Mezcal is having a big moment in the bar scene around the world. The smoky relative of tequila is showing up on menus everywhere from high-end cocktail bars to local Tex-Mex joints, creating a sales boom. But the spirit is still often conflated with tequila — perceived as an offshoot of the mother spirit, rather than its own thing. So we thought we’d break down what the difference between mezcal and tequila actually is.
Let’s be upfront about this: mezcal and tequila are indeed very, very similar beasts, with only a few significant differences in the production process. Is mezcal better? Is tequila? That’s a matter of preference, though many modern mixologists feel like mezcal is a little more versatile as the base for a mean cocktail. Tequila and mezcal feel almost interchangeable when it comes to citrus-forward drinks like margaritas and Palomas, but when you start talking about Manhattans and old fashioneds, mezcal feels like a better fit.
Let us explain why.
What is Mezcal?
All tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas. Mezcal (and tequila by default) has its roots in pre-Columbian fermented drinks made from agave, called pulque. Whether Indigenous folks were producing a distillate before the Spanish showed up is up for debate. There are devices from as early as 1,500 BCE that could have been used to distill agave and have been shown to actually work. So the roots of a distillate made from agave could be far, far older than the Spanish invasion.
Still, the general history of what mezcal is has roots in Spanish colonialists needing to get their drink on when the brandy ran out. The Spanish brought stills with them from Europe to make aguardiente, literally “firewater.” In the Caribbean, this was done with sugar cane and molasses from local sugar production. In Mexico, it was done with agave — since agave was already readily being fermented into pulque.
In a twist that underscores the “necessity is the mother of invention” truism, the Spanish crown basically prohibited the Spanish colonialists from planting grape vineyards for wine and brandy in the early days. This led directly to an early 1600s boom in what became known as “mezcal,” since agave plants were readily available. By the time the 1800s rolled around, mezcal was a staple product being produced from the southern reaches of Oaxaca into what is now New Mexico by the Mescalero Apache. (The Apache tradition of roasting agave hearts and allowing them to ferment for three days in a desert pit before eating them communally has seen a comeback recently.)
So, here’s what makes mezcal mezcal. The spirit is made from any of 30 different varieties of agave plant grown around Mexico. Oaxaca is the dominant region for mezcal production. Though, according to the laws governing its production, mezcal can be made in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas as well as Oaxaca.
The agave takes anywhere from seven to fifteen years to grow a viable “piña” or heart. Jimadores (agave farmers) tend to the plants throughout the year and ultimately harvest the piñas when they’re ready. The piñas are then slow roasted for three days, usually underground, in pits with hot stones. Next, the cooked piñas are crushed into a pulp. This last process is still often done by a tahona (large grindstone) being pulled by a horse or mule. The mash is then put into a fermentation tank where yeasts and water are added. The yeasts eat the sugars and leave behind alcohol. That liquid is then distilled twice, first to 37.5 percent ABV and then to 55 percent ABV.
If the mezcal is a “joven,” it’s unaged. “Dorado” or “Gold” is unaged but colored artificially. “Reposado” or “añejado” is aged for anywhere from two to nine months. Lastly, “añejo” is aged for at least 12 months but usually three to four years. There are also sub-types of mezcal — pechuga for instance — that go through a separate distillation process where cinnamon, various fruit, and turkey or chicken breasts are used to flavor the spirit. This process is also having something of a renaissance.