Over the last few years, more and more people have been discovering Tequila. What was once a beverage relegated to being just a college bar shot has now become an elegant and refined drink.
Celebrities have even taken notice, becoming some of the biggest forces in the business. Stars such as Santana (Casa Noble), George Clooney (Casamigos), Sammy Hagar and Guy Fiere (Santo), and most notably Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Terremana), amongst many others, helped Tequila reach over 5 billion dollars in sales in 2020, with sales predicted to top 6 billion in 2021. But as it grows in popularity, many people don't actually know what makes a drink "Tequila." Did you know that Tequila is just a segment of a larger category of distilled agave spirits known as Mezcal?
Tequila vs. Mezcal: What's the Difference?
All Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila. So what’s the difference? Let's start with a little history. Agave spirits have been around since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. They were making a fermented beverage called Pulque from agaves (or magueys). It can be assumed that, like most of the development of spirits in the world, somebody realized that cooking (distilling) that Pulque would create a stronger and less perishable product. In fact, the term Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word "Mezcalli," which roughly translates to "roasted agave." Over time, Mezcal would become a significant part of religious ceremonies and traditions, leading it to be considered “the elixir of the gods.”
Today, Mezcal (and Tequila) is still made from the heart of the agave, which is also known as the piña. The agaves are harvested and the leaves are stripped away, leaving the piña. The piña is then roasted in an underground pit to bring out the sugars. Next, the roasted piñas are crushed between stones called tahonas to break down the fibers and release the agave nectars. That liquid is collected and put into a vat, where natural yeast in the air stimulates the development of alcohol. At that point, it is cooked (distilled) to somewhere around 75 proof (37.5 % abv). Next, it is redistilled to raise the proof up to around 110 proof (55% abv). At this point it is either bottled or put into vessels for aging. This is the basic process. There are some variations depending on the classification of the Mezcal, but we will come back to that.
So what is the difference between Tequila and Mezcal?
- Where it's produced. Both have international AO (appellation of origin) status, which means they can only be produced in specific regions of Mexico. There are 8 regions marked for Mezcal, but Tequila can only be made in the state of Tequila.
- Type of agave. There are over 200 varieties of agave, and while Mezcal can be made from around 50 of them, Tequila can only be made from Blue Agave, also known as Weber Agave (named after Dr. Weber, who discovered the unique properties of that species).
- How it's cooked. Tequila is cooked above ground in steam ovens, while Mezcal is underground in fire pits.
- Agave & sugars. As of the early 2000’s, Mezcal has to be made from 100% agave, while Tequila can add other sugar sources (always look for 100% agave on a Tequila label).
Here are some rules specific to Mezcal.
- Mezcal. This is often considered to be “industrialized” Mezcal, with modern methods and technology being allowed in production.
- Artisanal. This is the most common, and mostly refers to the traditional means of production, allowing for the use of column stills.
- Ancestral. The most rustic and traditional methods allowed, distillation must be done in clay pots or stainless steel.
- Joven or Blanco. Unaged.
- Madurado en Vidrio or Matured in Glass. Aged in glass containers, usually underground, for at least a year. Allows the spirit to mature without losing alcohol content.
- Reposado. Aged 2 to 12 months in wood.
- Anejo. Aged at least 12 months.
- Abocado. Flavored or infused with the worm, fruits, or caramel coloring.
- Destilado con (distilled with) or Pechuga. A style traditionally made for special occasions where spices of fruits are added to the boiling distillate and meats such as chicken breasts, turkey breasts or ham are hung over the boiling distillate.
Mezcals You Should Try
Espadin is probably the most common variety of agave used, and definitely the one recommended for beginners. Once you’ve conquered that, look out for varieties such as Tobala and Barril. Because of the agaves being roasted, it can pick up smokiness much like Scotch Whisky can retain the smoky flavors of peat. But just like not every Scotch is smoky, neither is every Mezcal. Agave has a natural sweetness to it, and being a member of the succulent plant family, it also has nice vegetal notes, and those features often shine more than the smokiness. Traditionally it is drank straight, though it does interchange nicely with Tequila to add a smoky complexity to cocktails like a margarita or paloma. It can also be a perfect substitute in Gin cocktails, especially Negronis. And it even makes for a flavorful replacement for Vodka in the health-conscious Vodka Soda cocktail. So, with all of that, if you are curious about Mezcal, here are 5 bottles that we recommend trying.