Mezcal vs Tequila: What Are the Differences in Ingredients, Production & Taste?

by Jim Casey
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(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Tequila and mezcal. Mezcal and tequila. So many base commonalities. So many delicious differences. And that’s why we’re here today. While tequila and mezcal share a number of similarities, there are distinct differences between the agave-based spirits, including ingredients, production, origin, and taste.

Let’s jump into the mezcal pit today.

Ingredients

Tequila and mezcal are often lumped into the same broad category since both are agave-based spirits of Mexican origin. Agave, of course, is a grass-like flowering plant from the Lilium genus that grows in arid conditions throughout the Americas, with more than 200 known varieties.

Tequila is only made from one very specific type of agave (Blue Weber agave). There’s no getting around it. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from dozens of different agave varieties (predominantly 30ish).

Blue Weber agave farm in Tequila, Mexico. (photo by Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Hence, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

In order to be designated a “tequila,” the spirit is required to be made from 51 percent blue agave sugars. The other 49 percent can come from cane, beet, or high fructose corn sugars, to name a few. It’s best to look for tequilas labeled “100 percent blue agave.”

Mezcal must be made from 100 percent agave, which leaves no room for additives of any kind.

Production

There are a number of similar steps involved in the production of both tequila and mezcal, including harvesting the agave piñas (hearts), cooking, extraction, fermentation, distillation, aging, and more.

The biggest difference is how the agave is cooked. For tequila, the harvested Blue Weber agave is typically cooked/steamed in large industrial ovens called autoclaves.

The agave for mezcal is cooked/smoked in underground pits. (photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)

The agave for mezcal is cooked/smoked in underground, earthen pits. It’s more of an artisanal process (that’s not to say that mezcal can’t be industrially produced, but it’s typically a smaller-scale operation). After a fire is started in the pit, which is lined with volcanic rock, the piñas are placed inside and covered with earth, where they smoke and caramelize during the multi-day process, before the extraction process begins.

Origin

Tequila can only be produced in one of five Mexican states (Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas), according to the Appellation of Origin (1974). In 1994, the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) was created as a body authorized by the Mexican government to verify and certify tequila. Every “tequila” features a NOM denoting that the bottle is authentic tequila produced in Mexico. It also tells you which tequila producer it comes from.

Mezcal can be produced in one of 10 Mexican states (Oaxaca, Michoacan, Puebla, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Durango, and Sinaloa, which was recently added). About 90 percent of all mezcal comes from Oaxaca. But more states could—and probably will—be approved in the future. Mezcal is certified by semi-governmental organizations that have been tasked with regulating the product.

Mezcal vs Tequila Taste

Since tequila comes from only one variety of agave, and mezcal may be created from dozens of agave varieties, mezcal has far more flavor diversity.

The first word that comes to mind when describing mezcal, especially in relation to tequila, is “smoky.” Of course, the fact that the mezcal’s agave is smoked in earthen pits plays a big part in that descriptor. But mezcal flavors vary widely beyond smoky, including savory, sweet, nutty, fruity, earthy, minerally and more. The spirit is designed to drink neat.

The taste of tequila depends on a number of factors. Where did the agave come from (Highlands vs. Lowlands)? What flavors and aromas were produced during fermentation? Was the tequila aged and for how long? Does the tequila contain additives? Tequila, which is categorized into one of five expressions, is often sweet, rich, fruity, oaky, agave-forward, and more. Some expressions are designed to drink neat (añejos and extras añejos), while blancos and reposados are often mixed with juices and more.

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