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Mezcal vs. Tequila: What's the Difference?

If you’ve recently ordered a margarita at a cocktail bar from Mexico City to New York, you might have been asked if you’d like it with mezcal or tequila. Even if you haven’t been faced with the choice between the two, you might still be wondering: What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila?

Although both are made from the agave plant, there are some important differences between mezcal and tequila that you should know about. Most notably, all tequilas are a type of mezcal, but not all mezcal is a type of tequila. It’s kind of like how scotch and bourbon are both types of whiskey.

If you want to know more, check out this article for a close look at both liquors and some answers to important questions that will have you ordering your next margarita like an expert.

What Is Mezcal?

Mezcal is a Mexican liquor made from the agave plant. There are over 50 different types of agave that are used to make mezcal. The most common types of agave used to make mezcal are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño, and espadín. The vast majority of mezcal is made from espadín agave.

Mezcal is broken into three different categories based on how long it has been aged. Joven mezcal, also known as blanco or abacado mezcal, is aged from 0-2 months. Reposado mezcal is aged anywhere from 2 months to a year, and añejo mezcal is aged for a least a year. Although it is not always the case, generally, the older mezcal is, the more expensive it will be.

Where Is Mezcal Made?

There are nine different areas in Mexico where mezcal is made. These regions include:

  • Durango
  • Guanajuato
  • Guerrero
  • San Luis Potosi
  • Tamaulipas
  • Zacatecas
  • Michoacán
  • Puebla
  • Oaxaca

Although mezcal is made in all nine of these areas, around 85% of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca, a state in southwestern Mexico.

How Is Mezcal Made?

Once the core of the agave plant, also known as the piña, is harvested, it is cooked inside earthen pits. These pits are lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal. All of these elements in the distillation process give mezcal its distinctive flavor. After the piñas are cooked, they are distilled in clay pots.

What Does Mezcal Taste Like?

Mezcal is known for its distinctive, smoky flavor. The strength of the flavor varies greatly from one type of mezcal to another. Where the agave used to make mezcal is grown and under what conditions is what allows for this wide variety of flavors. Once you get past the smoke, mezcal also has lasting sweet and rich notes.

What Cocktails Can You Make With Mezcal?

There are several cocktails you can make with mezcal, depending on the flavor profile you’re looking for. A few of our favorites are:

  • Mezcal Margarita: If you’re looking to spice up your margarita with a smoky twist, try substituting mezcal for tequila in this summertime classic.
  • Mezcal Negroni: You can also swap mezcal for gin in this classic cocktail. The rich, smoky flavor of the mezcal will pair nicely with the Campari and sweet vermouth for an exciting, delicious cocktail.
  • Mezcal Paloma: Who said tequila is the only liquor that goes with grapefruit? If you’re looking for a stronger flavor in this classic Mexican cocktail, try replacing the tequila with mezcal.

What Is Tequila?

Tequila is considered a type of mezcal because it is also made from agave. However, unlike mezcal which can be made from a range of agave plants, tequila must be made from blue agave.

The age categories used to define tequila are similar to the mezcal age categories, but the aging periods are different.

  • Blanco tequila, also known as silver or plato tequila, is aged for 0-2 months.
  • Reposado tequila is aged anywhere from 2-12 months, and añejo tequila is aged from 1-3 years.

Where Is Tequila Made?

Tequila is made in five different geographical regions of Mexico. These regions include Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco. If you’re looking to visit the actual town of Tequila, you’ll need to head to Jalisco.

How Is Tequila Made?

Although tequila and mezcal are both made from agave, the distillation process looks very different for each of these spirits. To make tequila, agave is steamed inside industrial ovens. From there, it is distilled two or three times in copper pots.

What Does Tequila Taste Like?

The taste of tequila really depends on the age of the bottle you’re drinking.

