Mezcal and tequila are both made from agave plants (or maguey) and give you a taste of Mexico’s spiritual and cultural history. They have both been awarded a denomination of origin, which means the area influences the flavor. This means that authentic mezcal and tequila can only be made in certain areas in Mexico and nowhere else…. But the similarities stop there.
We talk about the main differences between mezcal and tequila, and how to know which one is going to be your favorite.
Mezcal Vs Tequila: What’s The Difference?
The Tequila versus Mezcal debate is a common one, and not without reason. While many associates the two as being relatively similar, mezcal tastes very different from tequila.
For many people, tequila is a good starting point to lead to mezcal – typically because tequila is smoother and good brands are more affordable and available.
1. Mezcal and Tequila use difference agaves
While tequila can only be made from one type of agave plant (Blue Weber), mezcal can be made from some 30 agave varieties. Mezcal is sometimes made from wild agaves that take 20–30 years to grow, and may even combine different agaves in the same brew. This makes the world of mezcal much more varied than tequila.
That’s not to say that mezcal can’t use blue agave, which Del Maguey proved with its release of San Luis Rio Azul. But it shouldn’t be the dominant ingredient – otherwise, it would infringe on tequila’s territory.
In fact, mezcal is the umbrella term to describe any distilled agave drink. Tequila was once known as ‘vino de mezcal de tequila’ (mezcal wine of tequila).
This leads to the argument that all tequila is a type of mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Think how scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey.
2. Mezcal agave is smoked, while Tequila agave is steamed
Some say they can tell the way an agave is cooked just by the flavor.
Mezcal has a unique, smoky flavor that distinguishes it from tequila. This is because mezcal agave is smoked in an underground pit lined with hot volcanic stones and covered in dirt. The agave cores smoke for many hours, sometimes even days. This method is considered roasting not steaming.
Tequila, on the other hand, uses steam inside ovens (hornos) to break the carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. The agave is cooked for up to one day in ovens made of stone, clay, brick, or ceramic. Some tequila brands slow-cook them agaves by lowering the temperature and cooking for up to two days. Slow-cooking creates less caramelization, so the tequila is sweeter, smoother, and less bitter.
Other tequila brands speed up cooking by using a pressurized steel autoclave, which can cook the agave in as little as 8 hours. Some say this cleaner cooking method creates sharper flavors. Others argue that the notes are less complex without the special flavors imparted by the oven.
Many top tequilas are oven-baked, but this is not the only indication of quality flavor. For example, at the beginning of cooking, the agaves release a bitter, waxy honey-like substance; if the oven or autoclave has a drainage system to remove it, the tequila flavor is sweeter and cleaner.
There are also some exceptions to this simplistic divide between mezcal and tequila. For example, the Siembra Valles ‘Ancestral Tequila’ uses an earth pit to cook their agave cores. Maestro Dobel also introduced a smoked tequila, Humito, which used wood instead of steam to cook the blue agave.
3. Mezcal has retained many handcrafted techniques
Unlike tequila, mezcal is still primarily produced by small family distilleries – sometimes fifth or sixth-generation – using handed-down, century-old knowledge. It is one of the rare spirits that still largely incorporates the same 16th-century techniques. This makes it the most handcrafted alcohol you can buy today.
Besides mezcal using earth-pit roasted agaves, it is also crushed using a stone wheel then typically fermented in clay pots or copper stills. This makes it more labor-intensive and artisanal than modernized tequila production. For this reason, some mezcal brands are neversold outside of their town and prices are more expensive.
The downside is that handcrafted processes create less consistency. Mezcal has a lot of congeners (impurities), which are responsible for the flavors we love but also make it difficult to repeat. Especially if wild yeasts are used, the flavor can change even within the same batch. So, you might buy the same brand but get a different flavor each time.
But this is changing. As demand grows and brands meet commercial standards, some mezcal producers have switched to modern production processes like tequila. The resulting mezcal has a smoother and more consistent flavor profile from bottle to bottle.
Today you can see mezcal bottles labeled as:
- mezcal – means industrial processes are used
- mezcal artesenal – a mix of traditional and modern techniques are used
- mezcal ancestral – only traditional techniques are used.
As mezcal is growing a cultish following outside of Mexico, it will continue to shape how this artisanal alcohol is produced.
If you prefer more consistency with a traditional twist, there are also tequila brands that use some old-school techniques to develop their flavor profiles. Some use wild yeasts, old ovens, or crush the cooked agaves with a stone.
4. Mezcal is more ‘pure’ than tequila
We are only referring to the legal requirement for agave sugar. By law, authentic tequila only needs to contain 51% of agave sugar. Mezcal requires at least 80% agave sugar. The rest of the sugar can come from anywhere, like cane or corn.
But the best mezcal and tequila are made with 100% agave sugar – and this is the quality we always recommend. Although, as tequila has a longer export history, it’s easier to find affordable pure tequila than mezcal.
5. Mezcal and tequila are drunk differently
One thing both tequila and mezcal share is that they are better sipped, not shot down-in-one (assuming you buy the good quality!). But then the differences start.
Tequila is best sipped from a tall shot glass, a snifter, or a sherry-type glass (there is even an ‘offical’ tequila glass produced in this style). It is commonly paired with freshly squeezed lime juice or sangrita, a slightly spiced tomato drink. Both are served in a shot glass and sipped between your tequila sips.
Mezcal is usually drunk with a snack or food. The most common accompanient you will see is sliced orange sprinkled with smoky worm salt (sal de gusano, which is actually larvae that feeds off the agave). Mezcal cups are usually short with a wide mouth, like small clay cups or stout shot glasses.
Mezcal or Tequila: Which One Will You Love More?
If you prefer drinking cocktails over sipping alcohol neat, mezcal is your new best friend. The smoky flavor adds a twist to any cocktail and easily stands in as the star in many classic drinks. It blends well with strong flavors, like beetroot, bitter orange, ginger, jamaica flowers or chocolate, without drowning out the mezcal.
If you love experimentation and alcohol tasting, mezcal offers a lot more variety. You can try different flavors of agaves – espadín, tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño, jabali and more – and different levels of smokiness and production techniques.
But mezcal tends to have very strong agave notes and more alcohol vapor than tequila. If you’re used to sipping smooth alcohols like fine whisky or cognac, then tequila is a great start, especially aged tequilas. You can still experiment with tequila tasting by trying brands that use different techniques, as well as trying the different levels of aging.
Mezcal flavors are raw and mineral, while tequila is generally sweeter. This makes it easier to start your forage into agave alcohol with tequila. Although if you love to pair your drinks with snacks or food, mezcal can handle it better than tequila.