Artistic representation of the diverse flavor profiles of mezcal

How is Mezcal different from Tequila?

You know tequila, but how is mezcal different from tequila? Both are made from agave, but the type of agave, production methods, and flavor profiles are what set them apart. Mezcal’s smoky goodness and variety come from any agave species and traditional methods, while tequila, often smoother, is made from blue Weber agave and has a specific steaming process. This will break it down for you.

Key Points

  • Mezcal has smoky flavors because agave piñas are roasted in earthen pits lined with rocks, with any agave species, not just blue Weber agave like tequila.

  • Tequila, mostly produced in Jalisco from blue agave, is steamed rather than roasted, resulting in a milder, more uniform flavor. Aged in oak barrels for different profiles: blanco, reposado, añejo, extra añejo.

  • Tequila and mezcal are regulated for quality and authenticity. CRT for tequila, CRM for mezcal which includes mezcal, artesanal, ancestral.

Agave: Mezcal’s Unique Process

Illustration of traditional roasting methods for mezcal production

It’s more than just a pretty Del Maguey mezcal bottle on a shelf; it’s a tradition steeped in history and culture. Made through a process that’s different from tequila, mezcal is:

  • Roasting agave piñas in earthen pits lined with lava rocks, wood, and charcoal

  • This traditional method is what gives mezcal its smoky flavor

  • Unlike tequila, made only from blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from many different agave species, each contributing to its complexity and variability.

The artisanal nature of mezcal production reflects the skill of the mezcaleros, who oversee every step of the process. From selecting the agave plants to the final distillation, each mezcal bottle has the signature of its maker and the character of its region. This section describes the unique aspects of mezcal production, starting with the roasting ritual.

The Roasting Ritual

Mezcal begins with the agave hearts, or piñas, harvested and prepared for roasting. This is where the magic happens. The piñas are placed in earthen pits lined with rocks and wood. This traditional cooking method allows the agave to roast slowly over several days and infuses the agave cores with its smoky flavor.

Slow roasting gives mezcal its savory flavor. The heat from the wood penetrates the agave, breaks down its fibers, and releases the rich sugars that will later be fermented and distilled. This sets mezcal apart from other agave spirits, especially tequila, which uses indirect heat.

Agave Diversity in Mezcal

Illustration of diverse agave species used in mezcal production

One of the most fascinating aspects of mezcal is the diversity of agave species used in its production. Unlike tequila, which is limited to blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from over 40 different types of agave plants. This includes varieties like Espadín, the most common and fastest-growing, making it ideal for cocktails and sipping.

Sean K’s picture from Oaxaca

The terroir deeply influences mezcal’s flavor profile, including the climate, soil, and terrain where the agave is grown. Each region imparts its unique characteristics to the agave, resulting in a wide range of flavors, including:

  • Floral

  • Fruity

  • Earthy

  • Smoky

This diversity makes mezcal a unique spirit, rich in history, flavor, and terroir, proving that not all mezcal is equal.

Artisanal Touch

Oaxaca is the heart and soul of mezcal production, responsible for approximately 85% of all mezcal produced. The region’s unique diversity of agave species and traditional artisanal methods contribute to the distinct character of Oaxacan mezcal. Here are some interesting facts about Oaxacan mezcal:

  • Oaxaca is responsible for approximately 85% of all mezcal produced.

  • The region has a unique diversity of agave species.

  • Traditional artisanal methods are used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca.

  • Mezcal is often served in traditional votive glasses, or ‘vaso veladora,’ which enhance the drinking experience with their wide mouths.

Every bottle reflects the mezcaleros’ craftsmanship. Many labels proudly display the mezcalero’s name, indicating their skill and dedication. This artisanal touch preserves the traditional methods of mezcal production and adds a personal connection to the spirit, making each sip a tribute to Oaxaca’s rich heritage.

The Role of Blue Weber Agave

Illustration of blue weber agave fields in tequila production

Once seen as mezcal’s more refined cousin, Tequila is defined by its exclusive use of the blue Weber agave plant. This single-species focus gives tequila a lighter, more consistent flavor profile than mezcal’s diverse and complex flavors. The blue Weber agave thrives in the volcanic soils and ideal climate of Jalisco, Mexico, imparting a unique character to the spirit.

Tequila’s production process involves steaming the agave piñas in above-ground ovens, which contrasts sharply with mezcal’s traditional roasting process. This steaming method produces a milder flavor profile, allowing the blue Weber agave’s natural sweetness and citrus notes to shine. Let’s dive deeper into how this specific agave species influences tequila’s flavor and the differences in the cooking methods used.

Blue Weber Agave: Tequila’s Sole Ingredient

The blue Weber agave, or Agave tequilana or the blue agave plant, is the cornerstone of tequila production. Its unique characteristics, influenced by Jalisco’s volcanic soil and climate, give tequila its distinctive flavor. Tequila from the highlands has a natural sweetness with fruit, mineral, and floral notes, while lowland tequila is spicier, earthier, and herbaceous.

The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) ensures that tequila maintains its quality and authenticity by regulating the production process and enforcing strict standards, such as a minimum of 51% blue agave content for mixto tequila. This regulation helps preserve tequila’s essence, making it a beloved agave spirit worldwide.

Steaming vs. Roasting

One key difference between tequila and mezcal is their cooking methods. Tequila is steamed in above-ground ovens, such as brick ovens or autoclaves, which results in a milder, more stable flavor profile. This method allows for large-scale industrial production, making tequila widely available and consistent in taste.

In contrast, mezcal’s roasting process in wood-fired, rock-lined pits imparts a rich, smoky flavor that sets it apart from tequila. This traditional method creates a distinctive taste deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of mezcal production. The differences in these cooking methods highlight the unique identities of these two spirits, each offering a different sensory experience.

A Tale of Two Spirits: Regional Distinctions

The geographical origins of tequila and mezcal play a significant role in defining their unique characteristics. Both spirits received their Appellations of Origin in the late twentieth century, legally designating specific regions for their production. Tequila is primarily produced in Jalisco, while mezcal’s production is spread across nine Mexican states, including Oaxaca and San Luis Potosí.

These regional distinctions are not just about geography; they also encompass cultural and traditional practices that influence the final spirit. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) and the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) ensure that these spirits are produced according to strict standards, preserving their authenticity and heritage.

Let’s explore the heartlands of these two spirits and how their regions contribute to their unique flavors.

Jalisco: The Heartland of Tequila

Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila, offers the perfect conditions for cultivating blue Weber agave. The region’s soil and climate create a unique environment that imparts distinct characteristics to the agave plants. Lowland tequilas tend to be more herbaceous and earthy, while tequila from the highlands of Jalisco is known for its sweet, fruity flavors.

Generations of skilled farmers and distillers in Jalisco have honed their craft, passing down traditions and techniques that enhance the quality and flavor of tequila. The mineral-rich soil and optimal mix of rainfall and sunshine contribute to the bold and smooth flavor profile that makes Jalisco tequila so sought after.

Mezcal’s Diverse Homelands

Unlike tequila, primarily associated with Jalisco, mezcal is produced in nine Mexican states, each offering unique flavors and characteristics. Oaxaca is the most prominent producer, known for its use of agave espadín and traditional production methods that create mezcal with distinctive earthy notes.

Other regions like Durango and Guerrero contribute their wild agave varieties and artisanal techniques, adding to the diversity of mezcal flavors. The volcanic terrain of Michoacán and the arid climate of Durango further influence the taste profiles, showcasing the rich tapestry of flavors that mezcal offers.

This diversity makes mezcal a unique spirit deeply connected to culture and region.

Aging Elegance: Oak Barrels and Time

Illustration of oak barrels used in aging tequila

Aging has a big impact on the flavors of both tequila and mezcal. Tequila is categorized by the amount of time it spends in oak barrels:

  • Blanco

  • Reposado

  • Añejo

  • Extra añejo

Aging adds complex flavors like baking spices, mellow toffee, and vanilla to the spirit.

Mezcal is traditionally consumed unaged to preserve its natural flavors. But aged varieties like reposado and añejo are becoming more popular and offer a different tasting experience that combines the traditional smoky flavor with the flavors from the oak barrels. Let’s explore the aging process of both tequila and mezcal and how it changes the spirits.

Reposado Tequila’s Golden Glow

Reposado tequila, aged in wood, gets a golden or amber color and a smoother profile than its younger sibling, Blanco tequila. The aging process uses different types of wood and toasting methods to create the complex flavor profile of reposado tequila. Some of the characteristics of reposado tequila are:

  • Golden or amber color

  • Smooth and mellow taste

  • Notes of vanilla, caramel and oak

  • Balanced and complex flavor profile

This aging mellows out the aged tequila and infuses it with soft oak flavors, making it perfect for sipping neat or in cocktails. The golden glow of reposado tequila is in its ability to balance the agave flavors with the rich wood notes from the barrels.

Mezcal Artesanal: Beyond Age

While most mezcal is unaged to preserve the traditional flavors, aged varieties like reposado and añejo mezcal offer a different tasting experience. Barrel aging can add flavors like caramel, vanilla, and chocolate to the mezcal, appealing to aged spirit enthusiasts who like bourbon and Cognac.

