Mezcal vs Tequila: What’s the Difference?
Written by Emma C | Updated May 2023
You may have heard of mezcal and you may have heard of tequila, but what you may not have heard is the difference between these two popular Mexican spirits. Here’s the deal. Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the maguey (agave) plant. Technically, tequila is a mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila – just how bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey. Both have laws governing their production, but mezcal can use a greater variety of agave from nine Mexican states. The biggest difference lies in how the agave is prepared. Mezcal distillers traditionally bake the agave in earthen pits, which imparts a noticeable smoky flavor.
We offer plenty of bottles that can be enjoyed neat and recommend these, specifically.
What is tequila?
Tequila is produced in one of five Mexican regions – the state of Jalisco and areas of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan. The spirit is enjoyed all over the world, especially in Mexico and the US. While there are many types of tequila, it all comes from the Blue Weber agave plant and must be produced according to specific rules. For example, tequila must be distilled with at least 51% agave and no more than 49% sugar, and be bottled between 35% and 55% ABV. You’ll find many tasty cocktails made with tequila, like the classic margarita, but it’s also amazing on its own.
The first large-scale distillery was built in the Mexican state of Jalisco in the early 1600s by Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle. Known as “the Father of Tequila”, he produced “mezcal de tequila” here, which is what we now know as tequila.
For a couple of centuries, mezcal and tequila were essentially identical. Then, in the 1870s when Don Cenobio Sauza figured out that blue agave was the best type to produce tequila with, many other distillers of his region followed suit.
Just like mezcal, tequila became largely popular in the US during prohibition, when bootleggers snuck bottles across the border and Americans found solace in neighboring Tijuana’s bars.
It takes 8-12 years for the Blue Weber agave plant to produce quality nectar after it grows, ripens, and matures properly. Agave farmers harvest the plants and cut their outer leaves off, leaving the agave hearts (piñas) to be slow-cooked for 12-48 hours, then crushed to extract the juice. Sometimes at this stage, it’s mixed with sugar to create “mixto” tequila. The juice is then mixed with water and yeast and left to ferment. It gets twice-distilled and diluted before being bottled or aged in oak barrels.
Legally, tequila must be produced in one of five states as certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT): Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas. Most distilleries are in Jalisco’s highlands and lowlands. Tequilas from the highlands are naturally sweet, with fruit, mineral, and floral notes, and those from the lowlands taste spicier, earthier, and herbaceous.
Tequila Expressions Available In Our Bottle Shop
There are five expressions of tequila, each with their own unique characteristics and flavor profiles. Check out our top 10 lists – we’ve rounded up some of the best bottles of blanco, reposado, añejo, extra añejo, and cristalino available in our bottle shop to remove all the guesswork, so you can simply enjoy.
How to enjoy tequila
Speaking of enjoyment, here’s a bit about how to maximize your tequila experience with each type.
With its stronger profile compared to other top tequilas, blanco has vegetal, grassy, herbal, citrus, black pepper or other spices, and agave sweetness. It’s wonderful in cocktails, like a margarita, since it stands up next to nearly any mixer. But, it can be a bit harsh for those new to the spirit or who prefer something mild. If that’s you, be sure to try an extra smooth blanco that curbs the burn. Here is our top blanco recommendation
123 Organic Blanco Tequila Uno
Organic agaves are harvested for up to 10 years to create 123 Organic Blanco (Uno) tequila, from which Reposado (Dos) and Añejo (Tres) tequilas are made. Mature agaves are hand-harvested and the hearts are slowly cooked in stone ovens before being pressed to release their sugary juice. The blanco tequila comes once the natural fermentation and small-batch distillation are done.Buy Now
Reposado (rested) tequilas are aged for a minimum of 2 months in oak casks, but many expressions sit for 3-9 months. The resting mellows the harshness of blanco and gives the spirit more vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, chili, spice, and citrus flavors. These can be enjoyed straight or in your favorite tequila cocktail. It’s a pretty even split when it comes to enjoying reposado, as some can easily stand up to cocktail mixes while others are best enjoyed on their own neat or over ice. Here's our go-to reposado bottle:
Tequila Ocho Reposado
Tequila Ocho’s Reposado is made with 100% blue agave, harvested only when overripe, and distilled at La Alteña Distillery in the Highlands of Jalisco. This expression is rested for 8 weeks and 8 days in ex-American whiskey barrels, just over the minimum amount of time as required by law, and giving our Reposado a round, cooked agave note.
