Have you noticed more and more bottles of mezcal and tequila on the shelves of your local liquor store lately? It’s not your imagination — Mexico’s home-grown darlings have risen to the top of home bar shopping lists. Sales of both are growing rapidly — in fact, together they were the second fastest-growing spirit category in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And yet many people still wonder: What exactly are mezcal and tequila, and what’s the difference between them? Read on as we dive into the world of mezcal vs tequila.
Mezcal vs. tequila, and what’s the difference
Technically speaking, any agave spirit is a mezcal, the original agave spirit of Mexico that is thousands of years old, says Mike Moreno, Jr., owner of Moreno’s Liquors in Chicago, Ill., a store with the largest selection of agave-based spirits (the plant at the source of both tequila and mezcal) in the country—to the tune of 900 different varieties of tequila and over 650 mezcals at latest count. Tequila was originally referred to as tequila de mezcal, he says.
Though there are exceptions, one of the biggest differences is that most tequila is a major commercial product and most mezcal is still artisanal in production, says Greg Boehm, owner of the agave-centric bar The Cabinet in New York, which boasts over 1,000 mezcals and a dialed-in curation of around 45 selections of tequila. “All tequila is made from one type of agave, called Blue Weber Agave, and mezcal is made from many, many different types of agave,” he says.
Agave is a succulent that grows in arid climates and sandy soils. It can grow bigger than the tallest centre in the NBA, takes anywhere between seven and 15 years to mature, and there are many different types — somewhere around 200 that are known. But if we’re talking about tequila and mezcal, there are only certain types that are allowed by law to be used in making those spirits.
Agave for tequila
Tequila can only be made from one type: Blue Weber Agave — and if you want to ensure you are hitting the benchmark of good quality for your tequila purchase, make sure the label says so. If it doesn’t, your “tequila” is likely only partially made from fermented Blue Weber Agave. The rest can be any other mystery mix of fermented sugars, and can have colouring and other additives as well. It may be grown in up to five different states in Mexico, although most of it is farmed and made in Jalisco.
Agave for mezcal
Mezcal is produced in large part by small, artisanal mezcaleros across nine different states in Mexico, and there are dozens and dozens of different types of agave that are allowed in its production, Espadin being the most common. And that—according to true connoisseurs of the spirits—is what makes for endless nuance and complexity in flavour and style. “For mezcal, we have 46 different types of agave represented in our collection at The Cabinet, and that’s ever-growing,” says Boehm. “About six years ago, I was introduced to mezcal, where it’s from, and how it’s an intrinsic part of the culture, and I went down the rabbit hole. It fascinated me how mezcal tastes different from town to town; they’re fiercely individual and I was amazed at how complex they could be.”
How mezcal and tequila are made
Once the mature agave is harvested and its spiky leaves are cut off, you’re left with the pineapple, or piña, which gets cooked and crushed in order to be fermented and distilled into a spirit. But how that piña is cooked is another difference that separates mezcal and tequila. By and large, mezcal is cooked in a very traditional manner.
“The majority of mezcal agave will be cooked underground with some form of charcoal, covered, and slowly cooked for days on end,” says Moreno. “For tequila, there is a variety of forms of cooking. Higher quality versions are cooked in a brick oven.” There’s also autoclave, he says, which is a pressure cooker-like machine that uses steam heat and pressure to more quickly expedite cooking time, as well as diffusers, which use a chemical process to strip the juice out of the agave—which Moreno doesn’t recommend.
With tequila, that kind of production information can be tricky to find, as it’s not required to be on the label. Mezcal has a much more transparent labelling tradition, often showing the name of the mezcalero, where the agave was grown and the different types used, the village where it was made, down to nitty-gritty details like how it was roasted, what type of fermentation was used, and the kind of still.
How tequila and mezcal taste
While it’s easy to blanket all mezcal as smoky, there’s so much more nuance to it than comparisons to campfires. Yes, it does tend to be a bit, or very, smoky because of that artisanal cooked-over-a-fire-in-a-pit roasting process of the pina. But remember, there are dozens of different agave that can be used to make mezcal, and that means there’s a world of it to explore. Some mezcals are barely kissed with a hint of smoke, and some explode with it. Espadin is the most commonly found agave source for mezcal here in the States, and while generalising is tricky, it does often have very fruity and floral notes as a rule.
Blanco tequila tends to be more neutral or low-key, in comparison, but in the best cases, you can smell that lovely agave at its core. It’s an aroma that’s almost a little like a very delicate cooked yam, but with a little grassiness folded into the mix. When aged in used oak (oftentimes, used bourbon barrels), it takes on notes of vanilla, caramel, and even cinnamon.
Age vs. beauty
Both mezcal and tequila start out as unaged spirits — clear and bright, in a state where you can detect any nuances or core aromatics and flavours. And mezcals pretty much stay that way. Some producers have experimented with barrels, but most do not. If any ageing occurs, it happens in glass, not wood, in order to allow the spirit and unique agaves at its base to evolve without taking on any outside smells or tastes.
It’s common to see aged tequila on a store shelf — reposado, which means “rested” and indicates the spirit inside is aged (usually in ex-American whiskey barrels) for a minimum of two months and up to a year; añejo, which means “old,” and indicates the tequila has been in a barrel for more than a year and up to three; and extra añejo, which means the tequila has been aged longer than three years. “Reposado and añejo are important categories in tequila, and help with crossover from whiskey drinkers,” says Boehm.
But Moreno is spotting a trend in his store lately. “When it comes to ageing, with tequila I’m seeing more people revert back to blancos — and that has a lot to do with the mezcal movement. They want to try the agave on its own,” he says. “When it comes to mezcal, ageing in glass actually adds to its flavour. There’s a bung at the top of the vessel and it lets in some oxygen, and that mellows out your mezcal as it oxidises and breathes.”
This story first appeared on www.marthastewart.com
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