What Is The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?
Mezcal? Oh, you mean Tequila’s smoky cousin.
This unfortunate misnomer has been plaguing small talk in bars across the country. And with mezcal’s meteoric rise in popularity in the US—mezcal’s value in sales increased by 53% in 2021 alone1—this confusion is only expected to grow.
So, what is the difference between tequila and mezcal?
While both flavorful spirits stem from the same plant (agave), there are arguably more differences than similarities between the two Mexican spirit drinks. For starters, mezcal embodies a rich, smoky flavor, while tequila is typically considered more earthy and vegetal. But the taste is only the first sip into the tall drink of difference.
With that in mind, break out the Espolon or Montelobos, and let’s explore the differences between these two Mexican spirits.
What Are The Similarities?
Mexico’s two most famous liquors have come a long way to being the preferred drink at parties, bars, and late-night conversations. And in their rise, they have become symbols of Mexican heritage—humbly enjoyed around the world.
The primary reason there’s so much confusion between the two liquors is, for starters, they appear similar from the outset. Both are Mexican spirits that are made from agave, and both mix well in a margarita (or mezcalita, if you fancy). But, to adopt a phrase, you might have heard in a high school geometry class: all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.
What Sets Them Apart: Tequila vs Mezcal?
Qualifications for tequila are far more strict than those for the Mexican spirit mezcal. But the differences between the two liquors begin long before a single ingredient even hits production.
The difference between tequila and mezcal begins the moment their ingredients are picked from the ground. Therefore, it is super important to knowk the answer to “what is tequila made from?”While both drinks are agave spirits, tequila can only be made from a blue agave plant (also called “blue weber agave” or, in Mexico, “agave azul”).
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from more than 40 different types of agave. Each of these different types contains distinct flavors that imbue the bottle with rich-tasting notes from pine to caramel. Additionally, each distiller has its own preference for which type of cooked agave tastes the best.
Like Champagne or Parmigiano Reggiano, tequila is a product of its origin—this drink can only be called tequila if it comes from a specific region. The Mexican states that can produce tequila are:
What’s more, all of these different regions (except Jalisco) have rules about which specific municipalities can produce the agave spirit of tequila.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can only be certified mezcal if it came from one of nine Mexican states, including:
- San Luis Potosi
Of these different regions, Oaxaca is most famous and is sometimes referred to as the home of mezcal.2 Typically, an Oaxacan mezcal will be made from the espadín agave plant, which some call the workhorse agave because of how often it is used.
Note: Some liquor aficionados argue that “official” mezcal can be created outside these nine states—however, this debate will likely surge on for decades to come.
The tequila production process is a highly regimented and specific process. Once tequila manufacturers have harvested the blue agave plant, they take the piña (the core or heart of the agave plant) and steam it, usually in a brick oven or autoclave.
After the piña has been cooked, they’re pressed and shredded to release aguamiel, or “honey water.” Then distillers take that sweet liquid and put it into fermentation tanks, and add yeast.
The fermentation process can last anywhere from 24 to 96 hours (each distiller will have its own method for this). The liquid is then distilled at least twice in a combination of pot and column stills made of copper or stainless steel.
Finally, at the end of this process, tequila Blanco is ready to be bottled and then shipped off.3 This process can be expanded to industrial production, which is why tequila became such a massive export for Mexico in the 20th century.
Mezcal, however, is made through a more traditional method. Mescaleros (the official name of the people who make the liquor) take the piña and roast it in conical-shaped earthen pits in the ground, in a style similar to barbacoa. This is often what gives mezcals their traditional smoky taste.
The piñas are then left to sit, and the juice ferments inside the husk for up to a month. Finally, that agave juice is distilled (at least twice) to create the mezcal Joven.4 It is this “artisan” manufacturing process that has made mezcal skyrocket in popularity over the last few years.
True mezcal aficionados even say that each liquor is as unique as the person who made it.
For taste testers everywhere, the flavor is the most noticeable and important distinction between mezcal and tequila. In fact, many will be able to tell the difference between mezcal and tequila from the first sip.
Typically, tequila has a crisp flavor, while mezcals are known for a smokier profile that some might describe as “burnt tequila.” Sydney Block, co-founder of Catedral Mi Padre Mezcal, told Food & Wine:5
"Because of its small-batch nature, the variety of flavors that are presented in mezcal are astronomical… The different flavors between batches of the same agave species can range pretty drastically, depending on who's making it works."
Even the same farmer making the same mezcal with the same recipe can have differences in taste from year to year. Flavors can range from that well-known “smoky” taste to profiles that are more fruity or earthy. It all depends on conditions like the strength of the fire in the earthen pits and the terroir on which the agave plants grew.
Beyond that, bear in mind that a liquor’s taste will change drastically if it’s being put through an aging process. A general rule of thumb is that the more time either spirit spends in a barrel, the smoother and more complex its flavor profile will be.
The two liquors also have different systems and names for classification and labeling. On tequila shelves, you’ll find a variety of different options like:
Meanwhile, when you’re shopping for mezcal, you’ll find varieties labeled:
What Cocktails Can I Make With Tequila vs Mezcal?
Tequila and mezcal are, theoretically, interchangeable in cocktail recipes. Recipes like margaritas, palomas, bloody marias, Mexican mules, tequila sours, and many more can be made with either liquor.
However, there will be differences. Swapping mezcal into a tequila recipe will add a smoky depth to the cocktail’s flavor. Conversely, if a recipe calls for mezcal but you’ve only got Casamigos Reposado, you can make the switch without a hitch. Just know that your cocktail will be missing the grounding, deep flavor of the original recipe.
Regardless of Preference—Barbank has your Mezcal, and Tequila Needs Covered
When you’re craving a rich and complex sip, either tequila or mezcal can satisfy the palate. And while there are many differences, the one unchanging commonality is how you can have them delivered straight to your front door.
With Barbank’s online liquor delivery at your side, you can have top-shelf mezcal and premium tequila brands stocked in your bar cart without ever leaving the couch. We provide nearly every brand you can imagine, including industry leaders like Clase Azul, Don Julio, and Cazadores.
When it comes to choosing tequila or “its smoky cousin,” we say: Why not both?
- Bloomberg. Americans Will Spend More on Mezcal and Tequila This Year Than Whiskey. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-08/mezcal-and-tequila-oust-whiskey-as-second-biggest-us-spirit
- Healthline. What Is Mezcal, and How Is It Different from Tequila? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mezcal-vs-tequila
- Drink Spirits. How Tequila Is Made: Behind The Scenes of Don Julio Tequila. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVGQC1rmiTQ
- Masterclass. How Is Mezcal Made? 5 Mezcal Cocktails. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-is-mezcal-made
- Food & Wine. Are Tequila and Mezcal Different? https://www.foodandwine.com/cocktails-spirits/differences-between-tequila-mezcal
- Masterclass. A Guide to 5 Types of Tequila: 4 Easy Tequila Cocktail Recipes. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-guide-to-types-of-tequila
- Serious Eats. A Guide to Mezcal: How It's Made and Which Bottles to Try. https://www.seriouseats.com/guide-to-mezcal