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What is the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

You’re at your local watering hole, examining the spirit-lined walls while your bartender works on your signature drink, and a name catches your eye—mezcal. 

Mezcal is having a moment. Mixologists are using the liquor’s signature smokiness—and nuanced floral, woody, fruity, or spicy undertones—to put a fresh spin on classic handcrafted cocktails like margaritas, mojitos, and martini variants. 

But, what is the difference between mezcal and tequila? Are they interchangeable? 

In this article, we’re going to compare the two liquors, discussing their origins, their botanical ingredients, the ever-mysterious worm (if you have yet to see the worm, we’ll clue you in), and some downright delicious cocktail ideas for each one. 

Let’s demystify mezcal. 

Mezcal and Tequila: Like Rectangles and Squares

If we return (only briefly) to geometry class, we can find a suitable metaphor for the difference between mezcal and tequila—rectangles and squares:

  • Squares have four sides of equal length connected by four 90-degree angles. 
  • Rectangles have four sides connected by four 90-degree angles, but the side lengths don’t have to be equal. 
  • Thus, all squares are rectangles—they have four sides connected by four 90-degree angles—but not all rectangles are squares. They’re not interchangeable, but they have similar parameters.

Tequilas are to squares as mezcals are to rectangles—all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Tequila is a type of mezcal.1 

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How They’re Made

The production process for each agave based liquor provides it with its unique flavors. All mezcals (tequila included) are made from some variety of the agave plant—called maguey in Mexico—but “agave” is a genus containing numerous plant varieties. Mezcals can be made from any variety of agave, but tequilas are only made from the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana). 

Another helpful metaphor is, perhaps, sparkling wine and champagne. While champagne is a sparkling—or carbonated—wine, champagne must be produced in a specific region of France to be classified as such. Mezcal and tequila also come from different regions and locales. 

More than 85% of the world’s mezcal is produced in nine different Mexican regions:

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

But, there is some overlap. You’ll generally find major tequila operations in one of five Mexican locales—Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. 

Aging Process

Let’s explore a similarity—aging. What's the difference between aging mezcal vs tequila? Distillers age both mezcal and tequila in oak barrels after distillation, but the aging classifications are slightly different for each.

Tequila

There are three aging categorizations for tequila:

  • Blanco (also called silver tequila or plato), aged for two months or less
  • Reposado, aged between two and twelve months
  • Añejo, aged between one and three years

While tequila and mezcal are confused with each other, often times so are the types of tequila. Whether that’s the difference between reposado vs blanco or blanco vs anejo, each tequila is unique on its own.

Mezcal

Mezcals also fall into one of three aging categories, but the timelines are slightly different from tequila’s:

  • Joven (also called blanco or abocado), aged two months or less
  • Reposado, aged for two to twelve months
  • Añejo, aged at least one year

Aging time alters both the color and flavor of mezcals and tequilas. How old is the ideal tequila or mezcal? If you ask your local mixologist, get ready for a TED Talk. 

Farmer on horse riding through an blue agave field

Botanicals and the Distillation Process

So, the main difference between mezcal vs tequila is botanical. While all mezcals are made from varieties of the agave plant, tequila is specifically made with blue agave only. 

But, all agaves—blue agave included—have a similar physical structure. The most important part of the agave plant (in the context of liquor-making) is the broad, leafy section closest to the soil, where the leaves connect to the piña.2

The piña is the core of the agave plant, and once agave farmers cut all of the leaves away from the piña, the distillation process can begin:

  • Distillers bake, steam, or caramelize the piñas.
  • They extract the juice from the cooked product.
  • The juice, sugar, and yeast ferment in a tank, where yeast converts sugar into alcohol.
  • The mixture is distilled at least once, aged (in some cases), and bottled.

While the basic process above is the same for both mezcal- and tequila-making, there are a few significant variations on the process:3

  • Cooking method – Different distillers use different cooking methods to achieve different flavor profiles, reduce cost, maintain cultural integrity, and speed up the process. Tequila-makers often cook the piñas by steaming them in autoclaves or baking them in clay pots. Mezcal-makers can do the same, but many opt to caramelize the piñas in pits lined with lava rocks and charcoal to produce mezcal’s signature flavor.

  • Instruments – Different cooking methods require different tools. While tequila- and mezcal-makers of yore used clay pots and pit furnaces, modern distillers don’t all use these traditional processes. Stainless steel cooking pots, sophisticated steaming equipment, and pressure cookers may optimize a distillery’s production timelines, but non-traditional tools certainly impact flavor. 

  • Yeasts – Like bread-making, mezcal- and tequila-making require yeast. Yeast is a living organism, and fermentation is simply a byproduct of yeast keeping itself alive. Yeast eats sugars for energy and releases alcohol as a waste product, conveniently converting sugars into intoxicants.4 But, different distillers use different yeasts—commercially-manufactured yeast, wild yeasts native to Mexico, or distiller-created yeasts are just a few options available to producers.
  • Nuances in agave species, cooking methods, materials, ingredients, and aging timelines make each brand and variety of mezcal or tequila completely unique. With so many options, distillers are quite unlikely to produce the same batch as their neighbors.

