All Tequila is considered mezcal, but not all mezcal is Tequila. However, both are produced in Mexico by distilling the fermented juice of the agave plant, a succulent (not a cactus) with spiky leaves that is related to the lily and the century plant.
Agave has always been used as a flavoring agent and sweetener, and agave-based spirits date back at least 2,000 years when the plant’s juice was fermented into pulque, a milky, slightly foamy, low alcohol drink. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they brought their distilling techniques with them, and found a ready base material in the agave plant. The first mezcal appeared in the 1500s and quickly spread throughout Mexico. Tequila was first made in the sixteenth century near the town of the same name, which was established in 1666. The differences between the two categories have mainly to do with the type of agave used, and how it’s prepared before distillation.
WHAT IS TEQUILA & MEZCAL?
By law, Tequila must be produced in Jalisco, Mexico using the blue weber agave plant. (The government has given special permission for a few distilleries outside the designated area to produce it, but the vast majority is made in Jalisco.) The agave is grown for eight to ten years, during which time its central stalk (the part with the sweet juice and pulp) becomes sufficiently large. A campesino removes the spiky leaves and harvests the piña, the large bulb that looks like a giant pineapple and can weigh up to a hundred pounds.
Agave Harvesting & Fermentation
After they are harvested, the piñas are taken back to the distillery, where they are cut into smaller chunks and slowly baked in steam ovens, pressure cookers or brick ovens (hornos) to convert the starch to sugar. Afterwards, they are crushed, either by the traditional method of a mule-drawn stone wheel or by a modern automatic shredder, to extract the juice called aguamiel (“honey water.”) The extracted juice is fermented, and for the highest quality Tequila, the only ingredient that may be added is water. Lesser quality products labeled mixto can contain alcohol distilled from other sources, as well as flavorings and sugar.
Distillation & Production
Traditionally, Tequila is double-distilled in a pot still, though lighter-style offerings sometimes undergo their second fermentation in a column still to remove some impurities and producer a cleaner spirit. Tequila usually gets its color by the addition of caramel, though barrel-aged versions can also pick up golden or amber tones from time spent in oak. Very small amounts of natural flavorings like Sherry and coconut can be used to round out the flavor profile and lend a smoother taste and mouthfeel.
The highest quality Tequila is made using 100% blue weber agave (versus the inferior mixto mentioned above), and there are different styles, all of which depend on how much time (if any) the spirit spends in an oak barrel. In general, the longer the barrel aging, the more secondary aromas and flavors the Tequila will pick up, including caramel, vanilla and dried fruits; with shorter time spent in the barrel, there will be more vegetal notes of cooked agave.
Mezcal’s production is similar to that of Tequila, however the regulations are not as restrictive. It can be produced with any one of eight approved varieties of agave—the most widely used is espadin, but also worth seeking out is Tobalá, which grows at higher elevations and tastes earthier and sweeter. Mezcal is usually made in the country’s Oaxaca region, though it can be produced in seven states in Mexico. Producers tend to be very small and artisanal, using traditional methods done by hand rather than with modern equipment, and distillers pass down their skills and techniques from generation to generation.
The main difference between mezcal and Tequila lies in how the agave is treated after it is harvested. Unlike for Tequila, where the agave is roasted in an oven, for Mezcal it is baked in underground ovens heated with wood charcoal; this process is what gives it its distinctly smoky, brooding character. Some producers downplay it so it is a subtle component in the whole character, while others strive to produce an unapologetically smoky spirit.
Mezcal is distilled in copper alembic stills, usually twice but sometimes three times, and the amount of aging (if any) determines its style. Joven mezcal is young, and is either unaged or aged less than two months. Reposado mezcal is “rested” in oak for two months to one year, while añejo mezcal is aged between one and three years. Extra-añejo mezcal is a yet-to-be-formalized category that refers to a bottle that’s more than three years old.
Mezcal is generally enjoyed by itself or mixed with water or ice, but it is become an increasingly popular cocktail ingredient, where it can stand in for Tequila and provide a nice smoky accent to drinks.