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Tequila vs Mezcal – What’s the difference?

They’re both Mexican spirits distilled from agave plants, with a similar distinctive flavour. You can drink them both with salt and lime. What, exactly, is the difference between tequila and mezcal?

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

We’re all aware that champagne is only champagne if it comes from a certain region in France – otherwise, it’s just sparkling wine. Well, champagne isn’t the only beverage that comes with an appellation. Tequila and mezcal both come from distinct areas of Mexico, and are distilled from specific varieties of agave plant.

To be called a “tequila”, a spirit needs to be made from the blue agave plant variety, and needs to be produced in either the state of Jalisco, or limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

Mezcals, on the other hand, can be made from any kind of agave plant. They’re produced mostly in Oaxaca, but can also be made in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan, and the recently approved Puebla.

COOKING

To create either tequila or mezcal, the agave hearts (called piña) need to be prepared for fermentation by cooking them for around a week first. In the case of tequila, the piña are cooked in large brick ovens, while the piña used for mezcal are cooked underground, in covered pits of burning wood. Because of this, the agaves going into mezcal have a strong smoky character.

TASTE

You’ll notice the difference when drinking. Mezcal’s intensely peaty, smoked flavour differs from tequila’s more crystalline quality. Another difference is the famous “worm” -– no tequilas are produced with any kind of creepy-crawly in the bottle, but mezcals often come complete with a moth larva, referred to as a worm.

When you start digging deeper into the world of mezcals and tequilas, you’ll discover a vast world of variation: silver tequilas and reposado tequilas have very different characteristics, while mezcals made from the Tobalà agave variety differ distinctly from Espadin mezcals. It’s a whole universe out there – and learning is part of the fun.