Añejos (old) are aged in white French oak or ex-bourbon barrels for 18 months to 3 years and carry a woodsy, caramelized, sweet yet spicy taste. They’re best enjoyed neat or over a bit of ice or a splash of water. But, they can be excellent in cocktails, too, like a spin on the Old Fashioned. You can't go wrong with the Tequila Corrido Añejo
Black Sheep Anejo
Winner of Best in World. The additive free Black Sheep Tequila Añejo has a nice, sweet agave smell with a little honey and a little toasty, oak barrel. The taste followed with more sweet agave, and a delicious long finish that brought in a bit of honey. Mouthfeel is clean, and light. This is a standout tequila, perfectly balanced, with a remarkably long, elegant finish with lingering notes of natural agave.
Tequila extra añejo
Extra añejo tequilas spend over 3 years in various casks and their expressive profiles rival some of the oldest whiskeys around. These are to be savored and experienced neat. We highly recommend Don Cheyo Tequila Extra Añejo.
La Adelita Extra Anejo Tequila
Don Cheyo Extra Añejo Tequila is a silky smooth extra añejo that stands perfectly on its own. It's been aged for three years in hand-selected French White Oak barrels, giving it a unique flavor profile. It’s wonderful when sipped at room temperature or in a chilled glass to really experience the full spectrum of flavors in this bottle.
With its añejo character and complexity combined with its blanco brightness, cristalino is pretty versatile any which way you please. Some purists suggest sticking with it neat or on the rocks, while others love it in some simple sparkling water or a spritzer cocktail.
Don Ramon Platinium Tequila Reposado Cristalino
Tequila Don Ramón Platinium Cristalino Reposado is double-distilled and rested in American and French oak, resulting in a smooth, delicate taste and robust profile.Made from 100% Blue Agave from the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, this cristalino clear spirit can be described as soft, medium bodied, and woody with complex gourmand notes.
No matter which tequila you decide to try, there are countless tequila cocktails you can try at home. From different margaritas to spiked hibiscus tea, they’re the perfect way to end a long day or entertain friends and family.
If you simply can’t decide on a bottle, let us do the work for you! A membership to our Tequila Club is perfect if you’d like a little variety without the work of choosing what and when.
What is mezcal?
Mezcal is any spirit distilled from the agave plant, a succulent native to Mexico and Texas. This means that mezcal includes other liquors from agave like tequila, raicilla, bacanora, and sotol. When you think of mezcal vs tequila, remember that tequila is a type of mezcal, similar to how bourbon and Scotch are types of whiskey. Legally, Mezcal can be produced in nine states throughout Mexico, but the vast majority (about 90%) of the mezcal exported to the US comes from Oaxaca.
History of mezcal
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico and brought distillation with them. They looked for anything local to create alcohol with and soon found agave from which they created mezcal. Mezcal quickly became the first distilled spirit made in the Americas and was welcomed into Mexican culture. The drink didn’t become popular in the US until much later during prohibition when US tourists looking for a buzz south of the border discovered it.
How mezcal is produced
Over 200 varieties of agave grow in Mexico’s countryside, yet only 50 or so can be used to make mezcal. But, the majority is made from the fastest-growing varietal, Espadin, which takes about seven years compared to the three decades that other agave varietals can take. There are also mezcal “ensembles”, or those made from a blend of agave types.
