Tequila continues to grow in popularity in the U.S., with sales increasing every year. According to the IWSR, the category grew at a rate of 9.3 percent in 2019, part of a trend that has lasted for at least a decade. And though the volume is much smaller, mezcal continues to gain traction here as well with sales up 40 percent in 2019. What this all boils down to is Americans are thirsty for agave spirits from Mexico—the two combined make up about 9 percent of the total domestic spirits market. But some people may not be familiar with what defines and separates tequila and mezcal, so we spoke to some experts in the industry to help clear things up.
First of all, tequila is a type of mezcal, just like bourbon is a type of whiskey. “The main differences are the types of agave authorized to produce the spirit, the appellation of origin, and how the agave is cooked,” said Andres Portela, agave ambassador for Sombra Mezcal. Tequila can be made from one type of agave, tequilana weber or blue agave. Also, tequila can only be made in five Mexican states. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from many different types of agave, although the most common is espadín, and it can be produced in nine different states.
There are differences in the production and distillation processes as well. “Tequila production uses an above ground steam-powered oven to roast the agave,” said Antonio Rodriguez, director of production at PATRÓN Tequila, “while mezcal is produced in underground pit ovens using dry heat, which gives it the smoky flavor characteristics.” This smoky flavor is a defining feature of mezcal, although the level varies between brands just as it does for peated scotch whisky. The agave pinas (heart of the blue agave plant) for tequila can also be cooked in traditional clay or stone ovens, and some large brands use an industrial diffuser to extract the sugars (although this results in a far inferior product, according to some in the industry).
“In addition to agave, there are several other variables of production that contribute to the differences, including the fermentation method, stills design and construction material,” said Rodriguez. Both tequila and mezcal are typically distilled twice, but there are significant differences. Mezcal is often produced on a smaller scale at family farms and sold under different brand names, many of which are now owned by larger drinks companies. Copper pot stills are commonly used, but traditional clay pots are still utilized by some operations. “Mezcal is truly a hand-crafted spirit, and most are produced artisanally or ancestrally without taking shortcuts to speed up the cooking or fermentation process,” said Portela.
The much larger tequila industry uses pot or column stills at distilleries that, with a few exceptions, make tequila sold under many brand names. But of course tequila makers would argue that their product is just as “hand crafted” as mezcal. “We have been refining the flavors of the blue agave for more than 200 years for tequila,” said Tears of Llorona master distiller Germán Gonzalez. “Mezcal has not changed a lot in that same time period. The blue variety has a fine agave flavor, while mezcal flavors are more raw.”
Both spirits can be matured in wooden barrels to meet the following age classifications: blanco or joven (unaged or aged for less than two months), reposado (two months to a year), anejo (one to three years), or extra anejo (more than three years). And both are bartender favorites that can be used in a variety of cocktails. So whether you choose tequila or mezcal the next time you are in the mood for a drink, hopefully you can approach each spirit with a better understanding of how it’s made and what makes each unique.