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Mezcal vs Tequila: The Ultimate Breakdown of Agave Spirit

Mezcal vs Tequila: wait, they’re not the same thing? Nope, not at all!

Bottles of Tequila and Mezcal in the Museo of Tequila and Mezcal

Both Mezcal and Tequila are Mexican spirits composed of the same plant, the agave plant, but are vastly different in flavor. Additionally, Tequila is made of the blue agave plant, while Mezcal can be made with any agave. 

This means that while not all Mezcal is Tequila, all Tequila is Mezcal. The similarities in preparation and ingredients lead many people to believe they’re the same thing when they’re not. Plus, it doesn’t help that they’re both popular Mexican alcohols.

Given how Tequila is a staple in notable cocktails such as the margarita and Mezcal is a rising star on the bar scene, you should learn the difference between them.

The truth is, even though they’re made of the same plant, they’re pretty divergent from one another. Here’s the breakdown of everything you need to know about the Mezcal vs tequila topic:


Tequila and Mezcal: Two Agave Giants

Although both Tequila and Mezcal come from the agave plant, Tequila can only be made with the blue agave variety. This leads the two agave giants to have significantly different flavor profiles as well as a ton of other unique distinctions.

Bottles of Mezcal and Tequila in the Museo of Tequila and Mezcal

Tequila

Whether you drink or not, you’ve probably heard of Tequila. It’s one of the world’s most well-known spirits, and bartenders use them in many different cocktails.

Tequila silver with lime and sea salt

Tequila is a distilled liquor comprised of blue agave and is known for its high alcohol content.

History

The first tequila prototype showed up around 300 A.D. when Aztecs produced a fermented juice from agave known as “pulque.” This drink was heavily mythologized, and its origins were subject to various legends and stories.

tequila vs mezcal from any type of agave, the plant with Mexican origin

While the ceremonial spirit was more attuned to wine, it would later rise to popularity with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. 

Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s, Spaniards began distilling agave, likely influenced by the remnants of the Aztec empire.

The exact origins of how agave distillation became popular among Spanish invaders are unknown. Still, one thing is for sure: the use of agave in alcohol is deeply rooted in the original pulque recipe.

In 1758, Spain’s King, Carlos IV, granted the Cuervo family to become the first commercially licensed tequila producers, and in 1873, Sauza Tequila would become the first company to export Tequila to the United States.

Finally, in 1936 the beloved margarita would be born in Tijuana by a man named Madden, or as familiars called him, “Tequila Daisy.”

Supposedly popularized by well-known newspaper owner/editor James Graham, Margaritas would become a favorite in bars all across America.


Regions

Tequila is a product of Mexico and can only legally be made within the following five states: Guanajuato, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacan, and Tamaulipas.

bottles of Tequila at a distillery town of Tequila, Jalisco

The actual town called Tequila resides in Jalisco, which is the region where a majority of all tequilas originate from. 

Any agave-based alcohol distilled outside of these regions, whether blue agave or not, is not considered Tequila. This is because Tequila became the intellectual property of the Mexican government in 1974.

Any distilled blue agave spirit made outside of Mexico must be called something else or risk receiving a cease-and-desist.


Preparation

Tequila takes many years to prepare. Unlike most other spirits, where the longest part is aging, most of the time spent on tequila preparation is actually the cultivation process.

preparing the agave leaves

This is because blue agave takes between 6 and 12 years to mature and only produces a single flower per plant. Harvesters must harvest the plant right before it reaches maturity, as it dies shortly after flowering.

The heart of the freshly reaped plant, commonly called the piña, is cut from the spikey leaves surrounding it and quartered. They are either slow-cooked in traditional overs for 24 to 48 hours or baked for 7 hours. 

The cooking process softens the plants and causes their starches to become fermentable sugar. This allows distillers to extract the sugary juices via shredding and compression.

Once this is finished, the liquid, referred to as aguamiel, is ready for fermentation. For this, it is placed in steel fermentation vats where it will sit for 24 to 96 hours.


