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What’s the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

September 15, 2022 by Helena Lombard

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When it comes to mezcal vs. tequila, many think of mezcal as tequila’s smoky cousin, and sure, that’s true enough. But mezcal is so much more than that. And while both tequila and mezcal are made with the agave plant, these popular Mexican drinks are made differently, resulting in entirely different tastes.  

In this handy guide, we take you through the main differences between mezcal and tequila, how they’re produced when to use mezcal, and the fascinating world of agave. 

Overview of mezcal

Amber coloured mezcal cocktails with rosemary garnish

So, what is mezcal exactly?   

  • Production: Mezcal is made by cooking the agave in pits underground. That’s what gives mezcal its smokiness.  
  • Taste: Mezcal tastes complex with a warm smokiness, and the flavour will depend on the type of agave used to produce it. We tell you more about this below, so keep reading!  
  • ABV: At 55%, mezcal is relatively high in alcohol—slowly does it! 

Read next: Easy Mezcal Cocktails for Agave Lovers

Tequila overview

Bottle of tequila with shot glasses on serving tray

If that’s how mezcal works, then what’s tequila made from and what’s its story?  Here’s a quick breakdown: 

  • Production: This fermented and distilled Mexican spirit is made from only one variety of agave: the blue Weber agave plant.   
  • Taste: The taste will depend on the type of tequila you’re drinking. Tequila Blanco (or silver tequila) is unaged, which makes it very agave-forward. Expect notes of citrus and pepper. When you age tequila for anything between 2 – 12 months, you get tequila reposado. Known for being smooth, with darker notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak being prominent. Tequila añejo has been aged in oak for 1 – 4 years, so you know it will have richer flavour profiles. This is definitely not a tequila to mix into a cocktail and is best enjoyed straight up.   
  • ABV: Tequila is lower in alcohol than mezcal by 15% and comes in at an ABV of 40%. 

Learn more: A Beginner’s Guide to the Different Types of Tequila

Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal isn’t always a tequila

Shot of tequila being poured with worm in bottom of shot glass

Confusing, right? This is a statement you’ll definitely come across when researching mezcal. But what does it even mean? Simply put, it means that mezcal can be any liquor produced from a variety of agave, while tequila is made with the blue Weber agave species only and is a form of mezcal. 

What regions are mezcal and tequila from?

Landscape photo of agave plants at sunrise

The sources of tequila and mezcal are different, except for a few overlapping regions. 

Mezcal is produced in 10 different states, including Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It’s in Oaxaca, however, that more than 85% of all mezcal is produced.  

Tequila, on the other hand, comes from Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco—the region where you’ll find the actual town of Tequila. A fact that we found so exciting that we’ve put “drink tequila in Tequila” on our bucket list of drink adventures!  

You might also like: 14 Best Drinks to Mix with Tequila in 2023

Differences in the distillation process

Bottle of mezcal

Once tequila has been steamed above ground, it gets double or triple-distilled in copper pots. Mezcal, on the other hand, is distilled in clay pots once the juice has fermented.  

Differences in their ageing process

Close up of agave hearts or pinas

Both mezcal and tequila are aged in oak barrels for varying amounts of time. Tequila is available in three varieties:  Blanco (aged for up to 2 months), reposado (aged for up to a year), and añejo (aged for up to 3 years). Mezcal also comes in three varieties: añejo (aged for at least a year), reposado (aged for between 2 to 12 months), and joven (aged for 0 to 2 months). These classifications should be clearly marked on the bottle’s label, so keep your eyes peeled and make sure you know what you’re buying.  

To confuse things a little more, there are also mezcal categories to know about. There are three of them, set out by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. These categories are Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral, and they prescribe the different methods producers can legally use to make this spirit.  

When you buy a bottle of mezcal, the category should be clearly indicated, as well as:  

  • The name of the agave plant: If it’s a decent bottle, it will give you the name of the plant used to produce it. Espadín is the most popular, but there are loads of different varieties to try.   
  • The ABV: this should be on the label, and you should expect anything between 40 – 55% alcohol.  
  • The region: the most common one you will see is Oaxaca – but there are nine other regions where it could have been produced.   
  • Distillation: The label should indicate whether the mezcal was distilled in a clay or a copper pot. Clay pots tend to produce more earthy mezcal, while copper pots make a smoother drink.   
  • Mezcal category: Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal or Mezcal Ancestral.  
  • Age: Añejo, reposado or joven.   

Salud! Your Guide to the Best Tequila for Margaritas

How do mezcal & tequila taste different?

Spicy mezcal margarita with pineapple

What flavour profile distinguishes mezcal from tequila? The simplest answer is its warm smokiness. The flavour will also depend on the type of agave used to produce it. With over 40 varieties of plants, there are loads of variations. 

With tequila, the taste will depend on the type you’re drinking. Tequila Blanco (or silver tequila) isn’t aged, which makes it very agave-forward. Expect notes of citrus and pepper. Tequila reposado is known for being smooth, with darker notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak being prominent. Tequila añejo has been aged the longest so it will have a richer flavour profile.  

How do you drink mezcal or tequila?

Mezcal shots with chilli spice rim

While both these Mexican favourites are delicious and enjoyed straight-up, you can use mezcal to add smokiness and different flavours to drinks. Use these popular spirits for some modern Mexican cocktails at your next Taco Tuesday with friends for something a little special. When you mix both tequila and mezcal you add a smoky twist to classic drinks.  

We suggest trying your hand at mixing up Mezcal Margaritas or Mezcal Palomas. Double yum! If you want a tequila-only cocktail, mix up the classics like Margaritas or some classic Mexican Palomas. And be sure to check out our guide to the best mezcal cocktails you can make right now.  

More recipes to try! Mezcal Margarita | Naked & Famous | Tequila Sunrise | Tequila Sour

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

One of the best ways to enjoy mezcal is neat. Take small sips and cleanse your palate with a little water in-between sips to really take in the different flavours and aromas that mezcal brings to the party.

One of the biggest reasons is that it’s more widely available today than it was a decade ago. Mezcal is also a lovely substitution in drinks made with whiskey and tequila. So, if you’re looking to give your drink an interesting twist, reach for that bottle of mezcal.

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