Image description: Blue agave plant grows from rusty-coloured soil.
Question: What’s the difference between Tequila and Mezcal?
Answer: Both Tequila and Mezcal are made from the heart of an agave plant and each agave can only be used once. The first major difference between Tequila and Mezcal is what variety of agave may be used. In Tequila, only blue weber agave may be used while there are nearly 50 varieties of agave that may be used in Mezcal. Blue weber agave takes about 7 years to reach maturity, while some agave varieties may take up to 30 years.
Mezcal may be made in one of the following nine states: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. There are quality spirits made outside of these regions but they cannot be labelled as Mezcal. Most Tequila is produced in the state of Jalisco though municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas that can also produce Tequila.
Beyond the regions and the agave, Tequila and Mezcal also differ greatly in production. Tequila producers steam their agave hearts, while Mezcal producers cook their hearts by burying them with embers which impart the smokey character associated with Mezcal. Once cooked, the agave must be crushed to extract the fermentable juice. In Tequila, this is done by a shredding machine, while Mezcal often uses a stone wheel pulled by a donkey or tractor. Tequila distilleries tend to use lab yeasts to ferment their juice, while Mezcal is fermented using natural yeasts which bring unique flavours. Tequila and Mezcal both employ copper pot stills for distillation, but the stills used for Mezcal are much smaller in capacity. These smaller and shorter stills tend to produce a fuller-bodied and more oily-textured spirit.
For many, the major difference between Tequila and Mezcal is scale and infrastructure. A lot more Tequila is produced and sold each year than Mezcal. Though both Tequila and Mezcal follow similar paths from field to table; at each step along the way, Tequila has a more industrial and efficient approach, while Mezcal is often improvised. Certainly, Mezcal is the more romantic, but Tequila is far more available.
Both are truly remarkable. Tequila is suave and polished while Mezcal tastes of the soot and sweat required to make it.