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Tequila vs. Mezcal: What is the Difference?

Ever wonder the difference between tequila and mezcal? Wonder no more - we've got the breakdown in this guide.

Taking a shot is bold, exhilarating and dehydrating. We’ll teach you to shoot tequila like a pro and then explore what else this great spirit offers.

If you’re like many people, you may have asked yourself or a group of friends, “what’s the difference between tequila and mezcal, anyway?” If this sounds familiar - you’re not alone. They’re both agave based spirits made in Mexico. So what’s the difference? There’s actually some pretty key differentiating factors. Here - we’ll break down what makes a mezcal and a tequila. So the next time you’re across the table from someone and they ask you what the difference is between these two spirits - you’re going to look like a mixology GENIUS.

What is mezcal?

Mezcal is defined as any agave-based liquor. Feels like it’s more complicated than that, but it really is that simple.

What is tequila?

Similar to how bourbon is a type of whiskey, tequila is a type of mezcal. To make tequila the blue agave plant is harvested, mashed and baked. The juice is extracted from the mash and fermented. After fermentation, the spirit is distilled (legally needs to be done twice) and then aged. For a little more knowledge on tequila or mezcal separately - read our guide to tequila and our guide to mezcal. For a mezcal to be defined as ‘tequila’ it needs to be made with blue agave (also called agave tequilana) in specific regions of Mexico.

How are tequila and mezcal the same?

These are both agave based liquors made from the harvested core of the agave plant (known as the piña). Both tequila and mezcal are also both aged in oak barrels.

What are the main differences between mezcal and tequila?

As we mentioned - all tequila is mezcal. Not all mezcal is tequila, though. There’s a few things that distinguish a tequila from mezcal: agave variety, region, distillation and naming convention.

AGAVE VARIETY

Mezcal can be made with more than 30 different varieties of agave. Espadín is the most popular type of agave used. Though production methods are the most impactful role in what the final spirit tastes like, using different agaves will give the mezcal a distinct flavor. Here’s a list of some popular agaves used to make mezcal.

Espadín: As we mentioned earlier, this is the most popular agave used to make mezcal. In fact, this agave plant accounts for almost 90% of mezcal production. So if you’re a mezcal fan - chances are you’re well acquainted with this agave. This agave is easy to grow and to break down after roasting, which makes it an ideal candidate for a mezcal mash.

Tobalá: this agave is found across southern Mexico, especially in Oaxaca and Puebla which are two large producers of mezcal. This variety is incredibly rare and takes anywhere between 10 and 15 years to mature. If you’re drinking a mezcal with Tobalá used, chances are it's quite an expensive bottle.

Cuishe: this varietal, along with several other agave varieties, is among the most commonly found in Oaxaca and Puebla. This agave plant is harvested wild rather than cultivated and takes 10 or more years to mature.

By law, tequila must be made with Tequilana Weber, also known as Blue Weber Agave. Blue agave was selected as tequila’s must have ingredient because of its high sugar concentration in comparison to other agave plants. Though the Blue Agave does give tequila a distinct flavor of spice and citrus, the aging process really sets apart each tequila. When aged in barrels made from American Oak, you’ll find the product to have more notes of caramel or vanilla. While if the tequila is aged in French oak you’ll notice flavors more like dry fruits.

REGION

Similar to a lot of things with mezcal and tequila - there’s a bit of overlap here. Tequila and mezcal come from different regions in Mexico, for the most part. Tequila is produced in five regions of Mexico: Jalisco (the most well known,) Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Michoacán. Mezcal on the other hand is made in nine regions of Mexico. The Oaxaca region produces most of it, though areas like Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Puebla are a few of the eight other regions.

DISTILLATION

As we said earlier, both tequila and mezcal are made from the piña of the agave plant. When making tequila, the piña is usually steamed inside industrial ovens and then distilled two or three times in copper pots. To make mezcal, the piña is roasted in a pit inside the earth. This is what gives mezcal its notable and beloved smokiness. After the piña is smoked, mezcal is distilled in clay pots.

NAMING CONVENTION

Mezcal and tequila's aging categories are similar, but unique. Tequila, for the most part, comes in five varieties: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo and extra añejo.

Blanco: also known as silver, blanco (‘white’ in spanish) tequila aged for zero to two months

Reposado: tequila aged between two and 12 months

Joven: ‘young’ in spanish, this is tequila that is a blend of blanco and reposado

Añejo: tequila aged between one to three years

Extra añejo: tequila aged for more than three years

Unlike tequila, aging isn’t super important for the production of mezcal. That said, the names of aged mezcals are similar to tequila. It comes in joven, reposado and anejo. The aging periods required for each of these styles is identical to tequila. Different from tequila however, a common form of aging for mezcal is called Madurado en Vidrio. This aging technique has the spirit rested in glass containers before release, and the term applies to any mezcal stored that way for at least 12 months. It’s unique to mezcal, as this process allows the liquor to mellow slowly without the evaporation (sometimes called angels share) that happens in oak barrels. It also avoids the mezcal from taking on any extra flavors, like it would when aged in oak.

In addition to mezcal having a name based on age, there are also different categories of mezcal that are defined by the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal. These categories are Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal and Mezcal Ancestral. Each category requires specific methods and equipment to be created.

Mezcal: the most well known and most industrial. Here, mezcal producers use high-tech equipment to make the spirit. For example, they may use stainless steel vessels for fermentation.

Mezcal Artesanal: this mezcal starts by cooking the piña in pits in the earth or brick ovens. It’s then fermented in pits made of stone, earth or tree trunk. When being distilled, it’s done with direct fire in copper pots.

Mezcal Ancestral: mezcal that is required to be made in the traditional process. With mezcal ancestral, the piña of the agave plant is roasted in pit ovens and fermentation is done in vessels like a wooden tank or a hollowed out stone. Distillation for mezcal ancestral is exclusive to clay or wood pots fueled by fire. Talk about authenticity.

Mezcal cocktails

Pineapple Mezcal

A blend of smoky and sweet - this cocktail combines mezcal with the freshness of pineapple and mint for the perfect tropical cocktail anytime of year.

Mezcal Antiguo Fashioned

A twist on a classic. For those who love the smoky taste of mezcal with the refined look of an Old Fashioned.

Mezcal Michelada

Who doesn’t love a michelada? If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a delicious combo of beer, lime juice and hot sauce, and it gets even better with a bit of mezcal.

Cranberry Mezcal-rita

You read that right. We promise, it’s a keeper.

Frozen Peach Chambord Mezcal Margarita

Pairs with sunny weather and drinks with friends.

Tequila cocktails

Tequila Sunrise

A classic. End of story.

Tequila Manhattan

A twist on an old favorite.

Mango Margarita

A combination we wouldn’t dare mess with.

Cilantro Jalapeño Infused Tequila

A little spice, a little zing. Add to whatever cocktail suits your fancy.

Tequila Old Fashioned

Another remix of an old favorite. Who doesn’t love a sequel (don’t actually answer that ok, WE KNOW).

Best selling mezcals on Drizly

Best selling tequilas on Drizly