Tequila vs. Mezcal

Written by: Niko Loyatho


Basics, Specifics, Flavor, and Thoughts From Your Bartender


“Tequila is to wake the living. Mezcal is to wake the dead.” John P. McEvoy

It all started with mezcal. Mezcal is the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, dating back

at least four to five hundred years. In the 1970’s, mezcal—specifically a style of mezcal

from Jalisco—became popular on the world market. In 1978 it got its first formal

recognition from The World Intellectual Property Organization. Simultaneously Mexico

formed the Norma Oficial Mexican (NOM), or Official Mexican Standard, in order to set

standards of production and packaging for this product. It was given the name “tequila”,

after a small town in the state of Jalisco that was and still is the heart of tequila

production in Mexico.




Basics

Tequila is a mezcal. A “mezcal” refers to any spirit distilled from agave. What separates

tequila is the agave it’s made from (weber blue or agave tequilana) as well as where and

how it’s made. “Tequila” is an internationally recognized Denomination of Origin

(D.O.)—meaning, like champagne or burgundy can only be made in their respective

regions of France, so can tequila only be made in its designated regions of Mexico.

Recognition made tequila the dominant mezcal for decades. Sales climbed, production

industrialized, and other more traditional mezcals disappeared from international

awareness. Even as recent as 2016, ninety-nine percent of Mexico’s agave liquor exports

were tequila. Now, champagne is fantastic but imagine if it were the only wine.

Until legislation in 1995, mezcal was not a legal term. That year, mezcal was given its

own D.O. and production regulations. Informally, “mezcal” still refers to any agave

spirit. But now, resultant of these new laws and their most recent update in 2016, when

we say mezcal we don’t mean tequila.


Specifics

Tequila and mezcal are both made from cooked agave and are twice distilled. That’s

about all they share. The simplest approach to differentiating them is by two categories:

ingredients and process.

Ingredients:

Tequila can only be made from weber blue agave and exclusively in five

Mexican states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The majority

is made in Jalisco.

Mezcal is made from upwards of fifty varieties of agave and can be made in

nine Mexican states: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi,

Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Puebla. Most mezcal is made from an agave

varietal called “espadín” and in the state of Oaxaca.

Weber blue agave has been cultivated by the tequila industry for decades and

today all but a microscopic portion is sourced from farms. Historically, agave for mezcal


was wild-sourced. With an increase in demand, producers have begun to cultivate agave

espadín as well as small amounts of other varieties. But today, much of mezcal agave is

still wild-sourced. Don’t think of this in terms of quality so much as production expense.

Wild sourcing is terribly time-consuming and labor-intensive. Tequila lovers can relish

the fact that quality tequila can be produced at a lower cost. Mezcal fans understand and

accordingly appreciate the extra time and work required for their smoky affair.


Process:

An agave looks a little like a giant pineapple but below the fronds, where a pineapple is

soft flesh, an agave is more like wood. This portion, called the piña, must be cooked and

then milled (crushed) in order to extract the sugars.

Tequila’s agave is cooked in either a brick oven, an autoclave, or a diffuser.

An autoclave is a large metal cylinder that pressurizes and can cook large batches in as

few as eight hours. A diffuser is a machine the size of a small moon that often doesn’t

actually even cook the agave but rather treats the agave with hydrochloric acid to convert

its inulin into fermentable sugar. This process so decimates the agave that artificial

flavoring has to be added after to approximate the real flavor of tequila. Think of a

diffuser like cooking a dry-aged Wagyu steak in a microwave. Think of it like puppies

dying.

Agave for mezcal is cooked in a large earthen pit called horno (oven). This

ancestral method predates above-ground ovens large enough to roast agave batches.

Cooking agave this way takes days and sometimes the fire is maintained for as long as a

month. This stage is where mezcal gets most of its smoky flavor. Whether they’re

burning wood or other foliage, the fuel smokes. By contrast, tequila agaves are cooked

using gas or steam (or tile cleaner, for diffusers) and there is less if any smoke.

Smoke or no smoke, an agave has to be cooked through for all the inulin to be

converted to sugar. This is integral to the final flavor and quality of the tequila or mezcal.