Often described as tequila’s smoky-tasting cousin, mezcal is a unique type of alcoholic beverage that’s making waves in the global liquor industry.

Originally from Mexico, mezcal has recently experienced a huge surge in popularity, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.

In 2017, approximately 3 million liters of mezcal were exported to 60 different countries. Half of this quantity went to the United States (1).

Mezcal’s popularity is often attributed to the millennial generation’s enthusiasm for craft cocktail culture. It brings a new, exciting flavor profile to the well-established selection of spirits that have graced cocktail menus for generations.

This article provides an overview of mezcal, including how it differs from tequila and some ways to drink it.

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Mezcal is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from the cooked and fermented hearts, or piñas, of agave plants (2).

The word mezcal is rooted in the Aztec language and loosely translates to “oven-cooked agave.” This alludes to the production process agave undergoes as it’s transformed into this flavorful spirit.

Agave is a large, flowering succulent that thrives in the desert climates of Mexico and Southwestern parts of the United States. There are over 200 species of agave, but not all of them contain enough fermentable sugar to be made into mezcal (3).

Mezcal can be made from over 30 different types of agave, but the vast majority is made from a variety known as Agave espadin. This particular kind of agave is primarily grown in Oaxaca, Mexico, a region known as the home of mezcal (2).

Summary Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from cooked and fermented agave plants.

Mezcal and tequila are often confused for one another, as they’re both Mexican spirits made from similar ingredients. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not always tequila.

Although both spirits are made from agave, they differ in flavor, production methods, and origination.

Come from different regions

The vast majority of mezcal comes from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but it can be produced in any of the following regions (2):

  • Oaxaca
  • Durango
  • Guanajuato
  • San Luis Potosi
  • Tamaulipas
  • Michoacan
  • Puebla
  • Zacatecas
  • Guerrero

On the other hand, tequila has more limitations regarding where it may be produced. According to Mexican law, tequila can only be produced in these five regions of Mexico (4):

  • Jalisco
  • Nayarit
  • Guanajuato
  • Tamaulipas
  • Michoacan

Variations in climate can affect the flavor and quality of the final beverage. Thus, the products are unique, depending on where they’re from.

Made through different processes

Mezcal and tequila are made via distinct production methods.

Both spirits utilize a basic method of cooking, fermenting, and distilling agave hearts, but the similarities end there.

Tequila can only be made from blue agave plants. Mezcal can be made from any number of agave species, including the blue variety.

When making tequila, the hearts of blue agave are typically cooked in industrial, above-ground ovens or autoclaves before being fermented and distilled (4).

For mezcal, the traditional cooking process occurs in large underground pits lined with volcanic rock. This underground “oven” is fueled with burning wood and covered with dirt, allowing the agave hearts to smoke and bake until they’re ready for fermentation (2).

They have different flavors

Whether you consider yourself a connoisseur of Mexican spirits or just enjoy an occasional cocktail, you’ll likely agree that the most obvious difference between tequila and mezcal is the flavor.

Some flavor differences can be attributed to where each spirit is made and the climate in which the agave was grown. Their unique production processes and whether or not the liquor was aged also greatly influence the taste.

On the most basic level, tequila tends to have a smooth, sweet flavor, whereas mezcal is often described as savory and smoky. The smoky quality is usually attributed to the underground ovens used to cook the agave.

Summary There are several differences between mezcal and tequila, including taste and how and where they’re produced.

In Mexico, mezcal is traditionally consumed straight. It may be served with a pinch of chili salt and a slice of orange on the side to complement and enhance its natural flavor.

Mezcal aficionados insist this is the only way to truly enjoy and savor its full flavor.

However, in other countries, especially in the United States, mezcal is taking center stage as a craft cocktail ingredient. You’ll find it featured in trendy, innovative recipes, as well as in remixed versions of classics like old fashioned, margaritas, negronis, and palomas.

Whether you’re a traditionalist or brand new to the world of mezcal, you’re likely to find a preparation method that suits your taste. Just remember to drink responsibly.

Summary Traditionally, mezcal is consumed straight with chili salt and an orange slice. Modern craft cocktail culture utilizes this drink in a variety of classic and new recipes.

Mezcal is a distilled spirit that has recently experienced a sharp rise in popularity.

While it’s often confused with tequila because they’re both from Mexico and made from agave plants, the similarities end there. They are made in different regions using distinct methodologies and have unique flavor profiles.

It’s traditionally consumed on its own, but it’s also making a name for itself in the world of craft cocktails.