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Mezcal vs Tequila: What’s the Difference?

There are some common misconceptions between mezcal vs tequila. While both come from Mexico, are distilled from the agave plant, and are frequently swapped in cocktails like margaritas, there are some key differences. Learn all about everything from where and how these spirits are produced to their aging process and flavor profile. Plus, we’ve thrown in some tasty cocktail recipes for good measure.

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Mezcal

Any spirit distilled from the agave plant, which is a succulent native to Mexico and Texas, is considered mezcal. So, mezcal encompasses other liquors from agave that you’ve seen around including 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.

Over 200 varieties of agave grow in Mexico’s countryside, yet only 50 or so can be used to make the spirit. And, the majority of mezcal is made from the fastest-growing varietal, Espadin, which takes about seven years compared to three decades that other agave varietals can take. There are also mezcal “ensembles”, or those made from a blend of agave types. However, when it comes to the spirit’s flavor and character profile, production methods have a much bigger impact than the agave variety does.

Distilled mezcal ranges widely in flavor and quality, and it sits between 38% and 55% ABV (alcohol by volume).

HISTORY OF MEZCAL

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico and brought distillation along for the ride. 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 heading south to find a buzz discovered mezcal.

MEZCAL’S PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION

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.

Legally, Mezcal can be produced in nine states throughout Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Guanajuato. The vast majority (about 90%) of the mezcal exported to the US comes from Oaxaca. Durango exports the second-highest amount, with the other seven states distributing just 1% of mezcal exports combined.

TYPES OF MEZCAL

The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) established three types 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.

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.

Tequila

Tequila is a spirit that comes from the Blue Weber agave plant. Mexican law dictates that tequila must come from one of five states, be distilled with at least 51% agave and no more than 49% sugar, and be bottled between 35% and 55% ABV. In the US, it must be sold with at least 40% ABV.

HISTORY OF TEQUILA

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.

TEQUILA’S PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION

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. It’s a good idea to try lowlands tequila in cocktails for an easy introduction before sipping it neat.

TYPES OF TEQUILA

Aging is important in tequila production and is usually a sign of quality. The spirit’s color and wood character intensity depends on how long it ages in the oak barrel. There are five common types of tequila:

  • Plata/Silver/White/Blanco. This is unaged or aged for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Silver tequila directly takes on the blue agave’s sweet flavor.
  • Joven/Gold/Oro. When you blend unaged Silver tequila with aged or extra-aged tequila, you get Gold tequila, which is usually less expensive and common in cocktails. Some producers use caramel coloring, oak extract, glycerin, or sugar syrup instead.
  • Reposado/Rested/Aged. Reposado tequila is aged anywhere from two months up to a year in wooden barrels (usually oak) or storage tanks that give it a golden hue and toasty taste.
  • Añejo. This type of tequila is aged for at least one year but less than three years in oak barrels holding no more than 600 liters. You’ll find Añejo tequila to be a dark, rich, amber color with rich, smooth, and complex flavors.
  • Extra/Ultra Añejo. A fairly new tequila type created in 2006, Extra Añejo is aged for at least three years in oak barrels. It takes on a scotch-like peatiness and caramel flavor.

Flavor Differences of Mezcal vs Tequila

The flavor differences in mezcal vs. tequila come down to the agave type and the location and climate of where it came, the cooking and distillation process used, and whether the spirit was aged. Overall, tequila is sweeter, smoother, fruitier, and more complex and toasty from its oak aging. Mezcal gives more savory, smoky, and earthy flavors with vegetal, tropical, or floral notes.

Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails

ICED OR HOT MOCHA MEZCAL

You can make this scrumptious dessert cocktail cold or hot, whenever the mood strikes.

Iced
Add 6 ounces of coconut milk, 2 ounces each of Joven mezcal and coffee liqueur, 1 teaspoon/to taste of agave nectar or maple syrup (optional), ¼-teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and 3-4 ice cubes to a cocktail shaker. Shake for 15 seconds and set aside. Next, drizzle four teaspoons of chocolate syrup against the walls of two 8-ounce glasses. Add 3-4 ice cubes to each and strain the drink over top.

Hot
To a glass, add 2 ounces each of Joven mezcal and coffee liquor, 1 teaspoon/to taste of agave nectar or maple syrup (optional), ¼-teaspoon of cinnamon, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Whisk until combined and divide among two 6-ounce glasses or mugs. Heat 6 ounces of milk of your choice and whisk or briefly froth in a blender. Divide between the two glasses, top with whipped cream and drizzled chocolate syrup (optional).

TEQUILA LIME MOJITARITA

Tear a ½-cup of fresh mint leaves into pieces and add to a cocktail shaker with 3 ounces of tequila, a ⅛-cup of lime juice, and a ½-tablespoon of sugar. Fill with crushed ice and shake well. Strain over ice into two highball glasses and fill with soda water. Add a few mint leaves and thin lime slices as garnish.

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