Ah, tequila. The truly delicious nectar of the agave plant! We know, we know: many of us have our own horror story centered around imbibing too much industrialized tequila. Don’t let that keep you from understanding the intricacies of tequila and its less famous, but equally as delicious sibling, mezcal.
For this post, we’re going to focus on how the two differ, finishing with two cocktails that illustrate these differences.
First, technically, Tequila and Mezcal fall under the parent group of spirits made from agave. When you hear a spirit referred to as a “Mezcal,” 9 times out of 10 the spirit in question is the smoky, tart and savory creation that hails mostly from Oaxaca, Mexico (though it can actually come from 9 different Mexican states).
The key difference between tequila and mezcal is, first of all, flavor. They owe their differences in flavor to the different methods used during production, the different places that each comes from, and the types of agave used to make them.
Let’s start by talking about the method, specifically how producers of tequila and mezcal “cook” the agave differently at the start of the process. Tequila can only be made from a specific agave plant called "blue agave." Producers steam the agave before pressing it and then fermenting the juice, which they subsequently distill twice. With mezcal, they almost always roast it, traditionally in huge underground furnaces, over the extra parts of the agave not used to make the spirit. This gives mezcal its distinct, smokey flavor. Like tequila, mezcal is distilled twice.
Tequila can come from fewer places than Mezcal. Originally, the spirit got its name from the small town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico. 80-90% of the tequila we get here in the US still comes from near this original birthplace, though now 5 states can legally make it.
Mezcal, on the other hand, has no regulations regarding the type of agave needed to produce it. Espadín is the most common, but that does not mean it’s necessarily the best. Different types of agave, like wine grapes, produce very different juice with very different flavor profiles, aromas and textures. Also like grapes, the terroir of the environment they grow in affects the final outcome tremendously, leading to some areas that historically have produced higher quality mezcals.
Mezcal and tequila may taste fairly different when compared to each other, but they have as much in common as they have differences. First off, they share the same source: agave. They share the same country as a home: Mexico. And they share many common flavor components: pepper spiciness (think light Jalapeño notes), white peppercorn, cactus, cream, vanilla, herbs, flowers and wood.
The classification systems for the two share some terms, but are not exactly the same. Blanco is specific to tequila, and means no oak aging. The tequila carries an absolutely clear color, and tastes the most like agave of any other style. Next for tequila comes Joven, a gold-hued blend of Blanco and the next style, Reposado. Reposado tequila spends a few months to around nine months in oak barrels, which smooths the flavors and adds classic oak notes like vanilla and baking spice. Next we have Añejo, and Extra Añejo. Añejo means “aged” in Spanish, so Añejo tequila refers to tequila that spends at least a year in a barrel. Extra Añejo means more than three years. Each has a fairly dark color reminiscent of whiskey, with additional complexity of flavor due to the aging process.
Mezcal, on the other hand, only has four classifications: Joven, Dorado, Reposado and Añejo. Reposado and Añejo are the same for mezcal as they are for tequila. Joven means un-aged, and Dorado refers to the color, which is a light gold accomplished with coloring agents.
As we hope has become clearer as we’ve progressed through our “Understanding Cocktails” series, while each distinct type of spirit out there has characteristics that define it, each individual producer, each batch, sometimes each bottle, lead to different drinking experiences. Now that you know the basic differences between tequila and mezcal, dive into the process of finding what you like best!
Classic Tequila Margarita on the Rocks (serves 2-4)
4 oz tequila
2 oz triple sec
4 oz lime juice
2 oz simple syrup
3-5 lime wedges (one per serving for garnish, one to rim the glasses)
15 ice cubes
2 Margarita glasses (if you have one), or Pint Glasses
Salt the glasses by putting a significant amount of sea salt on a small plate or saucer, rubbing the outside of the rim of the glass with one of the lime wedges (do not coat the inside of the rim, or the salt will get in the drink and turn it into brine), then dipping the rim of the glass into the salt. Put aside.
Add all ingredients to the shaker, along with half the ice, and shake for 20 to 30 seconds, until the shaker is super cold and the ice sloshes in the shaker. Fill glasses with remaining ice, strain half the liquid into one glass, then the other, drop a lime wedge in each, and serve!
Note: We wrote the recipe for 2-4 servings, depending on the size of the glass you choose, because Margaritas are social drinks. Make sure you have a friend, or four, with you for this recipe!
Smokey Chipotle Bloody Mary (serves 6-10)
1 bottle original V8
4 oz brine or kosher dill pickle juice
2 big lemons, juiced
1 cup dried chipotle powder
10 oz Peltón de la Muerte Mezcal
6-10 dill pickle spears (garnish)
6-10 olives (garnish)
6-10 cocktail onions (garnish)
6-10 pickled jalapeños (garnish)
6-10 strips smoked bacon (garnish)
6-10 cocktail skewers (garnish)
6-10 stalks of celery (garnish; optional)
Plenty of ice; at least a small bag from your local convenient store
2 48 oz serving pitchers
6-10 pint glasses
Again, we’ve chosen a communal drink that will require some friends. This serves at least 8 people, or 4-6 people who want seconds - which is the most likely scenario! You may never go back to vodka based Bloody Marys again!
Pour half the V8, half the brine, half the chipotle powder, half the lemon juice, and half the mezcal into one pitcher, then do the same with the other. Fill the pitchers to the top with ice, stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour. Make this the night before if you plan to serve this at a brunch.
To serve, first cook the bacon. To get flat, crispy strips, cook in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, depending on how crispy you want it. Remove the bacon from the oven and let cool while you prepare the cocktail.
Fill pint glasses about ¾ full with ice. Make garnishes by skewering 1 each of the cocktail onions, olives and pickled jalapeños. Place 1 skewer, 1 pickle and 1 slice of bacon into each glass. Add celery if you must, but you don’t need it unless you believe Bloody Mary’s must have a celery stalk. Remove pitchers from the fridge and give them a final stir, then pour over ice and garnishes and serve.