Tequila is the most commonly consumed alcohol as a shot with salt and lime. But it is not the only tequila to be considered. There is Mezcal, once a worm-infused souvenir from a gift shop in Cancun, now on the menu of every trendy cocktail bar and described exclusively as “smoked”. The United States had heavily misrepresented both agave-based drinks, so most think all tequilas are the same. Traditionally drunk by connoisseurs, Tequila and Mezcal have their roots in a rich artisan tradition dating back centuries, each offering sophisticated flavors influenced by age, geography, and the distilling process.
What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave plants’ cooked and fermented. In the Aztec language, the word mezcal is rooted and roughly translates to oven-cooked agave. Agave is a big, leafy-like plant that can thrive in the United States’ desert climates, but commonly grown in Mexico’s southwestern regions. There are over 200 agave types, but not all contain enough fermentable sugar to make into Mezcal.
Quick facts about Mezcal and Tequila
The best way to understand Mezcal is to compare it to Tequila, but understanding there are some differences. Here are some quick facts:
- Both Tequila and Mezcal must be grown and produced in Mexico.
- Tequila is mostly produced in Jalisco and four minimal areas in four other states, while Mezcal can be grown in 8 countries, but it is made mainly in Oaxaca.
- Mezcal has a smoky flavor and aroma because it is smoked. Tequila is not smoked.
- Tequila can only be made with 1 type of agave: blue agave. Mezcal can be made with more than 25 types of agaves.
- Both Tequila and Mezcal have their Domination of Origin, but Mezcal must be made with 100% agave while Tequilas can be mixed up to 49% with other alcohols.
- Mezcal is bottled in Mexico. Most of the Tequila is bottled (and alcohol is added) outside of Mexico.
- Tequila can only have blue agave. Mezcal can be composed of a mixture of agaves (it can even be a mixture of 2 or more agaves that still result in 100% agave).
- Mezcal can have worms from the agave plant and YES, you can eat it!
- Mezcal is considered more of a “handmade” beverage, still produced by hundreds of small farmers in Oaxaca. Tequila belongs more to industrial-size plants and farms.
- Mezcal is more transparent on labeling. On a mezcal label, it is common to find the farmer, the town, the distillation date, the ground type, etc. Information is not generally provided for Tequila (just the alcohol content).
Mezcal was traditionally drunk together with an orange slice covered with worm salt. (In 1940, a mezcal distiller allegedly discovered that putting a worm, the larvae that live on agave plants, in the bottle gave his liquor a more desirable flavor. Today, you can still find that “worm,” a caterpillar, floating in some of the cheaper bottles). In recent years, bartenders have embraced Mezcal, both in their original cocktail recipes and in variations on classic concoctions like Oaxaca Old Fashioned and Mezcal Mary.
Tequila has long been known as the backbone of a classic margarita. While Mezcla is often confused with Tequila because both are from Mexico and made from agave plants, the similarities end there. They are made in different regions using different methodologies and have unique flavor profiles. It is traditionally consumed alone, but it is also making a name for itself in the artisanal cocktail world.