In the world of agave, the mezcal vs tequila debate rages on. But what is the difference between these magical Mexican spirits? And which one tastes better; mezcal or tequila?
You might even be thinking that they're the same drink but you'd be wrong. Find out all about the blue agave plant, its production, the taste and methods of drinking in this complete guide to mezcal vs tequila.
The difference between mezcal and tequila
The main difference between tequila and mezcal is the type of agave plant, the production process and the location of production. These three factors help produce two spirits that are distinguishable in both colour and flavour.
Tequila only uses the blue weber agave plant, whereas mezcal uses all other species of the agave.
During baking, the piñas used for mezcal are buried in a deep fiery pit in the ground to absorb the smoky, earthy flavours. By contrast, piñas used for tequila are steam-baked in large industrial vats, helping develop a strong agave flavour.
Tequila and mezcal can only be produced in specific states of Mexico. Some states overlap but the main state of production for tequila is Jalisco and for mezcal it's Oaxaca.
Mezcal vs tequila: Taste
Those of you who have done some tequila tasting will know that there is a distinct difference in flavour between the two spirits. Factors like the actual species of agave, the way it's produced and even climate are the main drivers behind this divergence in flavour.
Tequila flavours: ethanol, citrus, salty, liquorice
Mezcal flavours: earthy, smoky, herby, salty
Both share the iconic agave flavour, but in different quantities. Mezcal is seen to be much more complex, holding many more notes than tequila. This isn't to say that tequila is lower in quality. It just offers a much simpler profile.
All in all, tequila and mezcal vary drastically in flavour. Tequila is much more raw in flavour, whilst Mezcal contains deeper, earthier tones.
Mezcal vs tequila: Production
When it comes to the production of tequila and mezcal, the main differences lie in the type of agave plant used and the baking process. Here's a short explanation on how production varies...
Before starting any baking or distillation, first, the agave plant needs to be chosen. For tequila production, this must be the blue weber agave. No other species of agave can be used to make tequila. For mezcal, however, it can be any of the other many types of agave plant. Most commonly, mezcal uses the espadin species of agave. This is the first major difference in production.
Once the agave has been chosen, it needs to be harvested. To prepare the plant for the next steps, its leaves are trimmed. Agave harvesters, called jimadores, cut down the agave plant to just its core. The core resembles a pineapple, hence they are called piñas. It's the agave core that contains the precious sugary liquid used to make tequila.
The next variation between tequila and mezcal production is the baking. When making tequila, the harvested blue agave piñas are placed into tall pressure cooker vats. The steam then cooks the piñas and gives it, its famous ethanol-like taste.
In comparison, mezcal is baked in deep fire pits, the traditional method. Deep pits filled with burning charcoal and wood are dug into the ground. The piñas for mezcal are thrown into the pit and covered with earth. The smoke and steam cannot escape, so the piñas pick up these smoky, earthy notes instead. Once baked, they are ready for the next step, pressing.
Pressing and fermentation
This part involves crushing and grinding the cooked agave piñas to extract the sugary liquid used later for fermentation. Tequila producers use huge industrial pressers to extract this juice. However, many mezcal producers instead opt for a more traditional method. By using a mull-pulled mill (tahona), the piñas can be crushed just the same. Not all mezcal producers use this method, but it's far more common than in tequila production.
Now, the piñas have been crushed, it's time to ferment. There's not often much difference between the spirits here. Sometimes, mezcal producers choose to use wild yeast already present in the air, but this isn't a requirement. After this, this fermented liquid is distilled and turned into tequila or mezcal!
We've tried to keep it short, but there's so much to cover! The main takeaways are that differences lie in the agave plants and baking process. You can discover more about the process in our How Is Tequila Made blog.
Where are mezcal and tequila made?
Mezcal is primarily made in Oaxaca, whereas tequila is primarily made in Jalisco. When it comes to producing either spirit, there are some laws to abide by. Tequila can only be made in a select few Mexican states. This is yet another difference in their process'.
The neighbouring states to Jalisco of Nayarit, Michoacán and Guanajuato, as well as the east coast state of Tamaulipas can legally produce tequila, too. This is also the case with mezcal. The states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Durango, Guerrero, Puebla, San Luís Potosí and Zacatecas can also produce mezcal, alongside the biggest producer, Oaxaca.
Is mezcal aged?
Yes. Mezcal has its own aged styles. Reposado and añejo are types of mezcal that have been aged. This is a commonality that both tequila and mezcal share.
Tequila is well known for being an aged spirit. Blanco tequila is the only one of the types of tequila that is not aged. Reposado tequila, añejo and extra añejo are all styles that are aged, ranging from a few months to many years.
How to drink tequila and mezcal
Both mezcal and tequila can be taken 'straight', without need to mix the spirit with something extra. Many people, especially those in Mexico, enjoy drinking them this way.
Mezcal is almost exclusively consumed straight. Mezcal cocktails are few and far between due to its strong, complex flavour. This, therefore, makes it an excellent spirit to be taken neat.
Tequila, however, can be enjoyed in a few more ways; the standard glass of tequila, sipped on over a period of time and the iconic tequila-lime-salt shot set up, a firm favourite with bar goers. Finally, there are the classic tequila cocktails, like the Margarita, Batanga and Paloma. For use behind the bar, tequila is traditionally much more versatile than mezcal.
Tequila and mezcal FAQS
Is mezcal stronger than tequila?
No. Mezcal is not stronger than tequila. Different brands may produce different strengths of tequila or mezcal, however. Both are spirits and, more specifically, agave-based spirits, meaning that the average ABV will be roughly the same.
Is mezcal a type of tequila?
No. Mezcal is not a type of tequila. Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal.
We like to think of it this way. Think of mezcal as whiskey and tequila as Scotch. Tequila is a style of mezcal, just like Scotch is a style of whiskey. Read about all things tequila is our What Is Tequila blog and get acquainted with the Mexican treasure.
Is mezcal better than tequila?
The answer is no. Well, actually - it all depends!
If you mean 'is mezcal better tasting?', then this is purely subjective and we refuse to be drawn into the fierce tequila vs mezcal debate. However, answering this for yourself depends on your love of earthy and smoky flavours compared to a raw spirit flavour. And only you will know!
If you mean 'is mezcal better quality than tequila?', then the answer is also no. The spirits are the same quality but the price tag usually reflects the quality of spirit production.
And that's it! Everything you ever wanted to know about tequila v mezcal.
Get stuck into the world of tequila and mezcal with our Tequila & Mezcal Expedition. Visit blue agave plant fields, distilleries and get to sample the essence of Mexico.
Or find out more about tequila cocktails on our bartender course, taught by experienced professional bartenders.