Blanco tequila is unaged and completely clear. It has a sharp, agave-forward flavor which may be brightened by notes of citrus and pepper. Slightly older reposado tequila is smoother due to the aging and may have notes of oak, vanilla, and caramel. By far the warmest tequila out there is tequila añejo.

Añejo tequila is usually aged in oak barrels. This aging process gives it a rich, round flavor with notes of vanilla and cinnamon. Given that it is aged and usually more expensive, it is more common to sip añejo tequila straight rather than mix it in cocktails.

What Cocktails Can You Make With Tequila?

Everyone knows that tequila makes an amazing base for cocktails. Regardless of if you’re looking for something simple and classic or a little more exciting, a tequila cocktail always hits the spot. We love to make:

  • Margarita: Can you really go wrong with a classic? All you need for the perfect margarita on the rocks is lime, tequila, and Cointreau.
  • Paloma: Arguable the national cocktail of Mexico, a simple Paloma is perfect for a hot summer's day. Simply mix grapefruit soda and tequila and enjoy!
  • Tequila Sunrise: This colorful drink is always a crowd-pleaser. Made with tequila, orange juice, and grenadine, the layers of this drink will remind you of your favorite sunrise, no matter where you are.

Mezcal vs. Tequila: Is One “Better” Than the Other?

Now that you know a bit more about mezcal and tequila, you might be wondering which one is better. Unfortunately, we can’t pick a favorite!

If you like a smokier, richer flavor, then mezcal may be the spirit for you. If you want something a bit brighter with a little more bite, you may want to whip up a tequila cocktail. Regardless of your spirit of choice, we have a few pro tips to help you enjoy mezcal, tequila, or both!

Pro Tip: Add a Splash of Tepache to Your Mezcal or Tequila

If you want to liven up a glass of mezcal or tequila, try throwing in a splash of tepache. Tepache is a traditional Mexican beverage made from fermented pineapples. The slight carbonation and subtle flavor of this fermented beverage make it the perfect addition to cocktails.


We suggest adding Ginger Manzana, Pineapple Spice, or Mango Chili to your mezcal to compliment the warm, smoky flavors with a fruity twist. If you’re looking for a good compliment to your tequila, we’d recommend adding the Watermelon Jalapeño, Grapefruit Lime, or Cactus Prickly Pear tepache to your drink.

But of course, these are only suggestions! Feel free to mix and match your spirits with our tepache to find the perfect flavor combination.

Pro Tip: Opt for High-Quality Spirits Whenever You Can

Although we can’t tell you if mezcal or tequila is tastier, we can tell you that the higher quality it is, the better it will taste, regardless of which spirit you opt for. The sharp, acidic flavor often associated with tequila and mezcal is the result of cheap distillation. If you can, try a higher quality spirit to really savor the agave flavor.

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Conclusion

Mezcal is a smoky, sweet liquor made in Mexico from the agave plant. Tequila is a specific type of mezcal made from blue agave with a sharper, more citrusy flavor.

Although both spirits are made from agave, the distillation process is slightly different. The agave used to make mezcal is cooked in earthen pits and distilled in oak barrels, whereas the agave used to make tequila is steamed in ovens and distilled in copper pots.

Regardless of which spirit you choose, we recommend that you buy higher-quality liquor to properly enjoy the agave flavor when possible. Oftentimes, the older the spirit, the less bitter and more round it will be.

Although there is no way to say which is the better one of these two delicious spirits, we do know that both taste fantastic with tepache. If you are looking to spice up any classic tequila cocktail, you can add mezcal and tepache for a tropical, smoky twist. If you want to keep things classic, you can mix tequila and tepache for a bubbly, refreshing drink.

Sources:

Effects of agave nectar versus sucrose on weight gain, adiposity, blood glucose, insulin, and lipid responses in mice | NIH

Consumption of grapefruit is associated with higher nutrient intakes and diet quality among adults, and more favorable anthropometrics in women, NHANES 2003–2008 - PMC - NIH

Anticancer Activity of Key Lime, Citrus aurantifolia | NIH

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