Tequila and mezcal are both popular Mexican drinks that are known (to different extents) across the world. Some people might use the names interchangeably, but this isn’t accurate because they’re different drinks.
So, if you ever wondered about the difference between tequila and mezcal, you’re in the right place.
Tequila vs. Mezcal
Tequila and mezcal are both made from agave, but they’re still different drinks. Think of it in the same way that bourbon and scotch are both types of whiskey, yet are distinct in their own ways.
Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal because this name refers to any distilled drink made from agave. However, tequila must be made from a specific kind of agave - blue agave (agave tequilana).
As with many other productions of national importance, there are strict rules behind tequila production. It’s known as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product and so can only be made in specific areas.
Around 85% of mezcal in Mexico comes from 9 regions, which includes some of the tequila-producing regions. In total, these are:
Producing Tequila and Mezcal
Along with originating from different places and using different products, tequila and mezcal are made using different methods. While you might expect tequila production to be fancier, there are artisanal producers of both spirits.
Both drinks come from harvesting the agave core, which is known as pina. For tequila, the pina is steamed in large ovens and then distilled in copper vats. Depending on the quality of the tequila, it can be distilled two or three times.
Mezcal, however, is made by cooking the pina inside large earthen pits before being distilled in clay pots. Industrial production of mezcal favors more modern appliances, such as steel vats.
Both tequila and mezcal can be sold as young spirits or they can be aged. Aging can be anywhere up to 12 years depending on the desired final flavor.
History of Tequila and Mezcal
As you can imagine, tequila and mezcal share their history. The consumption of alcoholic drinks made from agave dates back nearly 2000 years when the Aztecs made something called pulque.
Pulque is made from boiled fermented agave and doesn’t involve any distillation. During the Aztec period, alcoholic drinks had a special place in society, often relating to religious or celebratory practice. Generally, being drunk in public was taboo.
However, things changed during the Spanish conquest. The Spanish had been using distillation to produce alcohol since the 8th century, and brought this knowledge to the Americas. During the early stages of the conquest, they brought brandy. But when this ran out, they had to find something else to drink.
Upon learning of pulque, the conquistadors combined the local drink with their production knowledge, and the earliest form of mezcal was born. This is arguably when the histories of tequila and mezcal began to diverge.
Tequila was produced using the blue agave near the city of Tequila, which didn’t exist at this point. Around 1600, the local marquis began to mass produce tequila in a factory, primarily because he needed a product to tax in the local area. Traditional alcoholic crops (sugar and grapes) existed in the Americas but weren’t used to produce alcohol. This is because Spain was concerned about disrupting its economy at home.
At the same time, distillation of agave spirits rose in popularity across the rest of Mexico. Again, these spirits were heavily taxed and created massive profit for producers.
Tequila wasn’t officially recognized as an official separate drink until very recently. Of course, it always was a separate drink, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the Mexican government declared the word as intellectual property.
It was then during the later 20th and early 21st centuries that tequila was established as a product originating from a specific region using specific products. Similar regulation does exist for mezcal but it’s not as strict as tequila.
Do Mezcal and Tequila Taste the Same?
Although originating from the same plant, tequila and mezcal have quite distinct flavors.
Tequila is generally considered to be a sweet drink with a strong alcoholic flavor. It’s also known to be smooth, although its specific flavor qualities are determined by a range of factors, including weather, region, and production processes.
On the other hand, mezcal is more savory with recognizable smoky notes. The smokiness comes from the cooking process underground, which typically involves lots of wood or charcoal.
Again, much like tequila, the specific flavors of mezcal can be influenced by the company making it, the type of agave used, production processes, and more.
How to Drink Tequila and Mezcal
In Mexico, it’s traditional to drink both tequila and mezcal straight. You might have it with a pinch of salt, but nothing more. Like many traditional national spirits, when done properly, it should be drinkable all on its own.
Of course, in other countries, the most common way of drinking tequila is with salt and lime. But you’ll also find it in popular cocktails, such as margaritas, and in alternative versions of drinks like negronis and old fashioneds.
Hopefully this article has clarified the difference between tequila and mezcal. While they both come from the agave plant, their production methods are quite different. The result is two interesting spirits with their own distinct flavours.
Of course, if you really want to understand the differences in detail, the easiest way is to travel to Mexico and try them for yourself. Salud!