Mezcal vs Tequila: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal? Tequila and mezcal are iconic spirits originated from Mexico. Both are known for their rich flavors and historical significance. While they share a common ingredient, the agave plant, these two beverages have distinct identities. 

Their differences encompass various aspects from production techniques to flavor nuances. In this post, we will journey through their histories, their unique production processes, the specific regions they come from and more.

History of Tequila and Mezcal

The legacies of tequila and mezcal are deeply intertwined with the culture and history of Mexico, tracing back centuries to the indigenous peoples of the region.

History of Mezcal

The word “mezcal” comes from the indigenous language Nahuatl, which translates to “cooked agave”. The production and consumption of mezcal dates back to pre-Hispanic times.

Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs revered mezcal for its spiritual properties and often used it in rituals and ceremonies. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they brought with them the knowledge of distillation. This significantly influenced and refined the production of mezcal.

History of Tequila

Tequila evolved from a beverage known as “pulque” which is a fermented drink made from the sap of agave plants. It all started in the area surrounding the town of Tequila (Jalisco).  It was also consumed before the Spanish arrived by the native Nahuatl-speaking peoples.

What we know today as tequila began with the introduction of distillation techniques from the Spanish in the 16 and 17th century. By the late 19th and early 20th century, tequila’s reputation had grown to become a symbol of national pride for Mexico.

Mezcal and tequila have faced their challenges over the centuries—from regulation hurdles to issues of authenticity and quality. But at the same time, their enduring presence and increasing global popularity are testaments to their cultural significance and the craftsmanship behind them.

Today, tequila and mezcal are not only appreciated as beverages but also celebrated as embodiments of Mexican heritage and tradition.

Harvesting: one of the process of Mezcal Production

How are Mezcal and Tequila Made?

The making of both tequila and mezcal is an intricate intertwine of tradition, time, and technique. Although they are both made from agave plants, their production and distillation processes account for some of their distinct characteristics.

How is Tequila Made?

  • Harvesting: the process begins with the ‘jimadores’, skilled farmers who harvest the blue agave plant after it has matured, usually between 6 to 10 years.
  • Cooking: the harvested agave ‘piñas’ (the heart of the plant) are then baked in large ovens. This cooking process converts the main sugar being fructose, into fermentable ones.
  • Mashing: after cooking, the piñas are crushed to extract the agave juice, which is then transferred to tanks for fermentation
  • Fermentation: over several days, natural yeast acts on the sugars and carbohydrates to turn them into alcohol.
  • Distillation: the fermented liquid is distilled twice (depending on the brand or type sometimes more) to produce tequila. The initial distillation is called ‘ordinario’, and the second one refines the spirit to the desired alcohol content.
  • Aging: tequila  must be matured in white oak barrels for at least two months for ‘Reposado’ and 12 months for ‘Añejo’. The duration of aging defines whether the tequila is categorized as blanco, reposado, añejo, or extra añejo.

How is Mezcal Made?

  • Harvesting: unlike tequila, which only uses blue agave, mezcal can be made from over 30 varieties of agave.
  • Cooking: the heart of the agave is roasted in underground pit ovens lined with lava rocks, wood, and charcoal. This adds the characteristic smoky flavor to mezcal.
  • Mashing: the roasted agave is then crushed, traditionally by a stone wheel turned by a horse.
  • Fermentation: fermentation is one of the few steps out of the control of human beings and is left to ferment in large wooden tanks.
  • Distillation: mezcal undergoes a double-distillation process. The first distillation is known as ‘ordinario’.
  • Aging: mezcal can also be aged, with the terms, reposado, and añejo indicating the duration of aging. If the mezcal is not aged, it is called ‘joven’.
Mashing: one of the process of Mezcal production

Finally, while both spirits share similar steps, the key differences lie in the types of agave used, the cooking method, and the distillation process. These distinctions give each spirit its unique flavor profile and characteristics.

Regions of Production: Where are Mezcal and Tequila Made?


For a spirit to gain the official title of ‘tequila’ it must be cultivated and processed within designated regions in Mexico. This geographical indication safeguards the spirit’s authenticity and also ensures its quality.

Where is Tequila Made?

The main tequila production areas include:

  • Jalisco: The heartland of tequila. The entire state is recognized for its production with the town of Tequila, its eponymous hub, at the core. The region’s volcanic soil and climate make it ideal for blue agave cultivation.
  • Nayarit: select municipalities within Nayarit have the distinction of producing tequila.
  • Tamaulipas: Only certain municipalities within this state are sanctioned to produce this iconic spirit
  • Michoacán: Its rich soils and climate conditions in specific areas are favorable for tequila production.
  • Guanajuato: certain municipalities have earned the privilege to produce tequila.

A view of a region with agave plants

Where is Mezcal Made?

