Lets look at the difference between Tequila and Mezcal
For many years tequila has held sway as the most popular Mexican alcoholic beverage worldwide. However, these days mezcal is sitting in a very close second. There is a common conception that the two names are interchangeable, as famously both drinks are made with agave. However, as this article will show, that’s not necessarily the case. Here is a run-down of some of the key differences and similarities between two of Mexico’s most popular exports.
So, where to begin? Well, a good rule of thumb to remember is that every tequila is a mezcal, although not every mezcal is a tequila. Any drink made with agave is classified as a mezcal, whereas the definition of tequila is a bit more refined- the name refers only to those drinks which are made with the agave tequilana Weber, or the Weber blue agave. Because mezcals can be made with upwards of 30 different varieties of agave, it is more of a loose umbrella term which covers all agave-based beverages. The name itself is derived from the word mexcalli, which translates as “oven-cooked agave” in the Central Mexican language of Nahuatl. Significantly, close to 90% of all mezcals are made using the espadín agave- it is by far the most commonly employed variant.
Tequila and agave are produced differently too; both drinks use completely distinct distilling processes. When it comes to tequila, the harvested core of the agave is steamed in an industrial oven before being distilled a number of times into copper pots. Mezcal, on the other hand, is made by roasting the agave core in earthen pits before distilling it into clay pots. This process comes from age-old customs which have been retained for centuries, and which give the mezcal its distinctive smoky finish. Indeed, it is that smoky flavor which is the most frequently-cited distinguishing factor between tequila and mezcal.
Where the drinks are made is also a major element of the production process. For example, to be called a mezcal the spirit must be produced in one of nine Mexican regions. These are: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. Any drink made using similar processes outside of these regions cannot legally be marketed as a mezcal. There are similar restrictions in place for tequila- the beverage is most frequently associated with its namesake town: Tequila in the state of Jalisco, located approximately 60km from the state capital Guadalajara.
When it comes to aging, both mezcal and tequila use a similar process. That is, they are both stored in oak barrels. However, the duration of their respective aging periods differs slightly, as does some of the terminology used to describe them. For instance, tequila which has aged for two months or less is classified as “blanco” or “silver.” However, mezcal which has aged for the same length of time is classed as “joven.” Both tequila and mezcal which have been aged for between two months and one year are classed as “reposado,” while those which have been aged for one to three years and over three years are described as “anejo” and “extra anejo” respectively.
Popular distinctions in flavor include the aforementioned “smokiness” of mezcal, but that is by no means the only one. Tequila as a rule is sweeter and fruitier in its finish, while mezcal is earthier, with a savory tang. As a rule, both are traditionally drunk straight, although there are also plenty of opportunities for cocktail innovations. In terms of cultural association, tequila has often been perceived as a “party” drink to be swallowed in a single shot or else swirled in a margarita. However, its image has undergone something of an overhaul in recent years. This is primarily thanks to the so-called “tequila gold rush” of the last decade or so, which saw a dramatic increase in the number of small-scale artisanal tequila producers. With that in mind, the cultural rehabilitation of tequila has seen it become more of a luxury sipping beverage lately. Mezcal, however, has always been considered the more refined option- better for a sip than a shot. The key thing to remember, though, is that both are highly versatile.
Which brings us to the topic of cocktails. While both tequila and mezcal are traditionally drunk neat, there are a host of cocktail options for each. Perhaps the most popular of all cocktails is the margarita, which is made with Cointreau, tequila and lime served on the rocks. Likewise, the Paloma is a firm favorite, offering a crisp concoction of tequila and grapefruit soda, and of course there is the famous Tequila sunrise which provides a colorful blend of grenadine, orange juice and tequila.
Mezcal variations on all of the most popular tequila cocktails are rapidly gaining a fanbase of their own. But it is also distinguishing itself as a mixer in its own right. For instance, Mezcal makes a refreshing substitute for gin in a new spin on the classic Negroni cocktail. And let’s not forget, mixologists are always discovering exciting new combinations. Take the Naked and Famous, which is made with equal parts Aperol, Chartreuse, lime juice and (of course) mezcal. First devised in 2011, this is a complex and very modern long drink which boasts a sophisticated bittersweet finish. It’s a great choice for the adventurous drinker. When it comes to alcoholic content, mezcal has tequila beat hands-down. While tequila boasts 40% ABV, mezcal is considerably stronger on 55% ABV. That’s why substituting mezcal for tequila in a popular cocktail is a great way to pack a little extra punch.
So, which is the best- tequila or mezcal? This is an impossible question to answer. Really, the proof is in the pudding- if you are curious about these two very distinctive and original beverages, your best bet is to sample a few. Your palate may be better attuned to one than the other, or you may simply discover an equal admiration for both. Either way, you are bound to find much to love about these exquisite Mexican spirits.