Tequila and Mezcal
A staple of Mexican bar culture, mezcal has been gaining ground in the American spirits scene for the past decade or more. Though it’s now a staple of many cocktail joints, there’s still some confusion. Tequila and mezcal are both agave spirits, right? So what’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?
The simplest way to think about it, explains Sydney Block, co-founder of Catedral Mi Padre Mezcal, is that all tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is a vast category of spirits made from agave and tequila is a small subset of mezcal, much like bourbon is a kind of whiskey, or Chardonnay is a kind of wine. “Basically, the way I think about it is that tequila is a kind of mezcal, but there are different kinds that are not,” Block explains.
That’s because tequila can only be made from one kind of agave plant: Blue Weber Agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, can use any kind of agave plant. “They’re all the same plant but they have different varieties. Mezcal is made from all 40 of them, and it can be made from wild and cultivated,” Block says. “For tequila, it must be cultivated and it must be Blue Weber agave.”
To make mezcal, mescaleros take the core of the agave plant — known as the piña — and roast the plant in conical pites in the ground in a similar manner to barbacoa. The cooking method is why mezcals often taste smokier than tequilas. But because the methodology for making mezcal is less constrained than tequila, and because mescaleros can use whatever species of agave they want, there’s a great deal of variety in mezcal. “Because of its small batch nature, the variety of flavors that are presented in mezcal are astronomical,” Block explains. “The different flavors between batches of the same agave species can range pretty drastically, depending on who’s making it works.”
To make tequila, on the other hand, distillers steam the blue agave piña, usually in a brick oven or autoclave. Tequila’s strict constraints mean that the flavor is more consistent, and the methodology also lends itself more easily to industrial production, which explains why tequila was a more common import on American bar shelves than mezcal until relatively recently. Mezcals are by nature individual and changeable — the same brand or farmer might make a bottle that tastes very different from last month or last year’s output.
In tequila, the process is more standardized and therefore you can expect more stable flavor characteristics, explains Uduimoh Umolu, founder of tequila brand Jon Basil. “Tequila is from Jalisco, and the plants are Blue Weber agave, which are specific to that region,” notes Umolu. “They take seven to eight years to grow, to the point where they’re ready for distillation. It’s the process and the patience to create the tequila that makes it stand out.”
After mezcal and tequila are distilled, both can be aged or drunk as they are, as a clear spirit — in tequila that’s known as blanco, and in mezcal, that’s generally called joven which translates to young. If you age tequila or mezcal in a steel or wooden barrel for two months up to a year, that creates tequila reposado or mezcal reposado, spirits that have a caramel color and pick up notes from the barrel in which they’re aging. If you age longer than a year, that’s when you get añejo, a category for both tequila and mezcal, although it’s much more common in tequila. Anejo tequilas and mezcals have a darker color, closer to a whiskey or rum, and an even stronger flavor profile, depending on the barrel they were aging in.
No matter if you’re ordering tequila or mezcal, you’re drinking an agave spirit that has a long history in Mexico. “Tequila is one of the oldest spirits in the world,” Umolu says. “There’s so much tradition that goes into it. There are processes that have passed down for generations.”
Block agrees. “Mezcal is a truly artisanal process. That word is overused but that’s what it is — it’s all made by hand, no machinery is ever allowed to be used in the process. They cook it with fire and wood, press it, and naturally ferment it. Mezcal is really an artwork.”