Tequila vs Mezcal:What’s the Difference?

I recently had a friend ask what’s the difference between mezcal vs tequila? Many people believe that mezcal and tequila are the same thing because they have been fooled by myths or marketing tactics that aren’t true.  Let’s put an end to the confusion right now.

Tequila shotTequila and the other spirits of Mexico – Mezcal, Sotol and Bacanora, are refined spirits that take great effort to manufacture. Mezcal and tequila are both made from the agave plant but there are differences in production technique and in the types of agave used. There are 166 varieties of the agave plant, 125 of which are found in Mexico. Tequila is made from a single type of agave plant – the agave tequilana (blue agave) and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small parts of four other states. This is an important distinction because Mezcal can be produced from up to 28 varieties of agave (including blue agave,)  is made around the city of Oaxaca and, according to official government regulations can also officially be produced in areas of the states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Most mezcals are made from the Espadin agave, although some mezcal producers blend agave varieties to create a distinct flavor. To comply with government regulations, all agave grown for tequila production must be registered with the tequila regulatory Council.

There’s a difference in taste too. Mezcal traditionally has a very unique, smoky flavor and tends to taste sweeter, or richer, than tequila. Some mezcal producers have adopted production processes similar to that of tequila in order that the resulting mezcal has a flavor profile similar to tequila although it is not technically tequila because it is produced from a variety of agave other than the blue agave (agave tequilana.)

Production Method Differences

When tequila is made, the agave head is baked in an above-ground oven. This steam heated, masonry oven called a Horno and bakes the pinas for 24-48 hours.  It is then shut off and the pinas are cooled for another 26-48 hours. Many producers now use modern stainless steel autoclave ovens which allow for a faster cooling process.

 Mezcal producers generally follow the traditional method of using in-ground pits. The agave heads (also called agave hearts, or piñas) are roasted or grilled over hot rocks in a cone-shaped pit. The fire for the pit is burned for about 24 hours to heat the stones that line the pit. The agave heads are then put into the pit and covered with moist agave fiber which has been left over from the fermentation process. A layer of agave leaves or woven palm leaves cover the fibers and the agave heads are left to cook for two to three days.

Different Types of Mezcal

The Mexican government regulates mezcal and defines various types and aging categories. The regulations split mezcal into two categories:

Type 1: 100% agave (using any or all permitted agave plants)

Type 2: Minimum 80% agave and maximum 20% other sugars.

There are three aging categories:

Abacado: (also called joven or blanco): clear, un-aged mezcal that results from the distillation process. It is often bottled immediately, but flavoring or coloring agents can be added.

Reposado: (also called madurado): aged in wood barrels for two to eleven months.

Añejo: aged in wood barrels for a minimum of twelve months.

Classifications of Tequila

Just like with Mezcal, Tequila is also split into main categories, 100% Blue Agave, and Tequila Mixto (Mixed). Mixto Tequila contains a minimum of 51% Blue Agave, and the remaining 49% from other sugars (typically cane sugars. By reading the label on the bottle you can tell which classification it is in, as all Tequila that is made from 100% Blue Agave will say “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave”. All other Mixto Tequila labels will only read “Tequila”.

There are then 5 sub-categories: Silver (clear and un-aged) Gold (a mixto with colorants and flavors added), Reosado (aged 1 yr), Anejo (extra aged – 3 yrs minimum) and Extra Anejo (ultra aged – more than 3 years).

No Double Producers

Another important distinction is that government regulations forbid mezcal producers from making tequila, and tequila producers may not produce mezcal. So manufacturers are either one or the other but never both.

The Worm – Yes or No?

This is a bit of a weird, however obvious distinction. Mezcal is widely known for containing the agave “worm” called a gusano, that floats at the bottom of the bottle. It is primarily a marketing gimmick to help boost sales, especially in the United States and in Asia. Truthfully, it is not a “worm” at all, but one of two types of insect larvae (a caterpillar of a night butterfly or the larvae of the agave snout weevil) that can infest yucca and agave plants.

Tequila NEVER has a “worm” in the bottle.

Now that we’ve cleared up the differences, you should be able to easily explain why mezcal and tequila are not the same thing to any befuddled imbiber you may cross paths with.

To get an even better understanding you should do a side by side taste test! The unparalleled flavors will definitely speak for themselves. And if you ever want a deliciously refreshing drink made with either mezcal or tequila, go down to your local restaurant or bar and try it out, they’ll be more than happy to serve you one! Remember, it’s always five o’clock somewhere!