Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila

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For years, it was pigeon-holed as “smoky,” an easy way to differentiate its flavors from Tequila, which is also distilled from agave. But in reality, mezcal is so much more.

Mezcal’s heritage is centuries old, but for many U.S, the story begins in the mid-1990s. That’s when Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, began to export single-village mezcal to America. Other mezcal producers soon also entered the market.

Mezcal is Mexico’s most traditional agave spirit, and perhaps its most nontraditional in terms of the drinking experience. It can surprise and delight with its extreme range, and it can show terroir like few spirits can.

Both mezcal and Tequila are made from agave, so what’s the difference between them? Basically, Tequila is a type of mezcal. While mezcal can be produced from up to 50 species of the agave plant, Tequila can be made from just one: agave tequilana Weber, or Weber blue agave. Additionally, agave that’s earmarked for Tequila is steamed in ovens, while the plant is often roasted in underground pits for mezcal, which can provide a distinctive smoky note.

While it’s tempting to hone in on a favorite type of agave, experts point out that terroir matters, too. To be called mezcal, the spirit must be made in one of nine Mexican states: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. Some agave-based spirits are made in a mezcal style outside the regulated Denominacións de Origens (DOs), but they can’t legally be labeled as mezcal. Where the agave is grown and harvested matters, but where it’s fermented and distilled is just as important. Quality mezcals are also always fermented with wild yeast, which can have a significant impact on its flavor and complexity.

The term mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl word for cooked agave, the paramount plant involved in the spirit’s production. While its tall, spiky green leaves are an iconic emblem of mezcal, it’s the piña, the rounded stem that resembles a pineapple, that’s used to make the spirit.

KARA NEWMAN, an active member of the New York cocktail and mixology scene, Kara Newman is the author of several cocktail books.


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