Mezcal and Tequila: The Facts You Need to Know
A mistake many in the beverage industry make is that of confusing tequila and mezcal, two types of alcoholic spirits that are made from cactus plants in Mexico. Some will claim that mezcal is a stronger, more potent version of tequila. However, tequila and mezcal, while both are indeed made from agave cactus hearts, they are made from two very different types of agave cactus that give very distinct flavours and aromas that cannot be confused once tasted.
Mezcal has its origins in a very old pre-Hispanic fermented drink called pulque, which was made from the juices of the roasted maguey agave cactus, which grows primarily in the Mexican state of Oaxaca but also grows in the semi-arid regions of Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luís Potosí, and Tamaulipas. After the Spanish Conquest of the area, colonists discovered that the maguey heart mash could be distilled into a very potent liquor.
Mezcal has changed very little over the centuries; even in present-day distilleries mezcal is only distilled once and the only major change has been the addition of the iconic “worms” in the bottles which occurred in the 1940’s as a possible marketing ploy. While the rumour exists that the worms, which are actually moth larvae, contain mescaline, this is nonsense. The larvae, which may or may not add flavour to the alcohol, do not contain any hallucinogenic substances at all.
Mezcal is very smoky, and to some first-time drinkers, it is disagreeable. Mezcal has a flavour which is very strong and generally will not mix well in cocktails; therefore, mezcal is traditionally taken “neat”, with no ice, water or other liquid added to it. The most traditional or “authentic” way to drink mezcal is to sip it slowly from a shot glass, after first placing a pinch of sal de gusano on one’s lips. Sal de gusano is the fried larvae, ground into a powder, mixed with chillies and salt with some fresh lime squeezed over it.
Mezcal is generally mass produced, but according to Mexican laws governing the name mezcal, a product sold as “mezcal” must contain at least 60% distilled maguey spirits. Some producers sell flavoured mezcal; however mezcal purists and aficionados claim that unadulterated, 100% distilled maguey spirits are best.
The best mezcal, according to some experts, is one that has been distilled at someone’s home or in a micro-distillery. While these are not available on the market, if one gets the chance to visit Oaxaca, the opportunity to taste a smooth, home-made mezcal should not be missed. However, there are very good mezcals with relative degrees of smoothness to be enjoyed. A person who wishes to try mezcal should look for an añejado or aged mezcal which has been aged for at least three years and is 100% pure maguey agave-based.
Tequila, the more famous of the two spirits, is one of the most well-known and beloved drinks in the world. Made from the highly unique blue agave cactus, it is distilled twice, unlike mezcal which is only distilled once. Mass production of tequila began in 1608, and Mexico has since claimed exclusive right to use the word “tequila” internationally.
Tequila made from blue agave harvested in the highlands surrounding the city of Tequila in Jalisco state is considered to be of the highest quality; the spirits produced will be sweeter and fruitier in taste and aroma. Tequila from other regions such as Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas will have an herbal, earthy smell and flavour.
While mezcal is rumoured to be “stronger” in alcoholic content than tequila, in reality both are about the same when it comes to potency; tequila often has an alcohol content of 38 to 40 percent, which translates to 76-80 proof, but can come in a stronger version with an alcohol content up to 55 percent, which roughly translates to 110 proof. Mezcal is also available in the exact same potencies.
Tequila seems to be a bit more regulated than mezcal, and comes in two basic categories; mixtos which must contain at least 51% blue agave and some sort of sweetener such as sugar making up the remainder, and 100% pure agave. After, tequila is then sorted into five groups; blanco or plata meaning white or silver and signifies the tequila is unaged, bottled immediately after the distilling process; joven or oro meaning young or gold, and is the term used when blanco tequila is mixed with reposado tequila; reposado or rested, and is for tequila that has been stored in oak barrels for over two months but less than a year; añejo or vintage, aged for more than a year but less than three years in oak barrels; and extra añejo or extra vintage, which is the designation for a tequila that has been aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
With 100% agave tequilas, the more they are aged, the smoother and more complex they will become; however the flavour that most characterizes tequila is that of agave and makes tequila a more complex spirit than other distilled spirits available on the market.
A bottle of tequila, unlike some mezcal products, should never contain a worm, and furthermore, unlike mezcal which can only be drunk “neat”, tequila, while delicious by itself with no mixers added, can also be an ideal mixing drink and is actually the base ingredient for two of the world’s most famous cocktails, the margarita and the tequila sunrise.
When it comes to spirits, Mexico produces two which are among the world’s most highly rated. Mezcal and tequila, although both are Mexican and both are made from agave cactus, are separate entities with their own qualities but are both equally delicious.