We've seen Mezcal and Tequila on the shelves at the back of the bar. They’re sitting right next to each other...does that mean they're the same thing? Yes and no. Confused? Let’s fix that.
You probably already know that scotch, bourbon, and rye are all whiskeys, though they go through different methods of production. It’s a similar situation with mezcal and tequila. All tequilas can be considered mezcals, but not the other way around.
They come from the same main ingredient but go through some significantly different stages in their production. Let’s take a look at what makes these two traditional spirits different.
Nearly all the tequila you will ever drink is produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco. And all of that tequila is made, at least in part, from the blue agave plant. In fact, Mexican law requires all tequila to be made from at least 51 percent blue agave.
Both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant. But it is only tequila that is required to be made from the blue variety, by law.
Stone grinding wheel in an old mezcal distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico
Pro Tip: To find the best tequila, look for labels that state “Made of 100 percent blue agave.” Trust us. Labels that do not say 100 percent blue agave are referred to as “mixtos.” They often use inferior agave plants, neutral spirits, or even cane sugar juice to make up that other 49 percent. They can lead to a really bad hangover. So please, choose one hundred percent blue agave, every time.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from over thirty different varieties of agave. Just as bourbon can only be produced in the United States and scotch only in Scotland, mezcals can only be produced in certain regions (or Denominacións de Origens) of Mexico, in order to receive the official title of mezcal.
This spirit has an air of mystery about it in the States. It is gaining ground in popularity, though, as the American palette gets used to more nuance. “Smoky” is often the first note you’ll hear about in any particular mezcal, and while that is often correct, mezcal is no one-trick pony.
Traditionally, agave starts its journey to the mezcal spirit realm by being fire-roasted in stone-lined pits in the ground. This is done in much the same way pork is roasted for barbacoa, with wood or charcoal to impart flavor. This smokey, fiery process, along with the wide variety of agave used in the process, is what gives mezcal its signature heat, spice, and flavor profile.
After the pit roast, the agave is crushed under stone milling wheels. Some producers, such as Mezcal Amores, still do things the traditional way, using burros to turn the milling wheel and crush the roasted agave piña.
After crushing comes the fermentation process, where the mash is barreled from a few days to over a week. Different mezcal producers use different materials in the fermentation barrels. Oak, steel, stone, or even animal skins may be added to bring out a wide variety of flavors during this stage.
After a good maceration gets the natural yeasts to do their thing and fermentation has run its course, the mash is distilled. Most mezcal goes through at least two distillations, followed by blending and aging in oak to create multiple varieties of mezcal.
Young mezcal is referred to as Blanco or Joven and receives minimal aging, if any at all. If the final product is a Reposado, you may see that trademark red caterpillar drifting around at the bottom of the bottle. Añejo receives at least a year in the aging barrel and is the smoothest, most decadent of the presentations.
Because mezcal can be produced using so many varieties of the agave plant, and because of its old-school roots of production, terroir plays a big part in the profile of the spirit. Sure, you get that tell-tale smoke from the roasting and aging, but there are a crazy number of notes to discover.
Mezcal’s flavor notes can range from light, bright citrus to burnt marshmallow and musty barnyard, with more heat than tequila. It can take your tastebuds on a journey every bit as well as a glass of red wine. It makes sense why it is sometimes referred to as “mezcal wine.”
We all know tequila. Some of us know it as party fuel and haven’t visited the stuff since our twenties when it used to keep us going all night. But that’s not what tequila is all about. It doesn’t always need to go down fast with salt and lime. (Just typing that out gave us a headache.)
Tequila deserves respect as a quality liquor to be sipped slowly, neat, or over rocks. 100 percent blue agave tequila can be enjoyed just the same as any peaty scotch or cask-aged rum.
Tequila starts in a similar way to mezcal but with two important distinctions. One, it must be made almost entirely from the blue agave plant. And two, it is not fire-roasted, but steamed in clay, copper, or steel vats to break down the plant and release the sugars for fermentation. Skipping the fire and the smoke leaves us with a cleaner-tasting, sweeter product.
The rest of the process is roughly the same: crushing, fermentation, and distillation, followed by aging.
The different styles of tequila (blanco, reposado, and añejo) all leave a decidedly sweet brightness on the tongue. Fruity, floral, and citrus notes, or a strong minerality and salinity, are more common to tequila than its older cousin, mezcal.
The neutrality of blancos makes them excellent for simple cocktails, and the breadth of flavor in reposados can add a caramelly element to drinks. Try an Old Fashioned with a reposado--you’ll thank us later.
But tequila doesn’t always need assistance. Any tequila made from 100 percent blue agave is well worth sipping from a glass that was made to enhance the spirit within. The Whiskey Aficionado Glass is ideal. Served neat, even a young blanco has a lot of notes to play with.
More and more mixologists are adding mezcal-based cocktails to their repertoire, which is great, but mezcal has the spirit of a lone wolf. Lobo solitario. Especially when aged in oak, good mezcal has layer upon layer of complex flavors that you’re not going to get with any other spirit. Seriously, a good mezcal añejo can be a mind-blowing experience, well worth the price tag.
Sarah Bonisteel, in her article, says that “in Oaxaca, it’s often served at room temperature in a wine glass with a slice of orange and a pinch of salt.”
That sounds pretty great, but we suggest that it be served neat or with a whiskey rock in a straight-walled, Exquisite Whiskey glass. With so much to experience in one spirit, there's no need to overcomplicate things.
Tequila gets its sweet, sharp brightness from steaming and the trademark flavor of the blue agave plant. Mezcal, on the other hand, receives its hot and spicy soul by being slow-roasted in smoky stone pits. And it gets its variety of nuances and terroirs from the thirty-plus different agave plants that are used to make the spirit.
If you haven’t tried mezcal yet, we highly recommend you do, either straight up or in a modern cocktail. And when you do, let us know how it went. Or if you’re on team tequila, let’s hear how you like to drink it in the comments below.