Most people know what tequila is but many have never heard of mezcal. This is interesting, considering tequila is actually a type of mezcal. We’ll explain the reason for this below as we explore the difference between mezcal vs tequila.
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What is mezcal?
Mezcal is a spirit distilled from the desert-dwelling agave plant. It can be made from any of the over thirty agave species and varietals. When we have a different “type” of mezcal, that is usually because it is made from a certain varietal. Some of the more popular varietals you’re likely to encounter in a Oaxacan mezcaleria include tobalá, madrecuix, and espadín. Tasting is believing, so we recommend you join us on our ten day Oaxacan tour to taste these varietals for yourself.
The easiest way to remember the difference between mezcal and tequila is to remember that all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. This is because tequila is a type of mezcal, a type made solely from the Weber Azul or blue weber agave plant.
What is tequila then?
As we mentioned, tequila is a type of mezcal. Specifically, it is a type made from the blue weber agave. In addition to this, there are a few other characteristics that distinguish tequila from mezcal.
The first of these distinguishing characteristics is that tequila, like champagne, must be made in a specific region for it to be considered authentic. In the case of tequila, that region is in an area surrounding the city of Tequila, a central western Mexican city.
Another one of tequila’s distinguishing characteristics is that it is commonly aged after distillation. The length of the aging process is how we get the three different types of tequila:
- Blanco or Silver
The tequila is aged in barrels made of wood, most commonly white oak. This aging process provokes a variety of chemical changes in the tequila. These changes affect the tequila’s flavor. The most common result of the wood is a mellowing of the tequila. Many people like this, because tequila that hasn’t been aged (i.e. mezcal) has a relatively high alcohol content–usually from 40-55%–making it too strong for people unaccustomed to such high proof liquor.
Blanco or silver tequila isn’t aged at all, making it the closest to mezcal. This tequila is commonly shot because it retains the strong, sharp bite because it is un-aged, and so has none of the oak flavor to soften its taste.
Reposado is aged for at least two months, making it the medium aged option. Reposado is a nice middle ground between silver and añejo. It is best sipped or mixed in with a cocktail like a margarita.
Añejo is aged for at least twelve months, making it the longest aged tequila. Because of this longer aging process, añejos are typically more expensive than their lesser aged counterparts. This tequila is best sipped to enjoy its complex flavors.
The last thing distinguishing tequila from mezcal is the cooking method used to prepare the two spirits. Tequila producers use a more modern cooking method for the heart, or piña of the agave plant. Tequila makers typically steam the piña in a commercial ovens before distilling the result in copper pots.
Mezcal producers, on the other hand, utilize a more traditional method of cooking the piña. Mezcal makers cook their agave hearts in large earthen pits lined with lava rocks. Inside these pits they cook the hearts with wood and charcoal before distilling the result in clay pots. This is why mezcal has that rich, smoky flavor.
Because tequila is just a type of mezcal you may wonder why it is more popular than mezcal. The higher level of awareness of tequila for your average North American liquor consumer is largely a result of better marketing.
You see, typically, consumers are more likely to buy something they are already at least somewhat acquainted with. That’s why tequila makers marketed their tequila with the three ages: blanco, reposado, and añejo. The reason for this was to present a similar alternative option to what the American liquor consumer was already drinking: whiskey. You’ll learn all this and more on our ten day tour of Oaxaca, where we’ll visit a mezcal tasting and production facility!
The best way to learn about mezcal is by drinking it
Just like any complex flavor (wine, beer, coffee), mezcal can take some getting used to. Initially, its hard to distinguish the different varietals because the alcohol overpowers the differences. We find we’re much better able to pick out the different flavors if we compare and contrast them with mezcals made from other varietals. This gives your taste buds something to compare to, and will help to refine your palate!
We hope this article has been enlightening, and has helped you to understand the differences between mezcal vs tequila.
If you’d like to learn about this stuff in person, we’d highly recommend you join us for our tour of Oaxaca, the epicenter of mezcal production.