As an avid fan of mezcal and other agave spirits the most common question I get is: “what is the difference between mezcal and tequila?” When asked that question, I usually ask people if they want the long or short answer to that question. If you want the long answer, read on!
Tequila is one of the most popular spirits in the world so it needs little explanation, but I will go over the basics. Tequila is the legal name for an agave spirit made from the blue agave (Agave tequiliana Weber var. azul) and produced in one of 5 particular states of Mexico: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, and Michoacán. Tequila has an Appellation of Origin (Demoninación de Origen) regulated by the government of Mexico, which means that blue agave spirits produced outside of those five states can not be called tequila!
Mezcal can be made from many, many different types of agave (and this is where it gets confusing), including blue agave! Mezcal is the legal name for any agave spirit produced in 9 different states of Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Puebla. Like tequila, mezcal also has an Appellation of Origin which means that any agave spirit made outside of these 9 states can never be called mezcal. Think of champagne, which can only be produced in a single region of France called Champagne. You can technically make mezcal in California, but you definitely can’t call it mezcal.
Because mezcal is made from so many different types of agaves, it is a much more diverse category of spirit than tequila. An espadín mezcal tastes completely different from an arroqueño mezcal, and both taste far different from a tepeztate mezcal. In addition, the fashion in which mezcal is produced varies greatly. Most mezcals are produced in an artisanal way and come from small villages, where it is crushed by hand or by horses, and can be distilled with seeds, fruits, or even meat. Tequila is almost always produced in an industrial fashion which causes a lot of the flavors from the agave to be lost. Mezcal made from blue agave is rare, but if you try some, you’ll see that it tastes totally different from tequila, most likely due to the way that it was produced.
Another huge difference between the two is that mezcal must be 100% pure agave liquor according to the regulations enforced by the government of Mexico. Tequila can legally be as low as 51% agave liquor and still be called tequila. Most of the most popular, cheaper tequilas (such as Jose Cuervo), are usually 51% mixes of agave liquor and some cheap additive. This can be sugarcane liquor, corn liquor or some other filler. That said, tequila can be 100% agave, but the 100% varieties are expensive and rare, and believe me when I say you can taste the difference. This illustrates perhaps the biggest difference between mezcal and tequila; with mezcal you are always getting a spirit that is 100% agave liquor, organic and artisanal.
While tequila is the more popular spirit, those of us who are mezcal fans know that mezcal will soon get it’s time in the spotlight. It definitely helps to know the differences between the two, but the best way to learn is to taste! Salud!