Illustration by Shannon Knight.
What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila? I can’t count the number I’ve times I’ve seen this question come up, and frankly, I’m not surprised. Apart from the taste, it can be tricky to know the difference between these two Mexican liquors, since they come from similar plants.
Generally speaking, you could even say that tequila is a type of mezcal, since “mezcal” refers to the distillate that comes from cooking the heart of the agave plant. Already confused? Almost certainly. But, don’t worry, here are a few tips to help you tell them apart in the mezcal vs. tequila conundrum.
Plant Varieties — The Main Difference
Although both liquors are made from agave or maguey, they don’t actually come from the same family. Tequila is only made from blue agave, while mezcal can be made from 160 different types of agave. These varieties include some wilder types that grow in the mountains, such as Tobalá, Madre-Cuishe, Sierra Negra, Tepextate, Jabalí or Coyote, as well as some more common types, like Espadín, which is the only variety to date that has been successfully grown on a large scale.
Another crucial difference relating to the plant variety is tied to the famous Denominación de origen (Denomination of Origin) in Mexico. This is simply a certificate confirming that the place in question does have the raw materials to produce — and therefore sell — the liquor.
The states that are authorized to produce tequila (meaning those where blue agave can be found) are Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. States that can produce mezcal are Guanajuato, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, Puebla and Michoacán. In fact, Oaxaca has the highest diversity of agave varieties in the world, and as such is responsible for 80% of all mezcal production in Mexico!
As mentioned above, mezcal and tequila are both made by cooking the hearts (known as the piñas) of the agave plants. The difference lies in the method of cooking, fermentation and distillation: These days, tequila is produced industrially in ovens, copper stills and stainless steel tanks. In contrast, mezcal continues to be made, for the most part, using artisanal methods in underground stone ovens, wooden vats, and even clay stills in some cases.
For mezcal to be sold under its name, it has to be made 100% from the agave plant. Meanwhile, tequila producers are allowed to create combinations using other sugars that don’t come from agave.
Mezcal comes in the following varieties: joven (young), reposado (rested), añejo (aged), ancestral (ancestral), artisanal (artisanal) and semi-industrial (semi-industrial). Tequila comes in: blanco (white), joven (young), reposado (rested), añejo (aged) and extra añejo (extra aged).
How To Drink It
Neither should be drunk all in one go or mixed with other drinks. Both tequila and mezcal should be enjoyed while tasting the notes of the spirit, either from the plant it comes from or the barrel it rested in. And be careful! While it’s fine to add ice to tequila, it would be sacrilege to do the same with mezcal.
Did you know that mezcal-based cocktails are made exclusively with Agave Espadín? That’s because it’s the only plant variety refined enough to mix well with other flavors.
Another key difference lies in the presentation. Tequila is usually served in long shot glasses or a tumbler with ice, while mezcal typically comes in small, wide-rimmed glasses, or bowls made from the shell of the fruit of the Calabash tree (Crescentia cujete). Finally, while tequila has been synonymous with Mexico for decades, mezcal has gradually been taking its place on the global stage, having increased its production and exports year after year.
So now you know the difference between the two, which one do you prefer: tequila or mezcal?