Knowledge Distilled: The Difference Between Tequila And Mezcal
— Updated on 27 February 2023

Knowledge Distilled: The Difference Between Tequila And Mezcal

— Updated on 27 February 2023
Randy Lai
Randy Lai

As Mexico’s multi-billion dollar market for agave-based spirits continues to grow – backed by robust demand in the international bartending scene and a disproportionate obsession amongst celebrities – it’s important to answer that one fundamental and oft-neglected question – how does Tequila really differ from Mezcal?

In a refrain that will feel familiar to anybody who enjoys drinking Bordeaux, Tequila is a type of Mezcal though not all Mezcal is necessarily Tequila. Whereas the latter is a catch-all term used to describe any alcohol made from a multitude of different kinds of agave (a kind of spiny cactus native to tropical areas in North America), in order for spirits to be called Tequila they must first adhere to a certain geographical classification – again, for you wine snobs out there, kinda like an A.O.C.

Below, we get into a number of the key differences that separate Tequila and Mezcal, paying attention to the different regions in which these are made; how they’re fermented; and the (largely similar) aging categories used to classify these two spirits.

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Mezcal vs. Tequila – What Are They?

difference between Tequila and Mezcal

Whereas Mezcal can be made from a wide variety of agave species, in locales all across the nine Mexican states, Tequila favours a much narrower definition: taking into account questions of distillation and the actual town where the raw agave spirits are produced.

Ergo, one of the biggest distinctions between Mezcal and Tequila is that the latter is made exclusively with blue agave (agave tequilana). In recent years these types of agave plants have become synonymous with Jalisco – the Mexican state where many Tequila distilleries that have gone on to achieve international recognition are based. However, this is hardly the sole locale where one can legally produce Tequila in Mexico.

Tequila vs. Mezcal – A Question Of Place

difference between Tequila and Mezcal

Though the ‘Tequila’ moniker comes from an actual township located in the highland valleys of Jalisco, Mexican legislation mandates that the eponymous blue agave based spirit may also be distilled in Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato. This is in stark contrast to Mezcal, which can be made in a much broader swath of regions in Mexico – such as Oaxaca, Zacatecas and Durango.

Tequila vs. Mezcal – Differences In The Distillation Process

From a superficial perspective, it’s fair to observe that both Tequila and Mezcal are made with agave piñas (‘agave hearts’, if you will). However, beyond that, there are some pretty significant distinctions in the way that the agave is handled to produce Mezcal – and the way it’s handled to produce Tequila.

As previously mentioned, for a spirit to be called ‘Tequila’ it must be distilled with the blue agave plant – from one of a handful of regional designations stipulated under Mexican law. Traditionally, the blue agave is manually planted and farmed; and upon achieving the requisite ripeness, must be hand-harvested by field workers (jimadores) who cut each plant’s spiny exterior off to expose the ‘heart’ within. These are then cooked via a steaming process that simultaneously kickstarts the fermentation process and makes the agave soft enough to crush.

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The cooked blue agave plant is then pulped, with the resulting liquor fermented until it becomes alcoholic and then distilled a further two to three times.

By contrast, most Mezcal is made with a much more varied assortment of agave: roasted whole in firepits to give the spirit its recognisably smoky, savoury flavour.

Tequila vs. Mezcal – The Beauty of Ageing

Another area where Tequila and Mezcal evidence considerable overlap is in age classifications. Both of these classic Mexican spirits are matured in oak barrels, but unlike whisky, the ageing process occurs significantly more rapidly.

Broadly, both adhere to three levels of age classification: añejo, reposado, and blanco. Translating as ‘old’, ‘rested’ and ‘white’, depending on whether you’re holding a bottle of Mezcal or Tequila, the precise number of years needed to meet each classification may differ.

In Tequila, a more specific 1-3 year timeframe is imposed upon those blue agave spirits that are labelled añejo; whereas anything in excess of a year spent in-barrel is enough for Mezcal. The two younger classifications are relatively straightforward, with reposado Mezcal and Tequila both requiring maturation for between 2-12 months; and anything under two months being treated as blanco across the board.

As global demand for Tequila and Mezcal continues to evolve, an increasing number of extra añejo bottlings are finding their way to market – another blanket term used to describe Mexican agave spirits that have been maturing for any period in excess of three years.

Tequila vs. Mezcal – Different Shades Of Agave

As we’ve just explained, the flavour of the particular Tequila and Mezcal you’re drinking is influenced primarily by the terroir of the agave; in addition to how long the resulting distillate has been left to mature.

Still, on the basis of age, we’re able to offer a few broad tasting notes of the Tequila and Mezcal styles. In the former’s case, most blanco Tequilas possess earthy notes and an aggressive, spirit-forward dimension that is best when utilised in the making of a classic Mexican cocktail – think serves like the Paloma or Tommy’s Margarita.

By contrast, reposado Tequila is almost always smoother and with a more vanillin flavour profile – owing to time spent in wooden barrels. Añejo Tequila travels in a similar vein; with the most sophisticated styles striking a deft balance between wood, baking spices and the more agave forward flavours.

Similarly, unaged Mezcal is an invaluable building block for all kinds of cocktails: ranging from classics to experimental mixed drinks, and wherever else a prominent smoky flavor is desired. Because the agave plant used to make Mezcal doesn’t necessarily have to be blue weber – over 30 different species are in common use – its difficult to assign a singular taste to even the most mature versions, which may all variously possess floral, fruity or earthen flavours.

The Best Ways To Drink Tequila And Mezcal

Often unfairly associated with lime shooters and the infamous ‘Frozen Marg’, Tequila may be enjoyed in a multitude of ways that depend entirely on the given style you’re drinking. While young Tequila (and for that matter, joven Mezcal) is a great addition to your usual array of icy refreshers – think Piña Colada – the more mature styles may be enjoyed in the same way as whisky – neat, with a splash of water, or over ice.

In the case of Mezcal – known for its assortment of bolder, smoky, typically more savoury flavours – the conventional wisdom is that it’s best enjoyed neat. In Mexico, the tradition is to enjoy the beverage in copitas (small bowl-like cups) or the ubiquitous Veladora glass – once used as candle holders throughout Mexico’s huge array of Catholic churches.

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Randy Lai
Following 6 years in the trenches covering consumer luxury across East Asia, Randy joins Boss Hunting as the team's Commercial Editor. His work has been featured in A Collected Man, M.J. Bale, Soho Home, and the BurdaLuxury portfolio of lifestyle media titles. An ardent watch enthusiast, boozehound and sometimes-menswear dork, drop Randy a line at [email protected].


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