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The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal


 by In the Pour

Last Updated: 09/08/2017

What is the difference between tequila and mezcal? The easy answer is that tequila is a type of mezcal, so all tequilas are mezcal but not visa versa (just like bourbon is a type of whiskey). However, over time the production of each evolved differently.

Location

Map of tequila production

Tequila was invented in the town of Tequila located in the Mexican state Jalisco. Blue agave, tequila’s main ingredient, is native to that area. By Mexican law, all tequila must be produced in Jalisco or a limited number of places in other states.

Map of mezcal production

Mezcal production centers around Oaxaca. By law it can only be produced in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas. The town of Santiago Matatlán has a reputation as being the world capital of mezcal.

Main Ingredient

Tequila must be produced with blue agave. However, up to 49% of the mash may use other sources of sugars. Mixing the mash like this produces what is known as mixto tequila. Some tequila producers may use other varieties of agave, but many bulk producers use corn or other inexpensive sources. Check for “100% agave” on the label.

On the other hand, Mezcal may use any of 30 different varieties of agave. Up to 20% of the mash may use other sugars. With more choices for ingredients, different brands of mezcal can produce more varied and distinct flavors than tequila.

Cooking

For tequila, the agave is typically steam cooked in large industrial ovens.

In mezcal production, the agave is commonly grilled or roasted over heated rocks in a cone-shaped dirt pit. This process gives it a distinct smokey and earthy flavor. Although not mandatory, many artisan mezcal producers use this process rather than more economical one.

Taste

Because of the agave cooking process, mezcal usually has a distinctly smokey taste to it. This is even true of mezcal that hasn’t been aged in charred barrels. Mezcal also has a much wider variety of flavors due to the many different types of agave that may be used. The flavor can range anywhere from light and fruity or smokey and savory.

Tequila generally has a more narrow range of flavors which derive from the main ingredient, blue agave. Tequila’s taste can be described as fruity, herbal, and floral.

Market

Tequila is widely distributed and generally more available than mezcal. Many tequila brands engage in bulk industrial production while mezcal retains its artisanal roots. Recently mezcal has been gaining in relative popularity as demand for artisanal or craft spirits is rising.

The Worm

The worm is actually an insect larva. Certain insects feed on the agave plant and are sometimes harvested and cooked along with it. The two main types are:

  • gusano rojo ("red worm”), caterpillar of the Comadia redtenbacheri moth and considered to have a better taste
  • chinicuil ("maguey worm"), caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth

The practice of putting a worm in exported mezcal began in 1950 as a marketing gimmick. Mezcal production is hundreds of years old, so this is definitely not a tradition. However, despite being a gimmick, the worm actually has an effect on the mezcal’s chemistry. Also, some believe that the worm adds an aphrodisiac quality to the drink.

Contrary to popular belief, tequila never has the worm.

Summary Table

 

  Tequila Mezcal
Ingredient Blue agave 30+ varieties of agave
Cooking Steamed in ovens Roasted or grilled in earth pits
Taste Fruity, Herbal, Floral Smokey, Earthy, Varied
Market Mass-market Artisanal
The worm Never Sometimes