When agave plants mature, they produce fructose molecules called inulin that can’t be directly converted to alcohol. So, the plants are roasted first, often in stone or pit ovens. This is where mezcal’s signature smokiness comes from. Agave hearts are then pressed and the juice produced from that gets fermented and distilled. Distilled mezcal ranges widely in flavor and quality, and it sits between 38% and 55% ABV (alcohol by volume).
Mezcal Expressions Available In Our Bottle Shop
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) established three expressions of mezcal based on production technique:
- Mezcal. This is the most industrial, mostly made with modern production techniques like diffusers for roasting and stainless steel fermentation vessels.
- Mezcal Artesanal. This primarily uses traditional production techniques with some modern techniques, like stainless steel or copper stills.
- Mezcal Ancestral. Strictly traditional, rudimentary production techniques are used in this technique. Methods include clay pot distilling, roasting in pit ovens, and fermentation in hollowed tree trunks. Very few commercial producers are set up for this type of production.
Don’t assume that just because a mezcal production type has stricter standards it’s superior to the others. The types reflect the style of the spirit produced, not its quality. You can get high-quality and low-quality spirits in any of the three classes.
Mezcal class and aging
A key distinction when comparing mezcal vs tequila, wine, or other spirits is aging. This is hardly considered or favored with mezcal, unlike tequila. The reason is that, traditionally, mezcal has been produced in rural Mexico, where the cost of barrels has prohibited new entrants to the market. Regardless, with more commercial production than ever, many mezcal connoisseurs believe that barrel aging gets in the way of how well the spirit’s terroir shines through. Many feel that mezcal’s unique qualities get lost when sitting in oak for too long.
However, the class categories and aging time frames used in tequila are the same for mezcal. The most popular mezcal class is unaged, or joven (meaning “young”). The classes for aged mezcal consist of reposado (“rested”) for 2-12 months in wood and añejo (“vintage”) for over 1 year in wood.
Mezcal can also be aged in glass for at least a year, which is called Madurado en Vidrio (“matured in glass”). This process used to occur underground but is now permitted in warehouses or storage facilities with very little change in humidity, light, and temperature. The benefit of glass aging is the slow oxidation that lets the spirit slowly mellow, without the evaporation or flavors you get from oak barrels.
Ready to try some mezcal? Here are three of our curator’s top three mezcal picks, which you can get through our bottle shop.
Del Maguey Mezcal Vida
Hand-crafted alongside the tropical riverbed in the village of San Luis Del Rio where the Red Ant River flows. Agave: Espadín. Naturally fermented and twice distilled in wood-fired copper stills. Nose of tropical fruit, honey, & roast agave; palate offers ginger, cinnamon, & tangerine, with a soft finish. ABV 42.
Montelobos Mezcal Espadin
Montelobos Espadin is a Mezcal Joven with many nuances, the nose is citrusy, salty and peppery. What does Mezcal Espadin taste like? There is an earthy note in the Montelobos Espadin, along with hints of agave and spices, nutmeg and cloves above all, for a sip that confirms the perfect balance between sweetness and subtle smoke.
Mezcal Vago Elote
A very rare and unique mezcal, even by mezcal standards, and the first of its kind to make it across the border. To produce this unforgettable spirit, the sons of Aquilino Garcia Lopez infuse this espadin mezcal with roasted sweet corn for a week and then distill it for a third time. The result is intoxicating, with notes of rich, smoky sweet corn, tropical fruits, vanilla, earth, and smoke. This is what great mezcal is all about. Limited. Please note: This has a redesigned label which is different than the current website image.
How to enjoy mezcal
Like tequila, mezcal is wonderful served neat. Enjoying it this way really allows you to appreciate its unique aromas and flavors. Sip small and cleanse the palate with water in between mezcals.But, if you’re in the mood to mix it up, you can absolutely mix up some mezcal cocktails. In fact, this is an easy way to get acquainted with the complex, smoky spirit (as it is with most new spirits).
Well, there you have it, the key differences between mezcal vs tequila. If you enjoyed learning about these Mexican classics, why not take the plunge and explore some great mezcals in the bottle shop? Or, join our Tequila Club and we’ll do the choosing for you each month.