Aging

The fermentation turns the sugar water into alcohol which must be distilled once for tequila “ordinario” and twice for tequila blanco. Tequila Blanco is the most widely recognized Tequila out there and is composed of 35-55% alcohol. 

Tequila Barrels in aging progress at Tequila Mexico

Once the distillation process is complete, it’s time to age the Tequila. Tequila is frequently aged in wooden barrels, similar to the ones used for aging whiskey.

To be specific, the type of wood used in these barrels should be a type of oak which is responsible for imparting key components of flavor and aroma to the spirit.

How long the Tequila is aged determines what type of Tequila it is. Basic Tequila, tequila Blanco, is not aged at all. Reposado tequila is the next step up and is aged between 2 months and a year.

After a year of aging, the Tequila then becomes tequila añejo. The last stage is extra añejo, which requires a minimum of 3 years.


Common Cocktails

The most famous cocktail tequila is used in is undoubtedly the margarita. The margarita, in its most simple form, is made of Tequila, triple sec, and lime juice and has salt coated around the rim.

tequila Margarita Cocktail

It is served on the rocks in a specialized glass known as a margarita glass and typically has a wedge of lime for garnish. Ever since the drink’s invention in 1936, it has become a beloved drink around Mexico and the United States.

In addition to the ever-so-popular margarita, Tequila is also quite well known for being a component of long-island iced tea. This New York concoction came to be in 1976 and is traditionally made with Vodka, Rum, Tequila, Triple sec, and Gin. 

Another well-liked tequila drink is the tequila sunrise, which is an orange juice and grenadine-based cocktail.


Taste

Tequila has a wide range of tastes but is frequently a mix of sweet, slightly fruity, and earthy flavors. Depending on other factors such as aging and ingredients, Tequila may also take on citrusy, oaky, vanilla, honey, and peppery notes as well.

tequila tasting glass

Furthermore, the longer the Tequila has been aged, the smoother the flavor.


Cost

A shot of Tequila typically costs between 5$ and 15$. 

A bottle, on the other hand, usually falls in the 30$ to 50$ range but can go for more or less depending on the brand.


Alcohol Content

tequila strong alcohol content

The average alcohol content in Tequila is roughly 40%, though it can fall anywhere between 38% and 55%. This is a relatively high percentage compared to other alcoholic beverages and is similar in content to bourbon and whiskey.


Mezcal

Let’s delve more into Mezcal and how you can distinguish it from Tequila. First of all, unlike Tequila, Mezcal can be made with any type of agave, not just blue.

This means that the spirit can be made with over 50 different plant varieties and has a much wider flavor range than Tequila.


History

Since Mezcal and Tequila are so similar in preparation, their histories are intertwined and deeply ingrained into Mexican culture.

delicious shots of mezcal, from Oaxaca

Like Tequila, Mezcal likely comes from the Aztec ceremonial drink, “pulque,” and evolved from the distillation techniques introduced by Spanish conquistadors.

During the Mexican colonial period, Mezcal would be an essential aspect of the country’s economy.

With the newly established government, Spanish officials encouraged the increased production of Mezcal as a means of increasing tax revenue which was particularly popular in the Oaxacan area.

While this drink was highly prominent within Mexican borders, it was relatively unknown anywhere else.

Over the next couple of centuries, mezcal production would increase as a result of various families sharing trade secrets and government officials encouraging sales.

There’s no official timeline like the history of Tequila, but this widespread mass production would eventually lead to the drink becoming recognized by the global market.

In more recent years, Mezcal has become quite popular in America and Japan. The spirit’s name isn’t as well known as its tequila brother, but it is a rising star on the bar scene.


Regions

Mezcal can only be produced in any of the following nine Mexican states: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

serving shots of mezcal, Oaxacan drink

Similar to Tequila, any agave-based spirit manufactured outside of these regions is not legally considered Mezcal.

A bit of controversy has arisen over whether the name mezcal should be “owned” by the state or not. This point is typically brought up by small producers and manufacturers outside of the listed states.

Producers make Mezcal in other places, such as in America or Canada, but it is often labeled as “agave spirits” to avoid legal issues.


