Bottles stand under the filling machine at the Mezcal Union production facility.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Bottles stand under the filling machine at the Mezcal Union production facility.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Meet Tequila's Smokin' Hot Cousin: Mezcal

Mezcal, a smoky agave-based Mexican liquor, has been increasing in popularity in the U.S., thanks to a cocktail of vodka fatigue and small-batch, artisanal fever. Last year, Mezcal Union, a five year-old brand, exported about a third of its production, mostly to its northern neighbor. Expect to see more this year. In February, London-based Diageo, the world’s largest distiller, signed a distribution agreement with Mezcal Union to increase distribution in the U.S. Photographer Susana Gonzalez visited their roasting pit in Oaxaca to see how tequila's smoky cousin is made.

Mezcal Union, a brand that’s only five years old, is made in Oaxaca's San Baltazar Guelavila region. 

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Mezcal is distilled from the agave plant native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Workers prepare the pit where the agave is cooked.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Workers cut agave plants with axes.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The pieces are thrown inside the fire pit to roast.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Spirit makers are betting that mezcal will build on the popularity of such artisanal products as super-premium tequila, craft beer, and small-batch bourbon.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The agave plants roasting inside the fire pit are covered.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

The agave is cooked in an earth-covered pit, an artisanal process that gives mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Smoke rises as agave plants roast in the pit.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

A horse pulls a stone wheel to crush roasted agave plants.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Mezcal being poured into a jug after distillation.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Bottles of mezcal are inspected for quality and transparency. 

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Mezcal Union, among the most popular mezcal brands in Mexico, sold 6,600 bottles in its first year of operation. Sales jumped to 72,000 bottles in 2015.

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg