“All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.” It’s a statement that gets tossed around a lot, and it is, in spirit, true: Mezcal is any liquor distilled from agave, a succulent plant native to the Americas, and tequila is made with the blue Weber agave species.
But for the average drinker, it’s understandably confusing when a copita of herbaceous, smoky, and earthy mezcal tastes significantly different from the tequila you’ve done shots of for years. In liquor stores and on cocktail menus, the distinction between the two is complicated by Mexican governing rules that mandate how agave spirits can be labelled. To further complicate things, years of overharvesting have led to many shortcuts in the tequila industry, such as cooking the agave in industrial autoclaves, meaning the tequila you’re likely to see on shelves today might not be true to the spirit of traditional mezcal.
These are the essentials to know when choosing tequila versus mezcal.
What are the Main Differences between Tequila and Mezcal?
Tequila can only be produced with the blue Weber agave plant, whereas mezcal can legally be made with more than 40 species of agave, including espadín, tobalá, and tepeztate. While both spirits are distilled from the sugars of agave piñas, or hearts, the piñas are steamed in above-ground ovens to produce tequila and roasted in wood-fired, rock-lined pits to make mezcal, which accounts for the latter’s smoky and savoury flavour. Beyond these key differences, spirits labelled mezcal and tequila are most often produced in different regions of Mexico: While there is some overlap, most mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca, whereas most tequila is produced in the state of Jalisco. What’s more, the popularity of tequila has led to an industrialization of the spirit that you’re less likely to find with spirits labelled mezcal.
Tequila and Mezcal History
Mezcal production, including tequila, dates back at least hundreds of years (and possibly further). It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that their Appellations of Origin were defined, placing geographic limits on what can legally be called tequila and mezcal.
In the 1500s, Spanish colonists introduced distillation processes to Indigenous natives, which they used to distil the agave, a sacred plant in Aztec culture, into mezcal. In the Jalisco town of Tequila, residents made their own mezcal from local agave species.
It was here that the Cuervo family created the first commercial tequila, then called vino de mezcal de tequila, in 1758. Don Cenobio Sauza followed in 1873, and he is known as the Father of Tequila for good reason: He introduced the steam-fired oven as a way to cook agave piñas, differentiating the cooking process from mezcal’s wood-fired pit ovens. He also singled out the blue Weber agave species, or agave tequilana, for producing tequila (German naturalist Franz Weber first classified the plant at the turn of the twentieth century, lending the species its common name). And in 1893 he became the first producer to export tequila to the United States. Americans developed an even greater thirst for the stuff during Prohibition, when they would smuggle the spirit from Mexico.
Until 1974, tequila was colloquially called vino de mezcal de tequila. At that time, the Mexican government declared the word “tequila” the intellectual property of Mexico to prevent other countries from producing bottles with the label. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) was also established, limiting tequila’s production to Jalisco and parts of five other states. With regulations in place, the spirit was soon simply called “tequila.” Mezcal later received its own Appellation of Origin in 1994, and can legally be produced in nine states today.
How are Tequila and Mezcal Made?
Tequila and mezcal are both made with the hearts, or piñas, of the agave plant, so named because they resemble pineapples. The leaves of the plant are removed, and then the piñas are cooked and crushed.
The key difference is how the piñas are cooked: For mezcal, they are roasted in wood-fired rock-lined pits, which imparts the smoky notes many associate with the spirit. For tequila, they are traditionally steamed in above-ground brick ovens. Autoclaves, essentially industrialized pressure cookers, are a contemporary alternative. And now, some large producers controversially employ diffusers as a shortcut, which many agave experts liken to a microwave. After cooking, the piñas are crushed to extract the juice, and the liquid (or a mixture of liquid and fibres, in the case of mezcals) ferments in open containers, most often with airborne yeast for mezcal and commercial yeast for tequila. The distillation process is nearly identical for both, although it will vary based on the industrialization of the spirit: The liquid might be distilled twice in a copper or clay pot or a continuous column still.
Where are Tequila and Mezcal Made?
The short answer: Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca and most tequila is made in Jalisco—up to 90% of both spirits. But their Appellations of Origin reach beyond these two states.
Mezcal can legally be made in the states of Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luís Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.
Tequila, meanwhile, can legally be produced in Jalisco and parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
What Types of Agave Are Tequila and Mezcal Made With?
