Many people think that tequila and mezcal (also spelled mescal) are one and the same drink, but there are a few differences in how – and where – they are made.
Both are distilled from the agave plant. Tequila is made from only the blue agave, the use of which is prohibited by government regulations for mezcal production. But mezcal from any of 200+ types of agave that grow in Mexico, although producers primarily use the Espadin agave with smaller quantities of other varieties to create variations in the flavour profile.
For both mezcal and tequila, the growing and harvesting of agave plants has changed little over the past few hundred years and is still mostly done by hand. The men who harvest it, the ‘jimadores’, have intimate knowledge of how the plants should be cultivated, passed down from generation to generation.
When the plant is ready to harvest – anything from seven years onwards for a mature plant –, the leaves of the agave are cut back and the core of the plant – the ‘piña’ – is extracted. Depending on the farm location, the pina weighs anything from 40-110kg, with agave grown in highland areas tending to impart a sweeter taste on the final liquor.
After harvesting, the piñas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked over three days to break down their sugars. The ovens are of varying sophistication – piñas for mezcal are still commonly roasted in underground earth pits in the open air, which intensifies the smokiness of the final product. Piñas for tequila production are usually baked in brick or stone ovens.
The baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel. The extracted agave juice is then poured into either large wooden, clay or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a wort with low alcohol content. This wort is then distilled once to produce what is called ‘ordinario', and then a second time to produce clear ‘silver' tequila or mezcal. For both mezcal and tequila, at least two distillations is required by law.
Mezcal can also have other ingredients added to it to impart flavour including cinnamon, pineapple slices and red bananas. Although the vast majority of mezcal is left untouched as 100% agave spirit.
From there, the liquor can be bottled, or added to wooden barrels to age, where it can develop a golden colour and complex flavours depending on the type of wood used and the duration of barrelling.
Blanco (‘white’) or plata (‘silver'): white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels.
Reposado (‘rested’): aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size.
Añejo (‘aged’): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels. Longer aged liquor is called Extra Añejo.
In terms of geography, most mezcal is produced in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, although it can also be made in Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla. The style of drink and geographical uniqueness was recognised in 1994 when mezcal gained an Appellation of Origin (AO, DO) designation.
Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Similar to mezcal, tequila has an Appellation of Origin which is recognised in around 40 countries globally.
And the worm? Well you’ll never find a worm in a bottle of tequila, but you may find one in a bottle of mezcal. The worm is actually the larvae of a moth that lives on the agave plants. And it serves no purpose in the drink itself… it’s just a novel marketing ploy and is certainly not hallucinogenic.
Whilst tequila has always been the better known of the two types of agave liquors – in no small part due to the margarita cocktail –, mezcal is increasingly popular in bars around the world. With its rich smokey taste, it works well in cocktails that tequila wouldn’t stand up to such as replacing the gin in a Negroni or the whisky in an Old Fashioned.
Whether you enjoy tequila or mezcal, straight-up or in a mixed drink, then remember the Mexican toast:
Arriba! (glasses up)
Abajo! (glasses down)
Al Centro! (glasses to the front – health for all of you!)
Y Pa’dentro! (inside) as the end and your chance to take a drink!
Enjoy Patron Tequila at participating venues later this year during The Hague Cocktail Week.