What is tequila?
Tequila is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant Weber Blue, or blue agave, and produced only in five regions of Mexico: Jalisco (99% of it is produced there and home to the town Tequila), as well as Guanajuato, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Nayarit.
The agave plant has 166 species, but only the Weber Blue (named after the botanist who classified it in 1905) is used to make tequila. The silicate-rich, volcanic soil around tequila is an ideal growing environment for the blue agave, and more than 300 million plants are harvested annually.
What is mezcal?
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage produced from any type of agave. This drink is produced in Oaxaca and Guerrero, where natives prepared it in an artisanal way and consumed it on special occasions.
Difference between mezcal and tequila
We have seen that these traditional Mexican spirits are made from the agave plant, but they have a few key differences that every connoisseur should know. Simply put, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila – mezcal is a broad category of agave-based spirits, and tequila is a smaller subfamily of mezcal.
Any distilled agave-based spirit is a mezcal. Among the distilled agave-derived spirits, there is tequila, produced only in certain regions of Mexico and only made from blue agave. In contrast, mezcal can be made from a wide variety of agave.
The blue agave plant is still farmed manually to this day. Once the plant is ripe, the harvester cuts off the leaves, and the heart or 'pina' of the agave is the part used to make tequila. The agave is then steamed inside an industrial oven, which activates a chemical process within the piña that breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple fermentable sugars. Once cooked, the agave pinas are milled and crushed to release the liquid. This liquid is then fermented and distilled two or three times to create tequila.
The agave plants to produce mezcal are also harvested in the same way as the blue agave that makes tequila. However, mezcal is made from agave pinas that are cooked in fire pits in the ground, which gives it its smokey flavour. Once roasted, the agave pinas are then crushed in a mill for sugar extraction. Once the agave has been crushed, it's placed in wooden barrels to ferment with water. After the fermentation, the agave mash is distilled twice and blended to create a liquid with a smooth texture. Mezcal is then either bottled right away or matured in oak barrels.
The process of producing tequila is more standardised, making the flavours more consistent. Both mezcal and tequila can be aged or consumed straight after distillation.
Reposado is tequila or mezcal aged in steel or wood barrels for two months to a year. Reposado has a caramel colour and picks up notes from the barrel. Añejo is tequila or mezcal aged over a year. Añejo tequilas and mezcals are darker in colour and have an enhanced flavour profile, determined by the barrel in which they were aged.
Taste of mezcal vs tequila
Mezcal is very strong in terms of taste, partly due to its high alcohol content but also because it’s distilled from roasted agaves, giving it a smoky flavour. Consuming artisanal mezcal is always recommended, as it offers a broader variety of flavours, from mild to intense, depending on the soil the agave is grown in. Since mezcal can be made from up to 30 different kinds of agave, it has a much wider flavour range than tequila. In addition to its smokey flavour, mezcal can also have fruity, floral, and earthy characteristics.
The taste of tequila will vary depending on where the agave was grown as well as the age of the spirit. Tequila’s flavour profile is characterised by honey-like notes from cooked agave, complemented by citrus and pepper notes. Blanco – a type of tequila bottled soon after distillation – is earthy and sweet at the same time. Reposado is milder than Blanco and has a mellow oak flavour. The longest aged tequila, Añejo, is dark in colour with a smooth agave and oak flavour.
Is mezcal stronger than tequila?
Yes, mezcal is stronger than tequila. Both drinks have a high alcohol content, with an average of 40% ABV, but mezcal has a higher alcohol concentration – 55% ABV, 15% stronger than regular tequila.
How to drink mezcal
Mezcal can be enjoyed in a cocktail but is best served neat without ice. The best way to drink mezcal will always be clean, in small sips, accompanied by a little water to cleanse the palate. This way, you can appreciate mezcal's different flavours and aromas.
Mezcal is a complex and bold spirit. A tequila enthusiast who tries mezcal for the first time might be irritated by its smoky flavour. And that's alright because the spirit is different from tequila and should be consumed differently.
Check out our tips for the best way to drink mezcal.
