Mezcal and Tequila are both made from agave plants and give you a taste of Mexico’s spiritual history – but the similarities stop there. Mezcal is made from wild agaves– or magueys–roasted under stone and dirt, and fermented in clay pots or copper stills, making it an incredibly artisanal field, unlike the modernized Tequila production.
Mezcal is making a bold statement on the international scene with its explosive smoky flavor and handcrafted process. In some circles, mezcal is even gaining more popularity than its smooth-friend tequila – and it’s becoming more expensive, too.
You’ll increasingly find Mezcal on the top shelf in restaurants and cocktail bars as it rises as the ‘next big trend’, particularly in the States. Serious interest is being copied by large international brands, as seen when Pernod Ricard bought Del Maguey in 2017.
Yet unlike tequila, Mezcal is still primarily produced by small families–sometimes fifth or sixth-generation distillers–using handed-down, century-old techniques and knowledge. Mezcal traces its history back some 500 years, making it one of the oldest distilled spirits in the Americas. It is one of the rare spirits that still largely incorporates the same 16th-century techniques, making it one of the most unique and handcrafted spirits you can buy today.
Like different wine labels and vintages, each brand and batch of mezcal can also have different tastes, sometimes even within the same barrel. It has been Mexico’s best kept secret, primarily because most mezcal production is so small that it never leaves the borders of the town they were made in. It’s not uncommon to see numbered bottles from batches of just 60–100L.
The word mezcal comes from the combination of two Nahuatl words–metl, meaning maguey, or agave, and ixcalli, meaning cooked or baked. Mezcal has played a role in indigenous ceremonies and events for centuries, from births to funerals, weddings and spiritual encounters, although today there are no restrictions on who can drink it.
As the Mexican (rhyming) quote suggests, today it is widely enjoyed by everyone, any time:
“Para todo mal, mezcal.
Para todo bien, también.”
For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, as well.
While tequila can only be made from one type of agave plant (Blue Weber), mezcal can be made from some 30 agave varieties, even combining agaves in the same brew. Mezcal can also be made using blue agave, which Del Maguey proved with its release of San Luis Rio Azul, but it shouldn’t be the predominant ingredient – otherwise, it’s really just tequila.
This leads to the argument that tequila is in fact a sub-set of mezcal, the latter being the umbrella term to describe any distilled agave drink.
Mezcal traditionally has a very unique, smoky flavor that makes it fairly easy to distinguish from tequila. It also tends to have sweeter, or richer, notes than tequila. Although as demand grows, some mezcal producers have switched to production processes like tequila, and the resulting mezcal has an equally smooth flavor profile as tequila. In any case, Mezcal is growing a cultish following outside of Mexico that will continue to shape this artisanal Mexican drink.
Mezcal Vs Tequila: What’s The Difference?
The Tequila versus Mezcal debate is a common one in Mexico, and not without reason. While many associate the two as being relatively similar, mezcal tastes very different to tequila, due to an underground smoking process during mezcal’s production. Tequila is more like mezcal’s clean-cut cousin, the one you invite to dinner because it’s reliable, while mezcal’s having a creative, unpredictable outburst in the corner.
The term ‘mezcal’ generally refers to any distilled agave-based liquor, which leads many to argue that tequila is actually a sub-set of mezcal, like how scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey. According to this definition, tequila would be a type of mezcal–but not the other way around because of Tequila laws. In fact, Tequila’s longer name was once ‘vino de mezcal de tequila’ (mezcal wine of tequila).
You can be guaranteed that mezcal is always 100% agave, while law allows tequila to require only a minimum of 51% in agave sugars (although premium 100% tequilas do exist). Mezcal can also be made from a number of agave types (so far, 30+ are used), while tequila can only use one type (the blue agave). This makes the world of mezcal incredibly artensal and experimental, where even bottles in the same batche can have different flavors, versus tequila’s consistent flavor from its more restricted and modernized production.
Most of what gets exported is distilled with water to soften the proof for American or European taste. But this can also tame the wilder flavor, so trying traditional mezcal straight from the barrel is an experience. Mezcals can easily reach 60-80 percent alcohol, with hits of vegetal, spicy, and aromatic flavors for the diehard fans. Thanks to specialized mezcalerias, today it is possible to try ultra-traditional spirits from small prodcers that might otherwise never be bottled. In Oxaca, head to the Mezcaloteca, In Situ, La Porfiria, Los Amantes or Pitiona, or go directly to a mezcal farm!
What Does Mezcal Taste Like?
Mezcal is distinguished by its robust smoky flavor. Your first sip might be overpowered by an alcoholic vapour or cheesy or meaty flavor. But a seasoned drinker will draw out the hints of smoke and layers of flavor, making mezcal a delight for tasting.
The flavor profile of Mezcal is varied and difficult to pinpoint in a few adjectives; it changes with the species of agave used, the altitude of where the agave grew, the fruits or herbs added during fermentation, and the distillation process employed. You can find Mezcal subtypes tacking on adjectives such as pechuga, blanco, minero (from Santa Catarina Mina), cedrón, creme (creamy mezcal).
‘Pechuga’ mezcal, for example, is created from distilling mezcal with chicken, duck or turkey breast, with cloves, cinnamon and other spices, and fruits like apple, plums, pineapple and red bananas. The majority of mezcals, however, are untouched to focus solely on the unique smoky flavors of the agave.
Still, Mezcal can have dominating smoky flavors, to almost smokeless flavors featuring strong organic notes. In general, you will identify flavor profiles that are earthy, sweet, multi-layered, raw, mineral. The surprise is that the flavors are smoothly refined and sophisticated, while retaining rich and vivid backnotes that vary widly from bottle to bottle.
You won’t find many authentic producers that add a worm during the bottling stage–actually, caterpillar-like larva of a moth that infests the agaves–but a ‘gusano’ isn’t prohibited by law, unlike for tequila. The source of the worm trend is conflicting; whether it started from marketing, a sign that the mezcal was fit to drink, or to impart flavor, no-one is sure.
What Is Considered ‘Real’ Mezcal?
Certification for mezcal is more in flux and less restricted than tequila, but production is somewhat regulated by the Mexican government. Despite the name and popular belief, mezcal does not contain mescaline or any other psychedelic substance.
Both tequila and mezcal have been listed with DO or AO status (denomination of origin or Appellation of Origin), like Champagne and Prosciutto, plus Geographical Indication (GI), which means that the territory of production influences the product. Those outside these regions must label their bottles as ‘distilled agave’ or destilado de agave.
Mezcal is made in nine specific regions of Mexico:
- San Luis Potosi
Oaxaca is the center of the mezcal world, where about 85 percent of mezcal is made. Three states overlap, where both tequila and mezcal are produced.
In reality, both mezcal and tequila have been made across Mexico for years, and the regulations have been somewhat controversial. On one hand, the high cost of certification is prohibitive for small artisanal producers who can’t afford it, even within the allocated Mezcal states. On the other hand, traditional Mezcal producers outside the chosen states were eliminated from the ‘authentic mezcal’ market. Such producers are no longer permitted to call their product Mezcal nor list the varieties of agave used; instead you see it labelled as Komil, a Nahautl word for intoxicating drink.
In Mexico, mezcal is regulated under Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), by the industry body COMERCAM (Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal, or Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality).
Inside Mexico, you’ll see many top-shelf Mezcals that you’ve never heard of abroad. The market is made up of hundreds of small producers of which are rarely big enough to go abroad, but this is changing as demand increases for premium brands and a wider variety of Mezcal flavors.
What Is Mezcal Made From?
Mezcal consumption was once restricted to special occasions and the ruling classes. The agave plant was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Spanish Mexico, holding an esteemed position in religious rituals, mythology and economy. The origin of mezcal is cloaked in myth and legend, reportedly the result of a lightning bolt hitting an agave plant, cooking and opening it to release its juice. It is known as the ‘elixir of the gods’, and was often produced into an aguardiente–translated as ‘fiery water,’ meaning a crude distillation process.
Today Mezcal is made from around 30 species of agave, although more than 200 subspecies of the agavaceae family exist.
Agave plants take an average of seven to 15 years to grow, with some taking up to 30 or 40 years, depending on whether the species is cultivated or wild. Realistically, there is no regulated list of which agave can be used, provided it is not made with the primary material of any other DO product, so mezcal cannot be purely blue agave, which is Tequila.
Mezcal is predominately made using the Agave Espadin, although small producers are pushing a range of other varieties to the top of the list, such as the wild agaves of tobalá, madrecuixe, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño (Agave Americana), karwinskill and rodacantha.
The Agave espadin–‘smallsword’– is easier and quicker to grow, although it still takes eight to 12 years to mature. It is the most prevalent agave found in Oaxaca, where the majority of mezcal is produced. Which agave is used is largely influenced by which ones grow best in the area. For example, in Michoacan you can easily find Mezcals using Americana, Inaqidens and Cupreata agaves.
Common agaves used to make Mezcal:
- Espadín: this is the most common agave used, accounting for around 80–90 percent of mezcal production.
- Tobalá: a rare and wild agave that makes some of the most sought-after Mezcals.
- Tobaziche: also harvested from the wild, making savory and herbaceous mezcal.
- Tepeztate: taking up to 30 years to reach maturity, the only way to respect it is to drink it neat.
- Arroqueño: look for flavor profiles of floral, vegetal, spicy and bitter chocolate notes.
- Jabali: a rare agave that is difficult to work with, making these Mezcals hard to find. The complex is complex, wile and sometimes with caramel notes.
Because of the effect of the terrain on agave taste and the wide variety used, there are is no set flavor profile associated with mezcal. Mezcals made from espadin, the most common type of mezcal, you can generally expect sweet, long flavors, accompanied by a smoky depth, as espadin tends to absorb more smoke from the roasting process than other agaves. Other Mezcals are light and fruity, with only hints of smokey flavors.
Is The Agave Shortage Real?
Agaves are slow-growing plants, if you compare it to a plant like corn or grain that grows back every year. Instead, it takes about seven to 10 years for ‘quick-growing’ agaves, like the blue agave and espadin, while other can take upwards of 30 to 40 years.
Without proper planning, the industry fluctuates in vicious circles; mass supply drives down prices and causes farmers to switch crops, only to eventually result in an agave shortage that drives up prices and brings back farmers. With current demand increasing, the shortage could become real in the short-term – and Mezcal prices will likely shoot up in protest.
For an idea of production, it takes around 11 pounds (5kg) of agave to make one bottle of tequila, and an average blue agave weights around 110 pounds (50kg).