    A bottle of mezcal

    Wait…Is That a Worm?

    If you squint closely at your local bar’s wall of spirits, you might just discover a potentially stomach-turning surprise—a worm preserved in the bottom of a liquor bottle. 

    While you certainly won’t find them in every bottle of mezcal you encounter, they do have a special place in the history of Mexican distilling. Here’s the run-down on the infamous worm:2

    • Proof of booziness – In the early days of mezcal distribution, distillers would place a worm in the bottle after distilling and aging were complete. If the mezcal had a high enough alcohol content, the worm’s corpse would remain preserved, giving mezcal-buyers confidence that their liquor of choice would intoxicate them. 
    • Why worms? – Worms are an agave plant’s worst enemy. Feeding off of the plant and decreasing its quality, a worm is a common sight in agave fields. So, to prove to customers that their booze was up to snuff, distillers turned to the devil they knew—the worm. 
    • Where are the worms today – Tequila bottles are always worm-free. Regulations forbid selling tequilas with worms in the bottles, but such rules don’t exist for mezcal. Despite manufacturers’ dependable tools for determining alcohol content, some distillers add a worm as a marketing ploy or a celebration of mezcal’s storied history.

    So, if your bartender pours from a wormed bottle of mezcal, don’t worry—they’re not going to accidentally shake the worm into your margarita. But, depending on how wild your night gets, you could always dare a friend to down the worm once you’ve polished off the bottle. 

    Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails

    If all this talk of agave and worms has you itching to pick up a bottle of smoky, nuanced mezcal for yourself—or restock your favorite tequila—then it’s time to get inspired. 

    While you’re more than welcome to shoot or sip mezcal or tequila, sometimes you’re simply in the mood for a signature cocktail. The difference between mezcal production and tequila production provides unique flavors for different cocktails. Just like how anejo tequila cocktails will taste different from those made with blanco, the same goes for mezcal and tequila. Let’s explore a few recipes.

    Margarita Variations

    Margaritas are a classic—with a few simple ingredients, you can shake up a citrusy delight to pair perfectly with tapas, wings, burgers, and more. 

    Normally, you need the following ingredients to make a margarita:

    • The juice of a whole lime and a lime slice for garnishing
    • Simple syrup or agave syrup
    • Triple sec or orange juice
    • Salt or sugar for the rim
    • Your favorite tequila

    But why not replace a shot (or two) of your favorite tequila with an herbal mezcal? To showcase mezcal’s unique flavors, consider muddling a few pickled jalepeños in the bottom of your glass. 

    Mojitos

    While mojitos are typically made with rum—along with muddled mint, lime juice, sparkling water, and simple syrup—why not experiment with an agave spirit instead? 

    For a fruitier mojito moment, consider a joven mezcal with berry or herbal undertones. Muddle fresh strawberries, blackberries, or raspberries with your mint for a colorful, refreshing mojito variant.

    If you’re not sold on mezcal yet, you can still get creative with mojito mixing. Instead of rum, opt for a blanco tequila. While this simple liquor substitution makes a delicious cocktail, don’t be afraid to spice it up with muddled jalepeños, green chiles, or green bell peppers. 

    The Sour

    A whiskey sour is a simple delicacy. Made with a shot of whiskey, the juice of a whole lemon, simple syrup, and a dash of egg whites, the whiskey sour is a craft cocktail favorite. 

    But, the sour’s citrusy sweet flavors also pair perfectly with tequila and mezcal. To make a tequila sour, consider adding a dash of lime juice or zest for a bigger sour punch. For a mezcal variety, you just might find that a simple, smoky substitution of liquors works like a charm. 

    DRNXMYTH: Delivering Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails Right to Your Door

    Mezcal and tequila are distinct liquors, but you’re likely to find them in similar drinks—citrus-forward, herbal concoctions that call for a botanical-based spirit. 

    If you’re ready to give the unique flavor profile of mezcal a try, look no further than our collection of bottled signature cocktails. While our Hibiscus Haze is sure to jump-start your new mezcal obsession, you’ll love the rest of our creations, too. 

    At DRNXMYTH, we’re revolutionizing the craft cocktail—all of our drinks are made with cold-pressed juice and fresh ingredients, and our patented Twist to Mix bottling tech keeps the spirits and fresh ingredients separate until the moment you’re ready to sip. 

    Our unique recipes, collective of expert mixologists, and commitment to freshness create top-notch cocktails every time. 


    Sources: 

    1. Food & Wine Magazine. What’s the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal? https://www.foodandwine.com/cocktails-spirits/differences-between-tequila-mezcal 
    2. Food & Wine Magazine. Tequila Wants Its Reputation Back. https://www.foodandwine.com/drinks/tequila-wants-its-reputation-back 
    3. Food & Wine Magazine. Diving Deep into Mezcal, Sip by Sip. https://www.foodandwine.com/cocktails-spirits/mezcal/artisanal-mezcal-ray-isle
    4. Institute of Culinary Education. Fermentation Experimentation: Principles Behind Fermentation. https://ice.edu/blog/principles-of-fermentation