What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

Mister Tequila tasting gallery

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Tequila and mezcal are two kinds of distilled spirits that are made in Mexico from the agave plant. Some may think there's no difference between them, however, there are some key differences between the two drinks, mainly in terms of the type of agave used, the production process, and the area of Mexico where it's made.

Is Tequila a Type of Mezcal?

Initially, tequila was considered a type of mezcal. It was labeled "Mezcal de Tequila" (Mezcal from Tequila), referring to the place in which it was produced, that is, in and around the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. The term "mezcal" was broader, encompassing tequila and other liquors made from the agave plant. Sort of like the difference between scotch and whiskey, all tequila was mezcal, but not all mezcal was tequila.

As regulations on the production of these drinks were imposed, the precise definitions of the terms have changed somewhat over time. The two types of spirit are both made from the agave plant, but they are made with different varieties of agave, the production process differs somewhat, and they are also produced in different geographic regions.

Tequila's Appellation of Origin

In 1977, the Mexican government issued a law that determined that a drink could only be labeled tequila if it was produced in a particular area of Mexico (in the state of Jalisco and a few municipalities in the nearby states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas) and was made from the Agave Tequilana Weber, commonly known as "blue agave."

The Mexican government contended that tequila is a cultural product that should only bear that name if distilled from the blue agave plant indigenous to a specific climatic region of Mexico. Most agree that this is the case, and in 2002, UNESCO recognized the Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila as a World Heritage Site. If you go, besides seeing how tequila is made, there are many other interesting things to do in tequila country.

The production process for tequila is strictly regulated. By law: tequila can only be labeled and sold by that name if blue agave constitutes over half of the fermented sugars in the drink. Premium tequilas are made with 100% blue agave and labeled as such, but lower quality tequila may include up to 49% cane alcohol or brown sugar alcohol, in which case it is labeled "mixto," or mixed. The regulatory council allows these lower quality tequilas to be exported in barrels and bottled abroad. Premium tequilas, on the other hand, must be bottled within Mexico.

Regulation of Mezcal

The production of mezcal was regulated more recently. It used to be seen as a poor man's drink and was made in all sorts of conditions, with the results of greatly varied quality. In 1994, the government applied the law of Appellation of Origin to the production of mezcal, limiting the area where it could be produced to regions in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas.

Mezcal may be made from a variety of different types of agave. Agave Espadin is the most common and is widely cultivated, but other types of agave, including some varieties of wild agave, are also used. Mezcal must have at least 80% agave sugars, and it must be bottled in Mexico.

Production Process Differences

The process in which tequila is made also differs from how mezcal is made. For tequila, the heart of the agave plant (called the piña, because once the spines are removed, it resembles a pineapple) is steamed before distillation, and for most mezcal the piñas are roasted in an underground pit before it is fermented and distilled, giving it a smokier flavor.

Mezcal tends to be made on a smaller scale, and the process for making mezcal is more artisanal, or in some cases, "ancestral" if clay pots and reeds are used instead of copper pots and tubes.

Mezcal or Tequila?

Mezcal's popularity has risen in recent years, and people are showing an appreciation for the spirit's variation of flavors depending on the type of agave used, where it was cultivated, and each producer's special touch. Exports of mezcal have tripled in recent years, and it is now considered on a par with tequila, with some people even prizing it over tequila because of the wide variety of flavors it can encompass.

Whether you prefer to sip mezcal or tequila, just remember this: these spirits are meant to be sipped, not shot!