What Is The Difference Between Tequila And Mezcal?

Belly up to your favorite bar, and you’ll encounter craft cocktails serving mezcal.

But have you ever asked yourself, “what is mezcal”?

Mention Mexican spirits and most people think of tequila; understandable since the U.S. boasts the largest global market (Mexico is a close second). But tequila’s edgier cousin has been around for centuries and we’re here to tell you all about it.

From its deep ties to Mexican culture to how to make it and the difference between mezcal and tequila, we've got you covered.

Read on so you can navigate the spirit like a pro the next time you travel to Mexico:

First, What Is Mezcal?

Let's start that any spirit distilled from the agave plant is considered a mezcal. As in, it is the mother term under which other distilled agave spirits like tequila, sotol, bacanora, and raicilla reside.

We’re talking only distilled agave spirits, so, the fermented (but not distilled) agave alcohol pulque is excluded.

Now for the spirit's origin story. In addition to introducing wheat and domesticated animals, the Spanish conquistadors brought distillation when they arrived in Mexico. They took the agave and started distilling it and, as such, mezcal was the first distilled spirit made in the Americas.

The Difference Between Mezcal And Tequila

One of the most popular Google searches is the difference between these two spirits and there are many.

First, tequila can only be made from the Blue Weber agave. Also, like Champagne, tequila has a protected denomination of origin. So only five places—throughout the state of Jalisco, and in a handful of municipalities in Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Guanajuato–can produce tequila. Finally, the aging process plays a big role in tequila but it's not considered important in mezcal.

On the other hand, mezcal can be made from various types of agave, it's processed differently, and it's not usually aged. Also, it isn’t geographically protected, but it is made in nine states of Mexico, namely, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Oaxaca. But of those states, Oaxaca is seen as the most important and the home of the spirit.

Finally, the ratio of agave in each spirit differs. A true mezcal is made with 100% agave, while tequila only requires 50% agave content. 

The Various Types

Most mezcal is made from Espadín variety agave because it grows relatively quickly, taking 7 years to reach maturity. Other agaves take decades to mature but Espadín grows quickest and can be cultivated, making it the most sustainable varietal.

There are over 200 varieties of agave, most of which grow wild in the countryside, but only about 50 can be used to make mezcal.

And, keep in mind that while there aren't aged categories, there are three types as defined by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM): Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral.

How Is Mezcal Made?

The spirit begins by harvesting the maguey or agave plant. Mezcaleros and mezcaleras use machetes to remove the leaves and get to the plant's heart, which is divided into pieces. Because the hearts look like oversized pineapples they are called piñas.

Now the piña gets cooked. Traditionally it is roasted for days in an underground pit lined with rocks (how it gets its distinct smoky flavor).

It is then mashed on a stone mill known as a tahona that is turned by horses. This is different from tequila because its piñas are steamed in above-ground ovens. The horse turns the tahona until the cooked piñas become pulp, and that is placed in copper or clay stills to ferment and distill.

To determine the spirit's alcohol content (or ABV), mezcaleros traditionally use a low-tech yet practical method: they blow bubbles into the mezcal using a cane stalk. Quickly dissipating bubbles mean a higher ABV but, in general, mezcal ranges from 40% to 50% ABV.

How To Drink Mezcal

Smoky is a common word to describe mezcal, though you can also find flavors like roasted bell pepper, leather, and chipotle. It can be floral, spicy, and fruity depending on the agave type and how it’s distilled.

In Oaxaca, the boozy spirit is often sipped at room temperature. It's served in a wine glass, a veladora or squat ridged glass, or, most traditionally, or a natural bark bowl called a jicara. It's accompanied by a bit of orange and sal de gusano, or salt made with worms that live in the agave plant.

And, it is now used in many a crafted cocktails. You'll find it in classics like an Old Fashioned, a Negroni, or even in a Hot Toddy or something modern like this Hibiscus Berry Margarita.

The Terms To Know

Get to know these mezcal-specific terms:

  • Maguey - the Taino word for agave
  • Espadín - the most cultivated variety of agave
  • Maestro Mezcalero/Mezcalero - a reverent term for the small production distillers that have been making mezcal since pre-Hispanic times
  • Palenque - a mezcal distillery, typically boutique production
  • Santiago Matatlán - the self-proclaimed “World Capital of Mezcal,” in Oaxaca

Mezcals To Try

If you've never tried the spirit, start with labels like Del MagueyIlegal Mezcal, and Marca Negra.

In Southern California, try it at the vegan Mexican eatery Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, Las Perlas in Downtown LA, or Tahona in San Diego’s Old Town.

Now you’re primed on all things agave, join us on a Salt & Wind trip to Mexico to experience it up close! 


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