Preparation

The cultivation process is identical to that of Tequila. The agave plants, which take many years to mature, are harvested right before they blossom and cut so that their piña (the heart of the plant) is preserved.

Agave plant ready to be processed into Mezcal

Since there are over 50 different agave plants you can make Mezcal from, many producers use multiple varieties in their recipes to create new and exciting combinations.

The cooking procedures are where Mezcal and Tequila begin to deviate. Instead of baking in ovens, the piñas are roasted in underground burrows using hot rocks for roughly three days (72 hours).

This unique cooking style is what gives Mezcal its unique flavor.

Mezcal master cooking the agave to extract the juice and convert it into mezcal

Afterward, the sugary liquid sits inside the agave husk for about a month, where it ferments. Many traditional producers use wild yeast for this process as it produces a much higher quality end result.

Once they reach the desired composition, the liquid is strained and placed into distillation vats. As with Tequila, the fluid must be distilled twice before it is ready for the next step.

Traditionally, Mezcal was distilled in clay pots, although this method has fallen out of popularity in the modern era.


Aging

Mezcal can be aged, but it isn’t necessary. In fact, many experts and connoisseurs claim that the best way to enjoy Mezcal is “Joven,” or unaged because the wooden barrels impart unnecessary flavors to the spirit.

several bottles of joven El Silencio Mezcal

Aged Mezcal follows the same progression as Tequila. Two months is reposado, añejo is one to three years, and more than three years is extra añejo. As the mezcal ages, it takes on a much darker color and has a much richer flavor. 

Still, while some producers age their Mezcal, most mezcals on the market are Joven.


Common Cocktails

Since Mezcal isn’t as notorious as Tequila, a lot of cocktails that include the spirit fly under the radar. Some of the most common uses see bartenders just using Mezcal as a substitute for Tequila, such as in the mezcal margarita or the mezcal sunrise. 

Mexican mezcal cocktail with shaved ice soda

It’s not just a substitute for Tequila either; drinks like the Oaxaca old fashioned (a version of the “old fashioned”) use Mezcal instead of bourbon, and the Mezcal mule (a play on the “Moscow mule“) exchanges vodka for it.

Of course, most of the time, Mezcal is taken straight without any added liquids or ingredients. Other times, it is mixed with seltzer and garnished with citrus fruits.


Taste

Since Mezcal is made from slow-cooking agave underground, the drink develops a distinct smokey, sometimes charred profile – similar to bourbon.

mezcal test taste

Other than that, the spirit can develop any number of flavors stemming from the types of agave used but is most often imbued with citrusy, fruity, peppery, anise, and floral notes.


Cost

Mezcal is more expensive than Tequila, often falling in the $40 to $70 range for a bottle. There are many cases where it costs well over $100, and very rarely does a good quality iteration fall under the $30 price tag. 


Alcohol Content

Mezcal is pretty much the same as Tequila regarding alcohol content falling in the 35% to 55% range. Once again, it’s one of the more alcoholic varieties of alcohol and is well known for the punch each sip packs.

testing mezcal alcohol content

Key Takeaways

Tequila and Mezcal may have the same historical background and come from the same plant, but they’re very different when it comes to preparation and flavor. 

When comparing Mezcal vs Tequila, the first is only made with blue agave and cooked in ovens, while the second can be produced with any agave and develops its smoky flavor from slow roasting underground.

Furthermore, even though tequila fairs pretty well when aged, Mezcal is best-enjoyed Joven.


Cheers!

Both Mezcal and Tequila are drunk as shots and are also frequent guests in popular cocktails such as the margarita. You could say that one’s a staple in the Mexican-American bar scene, and the others are quickly rising to fame. 

These spirits are so similar, yet widely different, and one thing can be said for certain: both Tequila and Mezcal are delicious and here to stay.

Written by Paul Kushner

I have always had a deep interest in the restaurant and bar industry. My restaurant experience began in 1997 at the age of 14 as a bus boy. By the time I turned 17 I was serving tables, and by 19 I was bartending/bar managing 6-7 nights a week.

In 2012, after a decade and a half of learning all facets of the industry, I opened my first restaurant/bar. In 2015, a second location followed, the latter being featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

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