Often regarded as tequila’s ancestor, mezcal boasts a wider geographical spread for its production. It can be produced in nine Mexican states, each bringing a unique touch to the table:

  • Oaxaca: the stronghold of mezcal. It accounts for approximately 85% of its total production. The diversity of agave species and artisanal methods make Oaxacan mezcal truly special.
  • Durango: This state is renowned for its wild agave varieties  which infuse a distinctive flavor to its mezcals.
  • Guanajuato: though traditionally recognized for its tequila production, in recent times, it has emerged as a new territory for mezcal introducing unique regional characteristic
  • Guerrero: an area important for its artisanal mezcals. It has carved a niche for its specialized variants.
  • San Luis Potosí: this state stands out for its unique pot stills and reliance on wild agave, making its mezcal flavor quite singular.
  • Tamaulipas: mezcals from this area are characterized by their lush, fruity undertones, setting them apart from others.
  • Zacatecas: historically a prominent mezcal producer.
  • Michoacán: the state’s volcanic terrains lend a distinct characteristic to the mezcal making it markedly different from its counterparts.
  • Puebla: a newer entrant in the official mezcal production map with its offerings as diverse and rich as any seasoned producer.

Each of these regions imparts its unique character to the spirit, the soil composition, climate, and local production methods influence in a unique way the final product. As with tequila, these geographical designations for mezcal help maintain the spirit’s integrity and cultural significance.

Agave Varieties: What Types of Agave Are Used?

The agave is a succulent plant native to semiarid and arid regions of America, mainly Mexico and the Caribbean and it’s the main ingredient of both tequila and mezcal.

 

The types of agave used, and the region in which they grow, influence greatly the flavor and characteristics of the spirits produced which also makes different types of mezcal.

The main difference comes in that tequila production is restricted to the use of a single variety of agave, the blue agave. This type of agave has a high sugar content which makes it ideal for fermentation and distillation. It typically matures in 6-10 years and grows predominantly in the Jalisco region and the other tequila producing areas mentioned above. 

Burros with agave piñas in the background

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from more than 30 different types of agave which means a full range of different types of mezcal, giving it a broader range of flavor profiles depending on the type used. 

Some of the most commonly used include:

  • Espadín: the most common variety used for mezcal, due to its faster growth and higher yield. It offers a balanced flavor profile and is widely cultivated.
  • Tobalá: a wild agave that grows in the rocky terrains of Oaxaca’s mountains. Mezcals made with this type of agave are often more delicate with fruity and floral notes.
  • Arroqueño: a larger agave, taking longer to mature. This agave provides a rich and sweet mezcal.
  • Tepextate: known for its long and slender leaves. This type of agave takes up to 25-30 years to mature. The resulting mezcal comes with a  complex floral and spicy notes.
  • Barril: native to Oaxaca, this type of mezcal produces a spicy and aromatic mezcal.
  • Madrecuixe: this agave variety adds herbaceous and citrus notes to the mezcal.

There are many other agave varieties used in mezcal production, each bringing its unique character and flavour. While Espadín is cultivated due to its adaptability and yield, many artisanal mezcal producers also create batches from wild agaves leading to unique and often limited-edition bottles.

While tequila’s flavor profile is honed by the blue agave’s unique properties, mezcal offers a wide spectrum of flavors due to the huge variety of agave types used in its production.

Tequila vs Mezcal: Calories

The caloric content of Tequila and Mezcal is almost identical, with both hovering around 97 calories for a 1.5-ounce shot. The key to keeping the calorie count low is to avoid mixers with high sugar content and to consume in moderation.

It’s important to note that the actual calorie count of these spirits might vary based on brand and production methods.

If you want more information about this topic, take a look to our post where we talk about calories and nutritional facts of mezcal.

Man on top of a mountain of mezcal piñas being roasted

Aging Process: How are Mezcal and Tequila Aged?

The process of aging spirits in wooden barrels allows them to develop complexity, mellowness, and additional flavors that aren’t present in spirits that aren’t unaged. That being said, the type of wood, the size of the barrel, the climate of the aging location, and the duration of the process influence the final product‘s taste and characteristics.

How is Tequila Aged?

Tequilas are mainly aged in oak barrels, imbuing the spirit with colors and flavors ranging from pale gold and light oak to rich amber and intense wood. 

According to the duration of the aging process, the production obtained varies:

  • Tequila Blanco (or Silver): unaged or aged for less than 2 months. It offers a pure expression of the agave’s flavor.
  • Tequila Joven (or Gold): typically a blend of Blanco and Reposado and sometimes has added coloring or flavoring agents.
  • Tequila Reposado: aged between 2 months to 1 year in oak barrels. The process imparts a golden hue and the beginnings of oak flavors.
  • Tequila Añejo: aged between 1 to 3 years resulting in a darker color and more pronounced oak, vanilla, and caramel flavors.
  • Tequila Extra Añejo: aged for over 3 years. It’s the darkest and richest in flavors and it often resembles a fine cognac or whiskey.

How is Mezcal Aged?

