There’s a never a day more suited than National Mezcal Day (Oct. 21) to wonder: What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? They’re both made from agave, sure, but different species from different regions of Mexico—and the production process for each results in different flavors too. So pour a shot, sprinkle on some bug salt, and keep reading.
While tequila has been a bar mainstay for years (margarita, anyone?), as imbibers are beginning to look for different layers of flavor, tequila’s cousin, mezcal (also spelled mescal), has been finding a place on bar shelves. While both spirits are made from the agave plant, they are distinct in flavor, harvest location and manufacturing process.
“To make mezcal, you can use around 40 different types of agave. One of them is blue agave, which is the only agave used for the production of 100 percent tequila, so in theory all mezcal is tequila but not all tequila is mezcal,” says Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez of New York, NY-based Ghost Donkey.
According to Nico de Soto, co-owner and mixologist at New York, NY-based Mace, tequila is harvested from five locations in Mexico: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco. Mezcal, however, comes from more locations, including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla, and Oaxaca. Additionally, he says, the city of Oaxaca produces about 85 percent of mezcal.
Related Reading: Mezcal Unión Honors Mexico’s History While Nurturing Its Future
Soto notes that another major difference between tequila and mezcal is in the production process. Both spirits require the hearts of agave plants (also called the piñas, or pineapples) to be cooked and crushed (often using a tahona, a man- or animal-powered stone mill made of volcanic rock) to extract the juice, which is then fermented and distilled.
“Tequila can only use one type of agave, is steamed inside an industrial oven, and distilled two or three times in copper pots,” he says.
Related Reading: Mexican Crafts Beers That Are Way Better Than Corona
But, adds Jimenez, the process for creating mezcal requires a bit more. “Artisanal mezcal is typically distilled in copper stills, clay, or sometimes bamboo pots. None of these forms allow continuous distillation, which means that each portion has to be distilled completely before refilling it,” he says.
This distilling process leads to the main differentiation between mezcal and tequila–the tasting notes.
“The one overall characteristic we can use to differentiate the two is the smokiness found in mezcal. This is mainly a result of the cooking process that agave undergoes before becoming mezcal,” said Jimenez.
While agave for tequila is cooked in industrial steam ovens, agave for mezcal is cooked in pits in the ground that burn wood and charcoal, leading to that smoky flavor.
The labeling of the ages is different, too, says Soto, even if the tequila and mezcal is aged similarly. For example, young tequila is blanco, while young mezcal is labeled joven, but they share the same aging groups, which is up to two months. Additionally, both are labeled resposado from two to 12 months. However, after 12 months, things change a bit in the aging process. Soto explains that añejo mezcal is anything aged for more than one year; for tequila, it’s aged from one to three years.
Despite the amount of differences between mezcal and tequila, the spirits share some similar traits. These, says Soto, include the fact that both are Mexican-produced, are aged in oak barrels, and share a strong agave flavor.
While Soto says that both tequila and mezcal pair well with any type of Mexican food, there are other dishes in which mezcal would be the clear choice.
“Smokier mezcal would pair very well with meat, barbecue, and anything smoky and spicy. Grapefruit, pineapple, corn, chiles, moles, and nuts are all fair game,” he said.
Adds Jimenez, “I just had an amazing Southern barbecue experience paired with some great pechuga mezcal. As for tequila, anything spicy or with a lot of citrus.”
Nosotros Tequila Blanco, price and availability varies on Saucey Buy Now
Montelobos Mezcal Joven, price and availability varies on Saucey Buy Now
Related Reading: The Best Places to Buy Alcohol Online
Obviously they both work in drinks, but you can cook with them too! Here are a few ways we favor:
You can’t go wrong with a classic margarita on Cinco de Mayo—or any time, really. Serve it on the rocks or with a salt or sugar rim, depending on how you’re feeling. Or try a mezcal margarita, and rim it with bug salt! Get our Perfect Margarita recipe.
A margarita with bubbles, a Paloma is a perfect substitute for your friend who isn’t so into margaritas or can act as a great signature brunch cocktail. Get our Paloma recipe.
This is a bright and sophisticated way to use mezcal, but it’s still pretty potent, so sip with caution. Get our Basil Mezcal Sour recipe.
Tequila isn’t just for boozy libations. The spirit can add a punch to simple recipes, as well, like this tequila shrimp. Great to serve as an appetizer in cups or in tacos. Get our Tequila Shrimp recipe.