Use a copita or jicara
Once you have selected a mezcal, choose your drinking vessel. A standard shot glass is fine, but if you want to experience the complex flavours fully, opt for a copita or jicara. Mezcal is traditionally consumed in these small cups crafted from a variety of materials: clay, ceramic, and glass. Copitas have a wide opening to allow your nose to smell the different aromas as you sip. Another typical cup can also be found in Oaxaca: the jicara. Jicaras are made from the shell of the calabash tree. The experience of drinking mezcal from a jicara cannot be missed if you're lucky enough to have the chance.
Drink it neat and at room temperature
Mezcal is best served neat and at room temperature – this allows the spirit to reveal its full flavour profile and its nuances. The natural compounds in mezcal are responsible for its flavour and are most effective at room temperature. The compounds in mezcal will fade if refrigerated, so keep your mezcal away from the fridge. It's also best not to serve mezcal on the rocks, so don't add ice or water to it.
With snacks sprinkled with Sal de Gusano
To go with your mezcal, Mexicans often serve a small plate with oranges, grapefruit, jicama, and carrots, dusted with a unique salt - the Sal de Gusano – also known as the worm salt. Gusanos del maguey are worms that live in agave plants, and sal de Gusano consists of regular salt mixed with ground chiles and dried ground larvae from those worms.
Take a sip
It is common to drink tequila as a shot, and since mezcal is often compared to tequila, mezcal shots are also becoming more popular. But mezcal should be sipped slowly.
Mezcal in cocktails
Cocktails made with mezcal are often riffs on those made with tequila. However, mezcal can be more than just a tequila substitute. There's nothing wrong with a gorgeous mezcal margarita, but mezcal deserves to be explored beyond that, and if you haven't tried mezcal cocktails yet, you're truly missing out. These cocktail are perfect for a mezcal spin: mezcal mule, mezcal paloma, mezcal negroni, mezcal sour, and mezcal old-fashioned, just to name a few. There's a mezcal cocktail to suit every taste.
How to drink tequila
The quality of tequila makes it perfect for cocktails, and this spirit is often used in margaritas and tequila slammer shots. But it can also be enjoyed neat or over ice.
In Mexico, tequila is kept in the refrigerator, served chilled, and consumed neat.
Save the lime and salt for a quick shot, margaritas or other cocktails, and sip tequila neat to experience its authentic flavour.
Check out our tips for the best way to drink tequila.
The tequila glass
Before you reach for any glass, you need to decide how you enjoy your tequila and which type you prefer. Do you drink it as a shot? Do you like it neat? On the rocks? Do you savour it slowly? Do you prefer a crystal clear Blanco, a well-aged Añejo or cask-finished tequila infused with flavours from the barrel? For those who prefer a shot of young tequila, there are plenty of shot-glass styles. But to fully appreciate the complexity of the tequila, you’ll want a tulip-shaped glass designed to concentrate the aroma. For tequila on the rocks, use either a lowball glass or a single or double rocks glass.
Observe the colour
Each type of tequila is associated with a particular colour. A Blanco tequila has a clear colour, while a Reposado and Añejo have a golden tawny or caramel colour. Extra Añejo – barrel-aged for a minimum of three years – is dark and golden.
Sniff the tequila
Make sure your tequila is as close to the rim as possible by turning the glass on its side. Put your nose near the bottom rim and take a sniff. Do not inhale deeply to oversaturate your nose – only take tiny sniffs. Continue to take in the aromas, this time from the middle of the glass.
Take a tiny sip
Next, take note of what you smell at first. Inhale before you take your first sip. Then, with the tequila in your mouth, inhale through your nose, swallow it over the tongue, and exhale to stimulate your taste buds.
For a proper shot of tequila, you need salt and lime, all in the correct order. Lick the salt off of your hand first, gulp the shot down, and finish by sucking on a wedge of lime.
Partygoers and tourists enjoy this method in Mexico, but tequila connoisseurs recommend drinking it slowly. However, enjoying a tequila shot makes any social event more fun and helps reduce the astringency of the spirit.