Mezcal and tequila are often confused as the same thing. Both originate from Mexico, and both are distilled from agave, a plant native to Mexico. But when it comes to flavor, production methods, and traditions, these sibling spirits have more differences than similarities.
Tequila is a spirit distilled from blue agave, usually harvested from the Jalisco region of Mexico. Tequila gets its name from the town of Tequila, located in Jalisco. Since it’s made from blue agave, tequila usually has a light and somewhat sweet flavor, often with herbaceous and vegetal aromas.
There are three types of tequila, all named after how long they are aged: Blanco (0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months), and Anejo (1-3 years). Depending on how long it’s aged, the spirit can appear clear, a light caramel color, or a rich brown color. The flavor profiles of tequila also vary based on the aging period.
Blanco tequilas tend to be lighter in flavor, with citrus, vanilla, and pepper notes. Tequilas aged for longer periods, like reposados, often take on a faint caramel flavor, while Anejo tequilas often have rich flavors reminiscent of vanilla, hazelnut, or cinnamon.
The term mezcal comes from the Aztec words for “cooked agave.” So technically, any spirit made from agave, including tequila, is a mezcal. However, the name mezcal is now attributed to a spirit with a distinct smoky flavor.
Strict laws govern what can be labeled a mezcal. Essentially, mezcal can be made from any species of agave that is not the defining ingredient of another spirit. For example, mezcal cannot be made from blue agave, as that would make it tequila.
Mezcal is similar to tequila in taste, but with a heavy smoke flavor that comes from its cooking process. The smokiness is certainly not for everyone, but when used correctly, mezcal can add layers of complexity to your favorite drinks.
Like tequila, mezcal labels include Blanco, reposado, and Anejo, and have similar minimum aging requirements.
Both mezcal and tequila are distilled from agave, a large succulent plant resembling a pineapple or aloe vera plant. Both are made by processing the agave’s harvested core, known as the piña. That said, the production methods could not be more different.
Tequila is made using strictly blue agave, usually from the Jalisco region of Mexico where blue agave grows in abundance due to the climate. Tequila can be made in five other Mexican states, but Jalisco produces around 90 percent of the world’s tequila.
Tequila is made by baking or steam cooking the agave’s core. This cooking method helps extract the agave’s fermentable sugars and gives the tequila a notable lack of smokiness when compared to mezcal. The cooked core is then crushed into juice and fermented with yeast and water.
After fermentation, the agave juice is distilled in copper pots, usually twice. The tequila is then aged in oak barrels. Note that Blanco tequila is not aged in oak, as it is bottled shortly after production.
Mezcal production is spread across Mexico, taking place in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla. However, about 85 percent of mezcal is made in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico.
Unlike tequila, mezcal can be distilled from several different types of agave, including tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, and arroqueño agave. About 90 percent of mezcal is made from espadín, the most common type of agave.
Most mezcal is produced in a much more traditional style than tequila. To make mezcal, agave cores are roasted on wood and charcoal-filled fire pits for three to four days. This roasting process is what gives mezcal such a heavy smokiness.
After the roasting period, the processed agave is distilled in clay pots, giving mezcal an earthier quality than tequila. But like tequila, the distilled juice is either bottled almost immediately or aged in oak barrels, where it will become a reposado or Anejo mezcal.
Some manufacturers have industrialized this centuries-old production method to accommodate modern demands. While this isn’t necessarily a negative thing, it can affect the mezcal’s flavor.
When many think of agave-based spirits, the first cocktail that goes through their mind is the classic Margarita. The margarita has stood the test of time and for good reason, it’s a delicious drink that plays off of the sweetness and tartness of lime against the herbal sweetness of the tequila or mezcal. For those who are looking for an agave spirit cocktail that ventures away from lime, the Paloma could be the drink for you. The Paloma is a simple cocktail that pairs the spirit with grapefruit. You can enjoy a tequila or mezcal cocktail at brunch, by ordering a Bloody Maria. As the name suggests, it’s a bloody mary, but with the vodka swapped for tequila or mezcal. For those who like to walk on the wild side, we can make you a Mezcal Martini garnished with roasted grasshoppers.