If you’ve ever enjoyed a margarita or a shot of tequila, then you’ve probably tried mezcal. Tequila is basically a type of mezcal, but there are some key differences between the two that make them worthy of their own category.
When it comes to tequila and mezcal, there are a lot of similarities. Both spirits are made from the same plant: agave. They’re distilled in similar ways and have very similar flavor profiles. But there are some key differences that set them apart.
Tequila is typically made only with blue weber agave, which has a milder flavor than other types of agave used for mezcal production. Tequila also gets its name from the region where it was first produced: Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.
Mezcal is made with either espadin or madrecuixe agave plants, which have more intense flavors than what you’ll find in tequila. Mezcal also has a wide variety of different types of mezcals based on how long they’ve been aged (mezcal blanco or joven), how much smoke was involved with distilling (mezcal reposado), and whether they’re made using pot stills or column stills (mezcal añejo).
Differences Between Mezcal and Tequila: The Denomination of Origin (DO)
The difference between tequila and mezcal is not just how each spirit is distilled, but also in the taste. While there are similarities between these spirits, they are distinct from one another, and there are several factors that contribute to this difference.
The Exclusivity of Tequila
Tequila is made from blue agave that is grown in one of four regions: Tequila, Los Altos de Jalisco, Highlands (Mountain) and Lowlands (Lowlands). The production of tequila follows rigid guidelines set by the Mexican government, including where the agave can be grown and how it must be harvested. The resulting liquid is then distilled with no additives or colorings to produce a clear liquor. Tequila must be bottled at 80 proof or lower before being sold in Mexico.
Less Strict Policies for Mezcal
Mezcal, on the other hand, can come from any agave plant—not just blue agave—and it doesn’t have to be bottled at 80 proof or lower before being sold in Mexico. The regulations for producing mezcal are less strict than those for tequila production because mezcal has been around longer than tequila.
The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal is All in the Agave
Tequila and mezcal are both made from agave plants, but the process for producing each one is very different. Tequila is made from blue agave plants, while mezcal can be made from many different types of agave plants, including the wild desert shrub called maguey.
Blue Agave Plant and Others Variations of Agave
In order to make tequila, the blue agave plant must have reached maturity and then be baked in an oven until its sugars caramelize. This can take up to six days! Then, the cooked pulp is crushed and fermented with yeast. After fermentation, distillation takes place in a pot still before being aged in oak barrels for at least two months.
To make mezcal, the agave plant must be harvested when it’s about 7 years old—this is called a “young” plant—and then roasted over an open flame until its sugars caramelize. After being roasted, it’s then crushed and fermented with yeast just like tequila. However, instead of aging in oak barrels for at least two months after distillation like tequila does, mezcal needs to age for at least a year before it can hit shelves or bars around the world.
Flavor Differences Between Tequila and Mezcal
But what exactly causes them to taste different?
To start, there’s the process of making mezcal. Like tequila, it’s made from blue agave, but instead of being cooked in vats at high temperatures to extract sugars, mezcal is roasted and crushed with millstones. The milled mash is fermented for up to three months in clay pots before being distilled twice in pot stills (the same kind used for Scotch whiskey).
The result is a spirit that has a smoky flavor much like Scotch whisky—but because it’s not aged in wood barrels, mezcal taste has more of a bite than its Scottish counterpart.
Tequila, on the other hand, is traditionally distilled only once and aged at least two months in oak barrels that are charred on the inside to give them a golden brown color—this aging process mellows out some of the harsher flavors while bringing out more sweetness and vanilla notes. It also adds color to tequila’s otherwise clear liquid appearance.
The Famous Mezcal and Tequila Worms
When it comes to mezcal, one of the main things that sets it apart from tequila is the worm—yes, you read that right. While true tequila does not contain a worm, many types of mezcal do include one as part of its production process.
The worm that you may see in some mezcal bottles isn’t actually a worm at all—it’s a larvae of the moth Hypopta agavis, which is native to Mexico and Central America. This larva lives inside the maguey plant during its entire life cycle and feeds on its juices as it develops. If you’re lucky enough to find one in your mezcal bottle, it’s said that it will bring good luck!
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), this doesn’t happen when making tequila—so if you see a worm in your tequila bottle, it’s just not safe to drink anymore!
So why do some mezcals have worms? Well, it turns out that they’re actually pretty useful—they help break down the sugars in the plant matter used to make mezcal into an alcohol-rich liquid that can then be distilled and bottled as a spirit.
The reason for this difference is that mezcal is traditionally made in smaller batches than tequila. The maguey worms don’t pose any health risks to humans, but they do contribute to flavor when they’re cooked into the mash before fermentation.
Olmeca Altos Tequila vs Mezcal
The taste of tequila and mezcal are very different. Tequila is often described as having a “spicy” flavor, while mezcal has a smoky flavor.
Olmeca Altos Tequila is an example of a tequila that has more of an earthy, smoky finish. It is made with 100% blue agave and aged in oak barrels. The result is a smooth, complex taste that pairs well with fruit juices or cocktails like margaritas.
Mezcal, on the other hand, is made from different types of agave plants and can be blended with other ingredients such as pine nuts and wild herbs to create unique flavors. Mezcal has been consumed for over 400 years in Mexico and is still popular today because it has been proven to have health benefits such as lowering cholesterol levels.