What's the difference between tequila and mezcal?

Tequila shots
••• Good tequila and mezcal should be sipped. Getty Images / Image Source

Tequila and mezcal are spirits that are made in Mexico from the agave plant. However, there are some key differences between the two drinks. Originally, tequila was considered a type of mezcal. It was labelled "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, 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 certain 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 climactic 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.

The production process is strictly regulated and 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 tequila may include up to 49% cane or brown sugar, 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, but other types of 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 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!