What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

Before you knock back a shot of tequila or mezcal in celebration of today's holiday, let's get to the bottom of what each is and what distinguishes the two Mexican spirits from each other. First, a very simplistic explanation: mezcal is to tequila as scotch is to bourbon, in that it's smokier and earthier. For a more in-depth explanation, keep reading.

The two differ from each other in three major ways, all of which contribute to their distinctly different flavors:

  1. While both tequila and mezcal can only be called tequila or mezcal if they're made in specific regions of Mexico, tequila is made in a much smaller region of the country. Tequila can be produced in the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, with the majority of tequila production happening in Jalisco (which is home to the town of Tequila). Mezcal can be produced in most Mexican states, including Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan, with the majority of mezcal production occurring in Oaxaca.
  2. Tequila can only be called tequila if it's made with agave tequilana weber, aka blue agave. Mezcal can be produced from 30-plus different varieties of agave, including blue agave, with agave espadin being the most popular. Because of this distinction, mezcals vary in flavor much more so than tequilas do.
  3. Both tequila and mezcal production starts with removing the agave plant's long, spiky leaves; the remaining heart of the agave is called the piña. The two diverge in how they're cooked and further processed before fermentation: For most tequilas, the piñas are baked in steam ovens or what is essentially an industrial pressure cooker. Mezcal can also be produced in this manner, but traditionally the piñas are roasted in an underground pit filled with wood and volcanic rocks. It's this process that gives mezcal its distinct smoky flavor. Tequila is almost always mechanically shredded, while with mezcal, the agave juice is typically extracted using a tahona, which presses the agave rather than shredding it. Some tequila brands, notably Fortaleza, break down the agave fibers using a tahona, but it's increasingly uncommon.

Two general rules of thumb to keep in mind when purchasing tequila and mezcal:

  1. Avoid mixto tequila — tequila that is made with a mix of blue agave juice and other sugars — as it's an indicator of cost cutting and lower quality; 100 percent agave tequila will say as such on the label. (Most gold tequilas, unaged tequila that has been colored and flavored with caramel to mimic aged tequila, are mixtos.)
  2. This should probably go without saying, but for mezcal, avoid bottles with a gusano (a type of larvae that's often incorrectly referred to as a worm) in them. Not only is it kind of gross, but it's a cheap marketing ploy used by low-quality mezcal producers to drive sales to foreigners based off of novelty factor.