Not just flavor.
Mezcal is gaining ground on tequila in American bars. While the two Mexican spirits are both made from agave, that’s where the similarities end. Here are the key differences between these two spirits.
All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas.
Tequila is a type of mezcal, much like how scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey. According to spirits writer John McEvoy, mezcal is defined as any agave-based liquor. This includes tequila, which is made in specific regions of Mexico and must be made from only blue agave (agave tequilana).
They're made with different kinds of agave.
Mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave. According to spirits writer Chris Tunstall, the most common varieties of agave used for mezcal are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño and espadín, which is the most common agave and accounts for up to 90% of mezcal.
They're produced in different regions.
While there is some geographical overlap, tequila and mezcal primarily come from different regions of Mexico. According to McEvoy, tequila is produced in five places: Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and Jalisco, which is where the actual town of Tequila is located.
Conversely, mezcal is produced in nine different areas of Mexico. The include include Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla and Oaxaca, which is where upwards of 85 percent of all mezcal is made.
They're distilled differently.
Both tequila and mezcal are made from the harvested core of the agave plant, otherwise known as the “piña.” However, that’s where the similarities in production end. Tequila is typically produced by steaming the agave inside industrial ovens before being distilled two or three times in copper pots. Mezcal, on the other hand, is cooked inside earthen pits that are lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal before being distilled in clay pots. While some large-scale mezcal producers have adopted modern methods, artisanal mezcal makers continue to use this more traditional method, which is the source of the smokiness commonly associated with mezcal.
They're labeled differently.
Once the distillation process is over, both tequila and mezcal are aged inside oak barrels. However, the different aging categories of the two spirits are defined slightly differently. For instance, tequila comes in three varieties: blanco (silver or plato/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (1-3 years). Mezcal is also grouped into three categories by age, including joven (blanco or abacado/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (at least one year).