Mezcal can also be aged in barrels and the product obtained also varies according to the duration of the process:

  • Mezcal Joven: unaged or aged for less than 2 months. It’s clear and offers a pure expression of the agave and the characteristic smokiness.
  • Mezcal Reposado (or Madurado): aged between 2 months to 1 year in oak barrels. The aging adds subtle color and complexity to the smoky base.
  • Mezcal Añejo: aged between 1 to 12 years in barrels. The extended aging results in a deeper color and a melding of smoky and woody flavors.

While both tequila and mezcal can be aged, it’s essential to note that aging doesn’t make the spirit better or worse. Some enthusiasts prefer the pure, unaltered taste of a Blanco tequila or a Joven mezcal, while others savor the depth and complexity that comes with age. 

Flavor Profiles: How Do Mezcal and Tequila Differ?

Del Maguey Mezcal Vida de Muertos ready to be enjoyed

Depending on its aging and the type of production, tequila can exhibit a range of flavor profiles:

How Does Tequila Taste?

Depending on its aging and the type of production, tequila can exhibit a range of flavor profiles:

  • Tequila Blanco: bright, crisp, and clean. It showcases the purest form of the agave’s flavor with notes of citrus, pepper, and sometimes a hint of sweetness.
  • Tequila Joven: this blend can sometimes result in a slightly sweeter profile.
  • Tequila Reposado: with its time in oak barrels, Reposado tequilas takes flavors of vanilla, caramel, and honey to the fresh agave notes
  • Tequila Añejo: extended aging gives Añejo tequilas a richer, deeper profile, with pronounced notes of dried fruit, nuts and spices.
  • Tequila Extra Añejo: it can sometimes mirror fine aged whiskies or cognacs in their flavor depth, with the agave notes having notes of chocolate, tobacco and dark fruit.

How Does Mezcal Taste?

Mezcal’s flavor is heavily influenced by its production method and the type of agave used. For instance, Espadín often yields a balanced profile, while wild varieties like Tobalá can introduce flavors ranging from tropical fruit to a deep, earthy richness.

Some of these profiles are:

  • Mezcal Joven: raw and unabashedly smoky, they offer a burst of flavors that can range from fruity and floral to earthy and mineral.
  • Mezcal Reposado and Añejo: aging in oak barrels introduces softer, warmer notes to mezcal. The smoky base of mezcal combines with these flavors to produce profiles of smoked vanilla, charred fruit, and toasted spices.

Mezcal vs Tequila taste:

In the realm of Mexican spirits, the battle between Mezcal vs Tequila is as storied as it is flavorful. Mezcal entices with its earthy, smoky essence, reminiscent of its artisanal production methods deeply rooted in tradition. Meanwhile, tequila beckons with its crisp, agave-forward profile, crafted through meticulous processes that embody modernity. Delving into these iconic beverages unveils a journey of sensory exploration. From mezcal’s rustic allure to tequila’s vibrant character, each sip unveils a tale of cultural heritage and craftsmanship.

Mezcal Paloma Cocktail: one of the quintessential Mexican traditional drinks

How Do You Enjoy Mezcal and Tequila?

Tequila

  • Sipping: premium tequilas, especially the aged varieties are best enjoyed neat in a glass similar to a whiskey tumbler. This allows the complex flavors and aromas to be fully appreciated.
  • Shots: the most common way to consume tequila, often accompanied by salt and a slice of lime. This method doesn’t truly allow one to appreciate the spirit’s nuances. However, it remains a popular way to consume younger tequilas, especially in festive settings.
  • Cocktails: tequila forms the base for many beloved and famous cocktails for example the Margarita, Tequila Sunrise, Paloma, and the Matador.

Mezcal

  • Sipping: the finer mezcals are best enjoyed straight allowing for the appreciation of the smoky and varied flavors of the agave. When sipped, mezcal is often accompanied by slices of orange sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called “sal de gusano” (worm salt).
  • With Sangrita: a traditional way to enjoy mezcal in Mexico is with a chaser of sangrita, which is a spicy, sweet, and sour non-alcoholic drink typically made from tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, and spicy chili peppers.
  • Cocktails: mezcal’s smokiness has piqued the interest of bartenders and mixologists across the globe  leading to its incorporation in a range of cocktails. The Mezcal Margarita, for instance, replaces tequila with mezcal, offering a smoky twist.

Other drinks like the Mezcal Negroni or the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, showcase mezcal’s versatility and introduction in mixology.

Check out the most famous Mezcal cocktails recipes from our bartender at Del Maguey.

At the end, whether you’re sipping them straight, pairing them with traditional accompaniments or mixing them into fine cocktails, tequila and mezcal offer a vast spectrum of enjoyment and drinking variations. It all comes about personal preference and the occasion.

Conclusion

From their individual origins to their production methods, Mezcal and Tequila embody the essence of Mexican heritage and tradition, each telling a different story of agave’s profound versatility.

Through every sip of Mezcal and Tequila, we are not merely savoring spirits; we are taking part in a vibrant voyage of Mexican culture and craftsmanship. Whether pondering what’s the difference between tequila and mezcal or engaging in a spirited debate of tequila vs mezcal, these iconic beverages serve as conduits of Mexico’s rich history and flavorful legacy.