While tequila has always been Mexico’s most internationally celebrated spirit, mezcal is rising in popularity – it has become trendy in North America in recent years and is starting to experience more global recognition. Both spirits are made from the agave plant, but aside from mezcal’s distinctive smoky flavor, most people don’t know what the main differences between tequila and mezcal are. The following breakdown explores these differences and aims to demystify the world of mezcal.
Definitions and History
The first thing to know is that mezcal is a predecessor of tequila and that technically, tequila is a type of mezcal. Mezcals started to appear in the 1500s after the Spanish arrived in Mexico, combining their knowledge of distillation with a local plant (agave) whose juices they could readily distill. The first tequila was first produced in the later 1500s near what is now known as the city of Tequila.
Species of Agave
Mezcal can be made from over 30 different varieties of agave, while tequila can only be made from blue agave. The most common varieties of agave used for mezcal include espadín, but tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, and arroqueño.
Both spirits are made from the harvested core of the agave plant, known as the piña. While tequila producers usually bake or steam-cook the piña before fermenting its juice, mezcal producers roast the piña underground in earthen pits with wood and charcoal. This is where mezcal’s smokiness comes from. Tequila is typically distilled two or three times in copper pots whereas mezcal is distilled in clay pots. Unlike tequila, most mezcal is made by small, artisanal producers who continue to follow traditional production methods.
Labelling and Aging
Tequila comes in three categories: blanco (aged 0-2 months), reposado (aged 2-12 months), and anejo (aged 1-3 years). There are also three categories of mezcal, but they have slightly different names and aging requirements: there is joven/blanco (aged 0-2 months), reposado (aged 2-12 months), and anejo (aged at least one year).
The heart of tequila production is around the city of Tequila in the Western Mexican state of Jalisco, as blue agave grows well in this region. But tequila is also made in Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal is strongly associated with Oaxaca in the South, though production is more widespread than tequila and occurs in eight other regions in Mexico.
Aside from being smokier, mezcal also tends to be earthier and more bitter than tequila. Mezcal is often richer and higher in proof, as well.
Finally, now that you understand what exactly tequila and mezcal are and how they differ, here is one similarity to conclude on. Both spirits are made to be served neat and savored. Many people associate tequila with lower-grade products as it’s often consumed as a shot with lime and salt. Others are intimidated to drink mezcal without mixers to soften its seemingly aggressive flavors. But in Mexico, high-quality tequila and mezcal are meant to be served on their own and sipped on in order to appreciate their complexity and elegance.