story

Let’s get to the roots of this agave-based drink. Often, its origins are credited to Spanish conquerors who taught Mexican natives distillation techniques, and they used the plant’s fermented, cooked juices to make mezcal — making the drink roughly 400 years old. This would make it the first spirit distilled in the Americas, but some historians believe natives were making distilled drinks prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

Or, you might choose to believe the myth from Oaxaca, Mexico, stating that lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooked it, and the liquids that came out were an “elixir of the gods” that became mezcal.

🥃 Getting to San Diego

Mezcal’s migration north is often credited in conjunction with its spirit sister tequila, but the liquor remained more popular in Mexico while tequila’s popularity quickly erupted across the world. But, San Diego was part of an area belonging to Mexico from 1821-1848 — and the nation’s influence remains strong — so, we’re no strangers to Mexican flavors.

Many people attribute mezcal’s popularity in the US to Ron Cooper — an artist from Ojai, California, who discovered mezcal on a trip to Oaxaca. He later opened Del Maguey and helped more people discover the drink — though he certainly did not invent it. Now we love it in US — in 2019 the country surpassed Mexico to become the world’s biggest mezcal consumer, and as of 2022, its popularity is still growing.

🥃 Mezcal or tequila?

Mezcal gets its name from the Aztec word “mexicalli,” which means “oven-cooked agave,” and explains the difference. Tequila is steamed in ovens and can only be made from Weber blue agave while mezcal can be made from over 50 variations of agave.

Technically, all tequila is mezcal. Not all mezcal is tequila. 

While there are no official rules, people often drink mezcal straight + sip it. Unlike tequila that can be found in many cocktails and makes a great shot (with lime + salt, please). It’s also best to pair mezcal with food and leave the ice behind. Its smoky flavor can be overpowering when consumed alone. 

Pro tip: If you ever come across a bottle of mezcal with a worm in it, it’s actually a moth larva, and you should not eat it. Its origin is unknown, but  a couple of unproven theories suggest it might have been added to give flavor or prove the drink was strong

Cantina Mayahiel mezcal selection
What’s your flavor? Cantina Mayahuel has a wide variety of mezcals. | Photo via @cantinamayahuel

🥃 Get a taste 

If you’re eager to drink up, IZO Spirits is distilling mezcal + headquartered in San Diego. It can be found at local restaurants, liquor stores + Costco Wholesales.

Or, you can explore local bars + restaurants that have mezcal on the menu. Here are eight we suggest: