Have you ever heard the term mezcal (or mescal?) If you've ever found yourself wondering what a mezcal is, and how it's different than tequila, you're in the right place. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from agave that has been fermented and distilled, but there are some key differences. There are plenty of unique mezcal brands to try that each offers a distinct flavor.

What Is Mezcal?

mezcal in a shot glass

Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant. The word mezcal comes from the Aztec words "mexcalli metl ixcalli", which translate to "oven-cooked agave", which is a distinguishing factor when comparing mezcal to the other agave drink, tequila. Once the sugars are extracted from the agave heart, the collected liquid is fermented and distilled twice. The strong liquor is then aged in oak barrels to give it a broader depth of flavor.

Mezcal Versus Tequila

tequila bottle with agave plant

Since both drinks are made from fermented and distilled agave, you may think that they are too similar to tell apart. However, a few key differences in production and the type of agave used, make all the difference in the world. With these tips, you'll be able to tell a mezcal from a tequila with your eyes closed.

The Agave Plant

agave fields

The type of agave plant used to produce liquor is the first place to look when comparing tequila to mezcal. While there are over 30 species of agave in Mexico, only blue agave is used in tequila production. When making mezcal, you can use any species of agave, however, only seven species are predominantly used for mezcal. These different types of agave help to give mezcal a more complex flavor profile that allows producers to create signature flavors for their brand, while tequila is more one-dimensional.

The minimum amount of agave that must be used varies based on whether you're producing a mezcal or a tequila. A tequila must get at least 51% of its fermentable sugar from blue agave pinas, while mezcals must have at least 80% of their sugar coming from agave pinas.

Tequila And Mezcal Production

roasted agave pinas

In addition to different types of agave used, how the liquor itself is produced, is also a key differentiator. Both tequila and mezcal are created by harvesting the heart of the agave plant, called the pina. Once the pina is collected, the sugars must be extracted so they can be fermented.

In tequila production, the agave hearts are steamed to extract the amazing sugar inside. However, in mezcal production, the hearts are placed in a large pit that is lined with lava rocks. After a fire is built at the bottom of the pit, the pinas are added, and the top of the pit is blanketed in agave leaves and dirt. They are slowly roasted over the period of a few days before being removed from the pit and crushed to extract the juice. This gives the final product a range of smoky, earthy, and savory flavors.

After being distilled, the spirit can either be packaged as is, or aged in oak barrels for a few months to a few years. This optional aging is true for both tequila and mezcal.

Tequila And Mezcal Are Aged Differently

tequila barrel

Another way to tell the difference between mezcal and tequila is by how their labels distinguish their variety. Both tequila and mezcal are grouped by how long the undergo barrel aging. These groups are fresh, which undergo little-to-no barrel aging, a one-to-two year aging, or a three or more year aging process.

If you see a distilled or agave spirit labeled blanco, you have a tequila that has been not undergone any extensive aging. The fresh tequila may also be labeled silver or plato to distinguish is has undergone little-to-no barrel aging. A mezcal that has undergone a similar amount of aging is labeled joven, blanco, or abacado.

Tequilas and mezcals both use the term reposado for a spirit aged up to a year. They also use a similar term referred to as anejo for the liquor that has undergone extensive aging. The difference here is that for tequila, the term refers to a spirit that has been aged one-to-three years, while a mezcal anejo is simply aged for at least one year, and may be aged beyond three years.

Flavor Differences Between Tequila And Mezcal

pouring mezcal into shot glass

Due to the different production processes involved in making tequila and mezcal, there are some distinct flavor differences between the two as long as traditional production methods are used. Mezcal can be produced in such a way that makes it harder to distinguish from a tequila, but if common methods are followed, you should be able to taste the difference. Mezcal is known for having a smokey full-body flavor that tends to be a little sweeter than tequila.

Look For The Worm

tequila worm larva

Everybody knows about the worm. That little guy hanging out at the bottom of your bottle can help you determine the difference between a mezcal and a tequila, but first, a little trivia. The worm at the bottom of your liquor bottle is not a worm at all. It is an insect larva of a bug that feeds on agave. It doesn't really add anything to the final product and is more of a marketing ploy. Here's what you need to know about the worm in your bottle when it comes to determining whether the bottle you're holding is a mezcal or a tequila. A tequila will never have a worm in the bottle, so if there is a worm in the bottle, you have a mezcal.

Know Your Mezcal And Tequila Brands

tequila bottle

When figuring out what a mezcal is and what a tequila is, knowing a brand well enough can be all you need to know. This is because the Mexican government prohibits producers of tequila from brewing mezcal. In turn, mezcal producers may not create a tequila. So, if you know a brand for sure makes a mezcal, all of their other products will be mezcals.

5 Mezcal Brands You Must Try

bottle of mezcal

Thanks to its production process and loose agave species restrictions, it's easy for different mezcal brands to separate themselves on the store shelf. Mezcal falls into two types, according to the Mexican government. Type one consists of 100% agave as its fermentable sugar. All other mezcals fall under the type two designation which must consist of at least 80% sugar from the agave plant.

1. Del Maguey

del maguey mezcal

The Del Maguey brand offers both simple lower price point mezcals as well as high-end single estate mezcals. Be sure to try Del Maguey Vita, which is an amazing mixer, but also can stand alone when given the opportunity. If you're looking for a mezcal with more accolades, try the Del Maguey Chichicapa, which has balanced earthy and sweet notes. Del Maguey can be purchased in stores near Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado or online.

2. Neustra Soledad

This mezcal producer is known for some amazing 100% agave (type one) mezcals. The use a very traditional method when producing their mezcals and the results show in mezcals such as Nuestra Soledad San Baltazar, which has notes of bacon, smoke, and that iconic distilled agave grass flavor. San Baltazar can be purchased online.

3. Agave De Cortes

agave de cortes mezcal

This no bones about it mezcal producer creates a flavorful type one mezcal that is smokey, earthy, and sweet. As a bonus, it's rather affordable compared to some other brands despite selling some first-class quality liquor. You can order your own bottle of Agave De Cortes online here

4. Mezcal Amores

mezcal amores

This brand is more widely available than some of the others on this list, but don't let that fool you. Try out their Cupreata Joven which has notes of fried fruit, bananas, and woody smoke. Produced in a traditional earth oven and fermented in white pine vats, this complex mezcal will have you coming back for more. Check if Mezcal Amores is available near you.

5. El Silencio

el silencio mezcal

It's hard to miss these distinct labels that resemble script on a parchment stamp. They offer two Mezcals. The Joven which is peppery and spicy, and the espadin, which is a darker complex offering that has flavors of fig, sweet potatoes, and fruit. El Silencio mezcals can be purchased online

How Tequila And Mezcal Are Best Served

glass of tequila or mezcal

Now that you've gone to the liquor store and grabbed a few bottles of tequila and mezcal, it's important to know the best ways to serve each one. Tequila, because of its simpler flavor is more commonly used to create such iconic drinks as the tequila sunrise and the margarita, while mezcal is more commonly drank straight.

The next time you're on the hunt for some amazing fermented and distilled agave products, be sure to look out for some tequilas and mezcals. Put your new found knowledge to the test to see if you can tell the difference between a mezcal and a tequila, then pick up one of the brands above and take your taste buds on a journey.

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