Agave 101: Tequila vs. Mezcal

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I was already a devoted tequila lover by the time I had my first sip of mezcal — and it was a revelation. It brought back memories of a long camping trip in the Mojave desert, and the smell of the rain hitting hot sand, slowly drowning out the last embers of my campfire. 

In short: I was hooked on agave spirits. After that, I spent the next three years of my life deeply involved with studying, tasting, and comparing tequilas and mezcals

In this short space, I’d like to share as much as I can with you about two Mexican spirits that are near and dear to my heart. Because once you get past the gimmicky products — you know the ones, with worms in the bottle and tiny sombreros on top — I’m sure you’ll love them just as much as I do.

All tequilas are mezcal, but all mezcals are not tequila

Before we get into the details of each spirit, allow me to clear something up: Mezcal is the category term for any spirits made from fermented agave. Tequila is a subcategory of mezcal, made in a specific way, from certain agaves, in just one area of Mexico. 

And while tequila might be the more popular spirit in the United States, mezcal is considered the “king of spirits” across most of Mexico — especially in the South, in its native Oaxaca.

“Tequila is a subcategory of mezcal, made in a specific way, from certain agaves, in just one area of Mexico.”

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The region: Jalisco vs. the rest of Mexico

Like Champagne, Tequila takes its name from the region where it’s produced: The city of Tequila, in Jalisco, Mexico. And just like the French specialty wine, any spirit named tequila has a protected status in Mexican law. You’ll never find tequila made outside of its hometown.

Mezcal doesn’t have the same restrictions, meaning that you’ll find more varieties from more areas of Mexico — but its major home is in the state of Oaxaca. Around 85 percent of mezcal is distilled there, with the other 15 percent coming from outlying areas of Mexico: Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Durango, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla.

Why so many different growing regions for mezcal, but just a single area for tequila? That’s thanks to the variety of wild-growing agaves in the state’s hot southern climate, and the preference for a single type of agave in tequila.

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The agave: Blue vs. espadin… and more

Agave tequilana, or the Blue Weber Agave, is the backbone of the tequila industry. In fact, it’s the only type of agave that’s legally allowed to be used in tequila. This is due in large part to its fast-growing nature, giving tequila producers more spirits in less time.

Mezcal, however, can be made from any variety of agave, including rare and hard to find wild agaves that only grow in mountainous regions. The largest portion of mezcal is made from the espadin agave — but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of other agaves like arroqueño, barril, madrecuixe, and tobala lend their unique flavors to artisanally produced mezcals.

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How it’s made: Modern vs. traditional methods

After harvesting, the agaves used for both spirits are shaved down to their “hearts” — the dense, sappy centers of the spiky plants. After this, the two spirits are handled very differently.

For tequila, these agave hearts will usually be steamed in large, industrial, stainless steel ovens. This brings out more of their sugars, so that when the hearts are turned into a watery mash, specially selected yeast strains can begin to ferment them into alcohol. A few weeks will pass, and this fermentation will be distilled two to three times in column stills.

The agave hearts used for mezcal take a different path. Large pits are dug into the ground, and clay ovens are erected over the top of them. A roaring fire is stoked, and the hearts are nestled in the embers — thoroughly roasting them, and imparting mezcal’s distinct smoky flavor. 

The hearts are then mashed, and left to ferment in open-air vessels. This allows the fermentation to accumulate a diverse set of wild yeasts, giving it dense, complex flavors. After being run through copper pot stills, the resulting spirit still carries much of this wild, natural flavor.

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The flavor: Contemporary vs. rustic

And this brings us to the main difference in tequila and mezcal: How they taste!

Tequila is a carefully controlled product, and one that’s designed to show off the clean, fresh taste of blue agave. It’s incredibly consistent from one bottle to the next, with a grassy agave aroma, slightly sweet and pungent taste, and peppery finish.

Mezcal is a much wilder, more variable spirit. The rustic methods used in making mezcal give it a distinctly smoky flavor, with more savory and unexpected flavors than you’ll find in tequila. Additionally, each type of agave used in mezcal will lend its own unique notes — like the smooth, cool finish of an arroqueño, or the roasted meat taste of barril.

“Tequila is a carefully controlled product, and one that’s designed to show off the clean, fresh taste of blue agave. Mezcal is a much wilder, more variable spirit.”

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The final product: Two takes on agave spirits

Essentially, the difference between tequila and mezcal is this:

Tequila is made by larger producers, with industrial methods. They prize consistency and clarity of flavor. 

Mezcal is made in smaller batches, often by individual artisans, and values the expression of terroir: The signature smell and taste imparted by the land where the agaves were grown.

Is one spirit better than the other? No. Tequila shows Mexico’s modern, innovative side, while mezcal pays homage to its deep roots. Both are integral to the spirit of the country, and both deserve a place in your home bar.

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