Tequila can be made with only one agave species: the blue Weber agave plant, also known as agave tequilana. This plant typically takes five to nine years to grow in the wild, a short time compared to other agave species, which can take up to 35 years to mature. It has a high concentration of sugars, yielding a sweet liquid with a distinct yam-like flavour.
Mezcal can legally be made with more than 40 varieties of agave. However, upwards of 90% of mezcal on the market is made with the agave angustifolia plant, which is called espadín in Oaxaca. This close relative of the blue Weber agave plant is also more easily cultivated than other species due to a high concentration of sugars and a relatively short maturation time (six to eight years).
At a liquor store or on a cocktail menu, some of the names you might find include tobalá (agave potatorum), arroqueño (agave mexicano), tobaziche (agave karswinskii), and tepeztate (agave marmorata); note that agave species earmarked for mezcal have different common names in different regions. Mezcals marked as “ensamble,” meanwhile, include multiple varieties of agave. Aside from the distinct smoky note imparted by the production process, the flavours of expressions will vary widely based on the region and unique processes of a producer. The types of agave used to make mezcal can yield liquids with a range of flavours, from minerally to floral to cheese-like. Tepeztate, which takes up to 35 years to mature, is especially well-known for its intense, spicy notes of peppercorn and cinnamon.
How Are Tequila and Mezcal Regulated?
Tequila is regulated by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), and while the rules limit its geographic appellation, they generally aren’t as strict as those that govern mezcal. In fact, “mixto” tequila can be made with a minimum of just 51% blue agave, and the remaining sugar source may be derived from other sweeteners including cane sugar and glycerin.
Mezcal is regulated by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), and it requires a certification process for three categories: mezcal, artesanal, and ancestral. “Mezcal” denotes a bottle that may use industrial processes such as autoclaves for cooking the agave piñas and continuous column stills for distillation; artisanal must use pots for cooking but allows for some updates to the traditional process such as copper stills for distillation, and artisanal mezcal is exclusively distilled in clay pots fueled by fire.
Agave spirits which don’t meet the certification standards for tequila, mezcal, or other designated spirits are called destilados de agave. Although they cannot legally be labelled mezcal, they often employ traditional mezcal-making processes, and many producers simply decide to forgo the onerous CRM certification process.
Is Mezcal Ever Aged?
Both tequila and mezcal can be aged in wooden barrels or other containers after distillation, but this extra step is much more common for tequila.
Tequila is classified into four types by the CRT: Blanco is unaged; reposado rests in oak or steel barrels from two months to one year; añejo rests in oak for one to three years, and extra añejo rests in oak for at least three years. Joven is a blend of mostly blanco tequila and some aged tequila.
Many experts believe ageing mezcal is unnecessary because of the time and unique processes that go into the spirit, but the CRM does allow for ageing and classifies the following types: blanco or joven (in this case a synonym for blanco and not a blended mezcal), reposado, añejo, and extra añejo. Mezcal also boasts a fourth category, madurado en vidrio, which translates to “rested in glass.” This process results in a smoother, more agave-forward expression.
How Do You Consume Tequila and Mezcal?
Mezcal is traditionally consumed neat, and many agave enthusiasts recommend sipping high-quality tequila neat, too. Barrel-aged tequila expressions such as añejo and extra añejo are typically reserved for sipping, and many drinkers also enjoy sipping more agave-forward unaged expressions. While in the U.S., tequila shots commonly get served with salt and lime (although, notably, not in Mexico), mezcal is often served alongside orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano, a spice blend made from dried worms, sea salt, and chiles.
Of course, tequila also plays a starring role in some of our favourite cocktails, including the Margarita and Paloma, which most often call for blanco or reposado expressions. While mezcal is newer to American audiences, it has found its way into modern classics like the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and Mezcal Negroni, in part due to the early-aughts influence of the now-shuttered New York City agave-spirits bar Mayahuel. You’ll also find plenty of cocktail menus that swap mezcal for tequila in classic cocktails like the Margarita. Mezcal cocktails will almost certainly contain espadín due to its lower price point and flavours that integrate well into mixed drinks.
Why Is Mezcal More Expensive than Tequila?
You’ll certainly find a range of prices for both spirits based on quality, and aged expressions of tequila tend to be more expensive than unaged ones. However, mezcal is generally pricier than tequila, in large part due to the less-commercialized nature of the spirit. The agave used can take up to 35 years to mature and might yield less liquid per batch than the standard blue Weber agave plant. It is also typically made in smaller batches, oftentimes by producers in small villages, contributing to exportation costs.