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Tequila vs. Mezcal - What's the Difference?

Which came first, the tequila or the mezcal? For most of us, the former, served up in a fishbowl sized margarita-- or in a plastic shot glass at some college frat party. For many, the journey with tequila starts out pretty rough (and pretty cheap), though when appreciated, can actually be quite a delightful experience.

With the rise of cocktail culture in America, both tequila and mezcal have found new claims to fame on bar shelves and cocktail lists alike; so what's the difference between the two? Actually, there are quite a few-- but once you get them down, understanding these two spirits is actually pretty simple. Follow our explainer below for all of the details on Mexico's two celebrated spirits.

Region:
 
Tequila and mezcal are both born in Mexico. However, tequila may only be produced in five designated regions: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, may be produced in nine designated regions: Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. The majority of tequila is made in the Jalisco region, while 85% of mezcal is made in Oaxaca.


Raw Material:
 
Technically, all tequilas are actually mezcals-- don't worry, this will make sense in a second. By law, tequila may only be produced from one type of agave, blue agave. Mezcal, however, can be produced from more than thirty different types of agave, one of which is blue agave. Most mezcals are produced with agave espadin, the most commonly found variety of agave in the Oaxaca region.

Process:
 
Raw materials aside, the process for making tequila and mezcal is pretty different. Both productions begin the same, starting with the agave harvest. Leaves are removed from the plant with a coa by the jimador (harvester), leaving just the plant's pina behind. For tequila, the pinas are then cooked in large, stainless steel ovens called autoclaves. Post-cooking, the agave is then shredded, fermented, and distilled in copper pots.

Mezcal production is arguably a bit more artisanal and goes a little something like this; as opposed to in autoclave, agave destined for mezcal gets cooked in an underground, cone-shaped pit, lined with volcanic rock, charcoal, and wood. Pinas are dropped into the pit and a fire is ignited, then covered with dirt. The underground pit cooks the pinas, giving them a smoky, caramelized texture. The agave is then fermented and distilled in clay pots.

Aging:
 
Post-distillation, tequila and mezcal are then aged in oak barrels, though with different aging/labeling categories. Tequila may be labeled as blanco (up to two months of age), reposado (2 months - one year of age), or anejo (1-3 years of age). Mezcal labelings are slightly different, going by joven, reposado, or anejo. Joven is the same as tequila's blanco (up to two months of age), reposado is the same, and anejo (for mezcal) requires minimum one year of age.

Flavor Profile: 

Because of mezcal's underground, firepit process, the spirit tends to have a more savory, smokier profile than that of tequila. Though bear in mind that the longer either spirit spends aging in barrel, the smoother, more refined of a flavor profile it will have.

Straight, Rocks, or Cocktails?:
 
Both mezcal and tequila make for fine solo sippers, though both are also solid additions to a plethora of cocktail creations. Popular tequila cocktails include the tequila sunrise, the paloma, and of course, the margarita. Experiment with swapping out tequila for mezcal for a smokier, more robust twist on your favorite tequila-based drinks.
Cost:
 
As with any wine or spirit, tequila and mezcal can be found in prices ranges all over the spectrum. Due to its more industrial production method, it is generally easier to find less expensive tequila than it is mezcal, though we don't entirely recommend going for the lowest rung on the ladder-- that is, unless you're looking for a hangover reminiscent of your college party days. Stick with a price range that you feel comfortable with, grab a bottle of each, and get to tasting, comparing, and contrasting! You'll be a Mexican spirits master in no time.