Some traditionalists argue that barrel aging will mask the intricate natural flavors of the agave plant’s maturation process. However, aged mezcal is a different and enjoyable experience, combining the smoky flavor of traditional mezcal with the rich, complex flavors from the oak barrels.

Regulation and Recognition: CRT vs. CRM

Tequila and mezcal production is regulated to ensure quality and authenticity. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) and the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) are the governing bodies for these spirits. Each has standards and certification processes to preserve tequila and mezcal’s traditional methods and geographic origins.

The CRT is focused on maintaining the high standards of tequila production and ensuring compliance with the regulations for its certification. The CRM has a more rigorous certification process for mezcal, with three categories based on production methods to preserve the spirit’s traditional quality.

Let’s break down the roles of these governing bodies and how they contribute to the integrity of tequila and mezcal.

Tequila Standards by CRT

The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) is the guardian of tequila’s integrity. By enforcing the Norma Oficial Mexicana regulations, the CRT ensures tequila meets certain criteria, such as agave sugar content and clear aging standards. This strict oversight preserves tequila’s authenticity, so every bottle reflects traditional methods and high production standards.

Every agave plant used for tequila production must be registered with the CRT, and distilleries must conduct chemical analyses at key stages of the production process. This attention to detail ensures that tequila is a premium agave spirit known for its consistency and flavor profile.

CRM’s Mezcal Certification

The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) has a more rigorous certification process to maintain the traditional quality of mezcal. Unlike tequila, which has one production standard, mezcal is certified in three categories: mezcal, artisanal, and ancestral. Each category reflects different production methods, from modern to traditional, passed down through generations.

This three-tiered certification system preserves mezcal’s authenticity and heritage, ensuring consumers get a product that is true to its roots. The CRM’s standards also preserve mezcal’s cultural and artisanal integrity, allowing it to stand out as a unique and traditional agave spirit.

Flavor Journey: Sip the Spirit

Agave spirits, tequila, and mezcal offer different sipping experiences. Mezcal is usually sipped neat to fully appreciate its complex flavor profile, which ranges from floral and fruity to earthy and smoky. Sipping it unadulterated allows the intricate flavors of mezcal to shine. Every sip is a journey.

Mezcal is sipped neat. Tequila is versatile. While it can be sipped neat, tequila also excels in cocktails, from the classic Margarita to the Paloma. Its flavor profile makes tequila a mainstay in mixology, and its pairing with food makes it even more attractive. Let’s dive into the tasting experiences of mezcal and tequila and how to drink them.

Discovering Mezcal’s Taste Profile

Artistic representation of the diverse flavor profiles of mezcal

Exploring the mezcal taste profile is a sensory journey. First, you smell the spirit and take in all the notes from floral to fruity to spicy to smoky. When you drink mezcal, you should let the spirit sit in your mouth for a moment to allow all the flavors to reveal themselves. These can be spices, vanilla, clove, citrus, herbs, and the roasting process’s smoky flavor.

Mezcal is even better when paired with water. Water helps pace the drinking and allows the flavors to unfold. This is especially helpful when drinking on an empty stomach, so every sip is savored and enjoyed.

Tequila’s Flexibility

Tequila’s flexibility is its biggest asset. With its clear and pure flavor, Blanco tequila is the spirit of choice for many cocktails and is a mixologist’s favorite. Aged tequilas like reposado and añejo have deeper, more complex flavors and are enjoyed neat, like fine whisky. Whether you drink tequila in a cocktail or neat, there’s one for everyone.

Tequila also adds something special to food recipes, elevating gourmet dishes with subtle flavors. Pairing tequila with the salty and acidic notes of Mexican food or the sweetness of chocolate brings out the spirit’s many flavors and makes it a versatile agave spirit.

The Last Shot

We’ve covered the different flavors of mezcal and tequila, the production processes, regional differences, and the tasting experiences. Mezcal’s traditional roasting and multiple agave varieties create a complex smoky flavor profile, and tequila’s blue Weber agave and steaming process a lighter citrusy flavor. Both spirits are icons of Mexican tradition and artisanal craftsmanship.

Whether you like the smoky vibe of mezcal or the zesty zip of tequila, both spirits are a journey of flavors that celebrate the art and tradition of agave spirits. So, next time you drink, take a moment to appreciate the history, craftsmanship, and passion that went into each bottle. Cheers to the flavors of mezcal and tequila in our glasses.


What’s the main difference between mezcal and tequila?

The main difference between mezcal and tequila is the production process and the type of agave. Mezcal is made from multiple agave varieties and has a smoky flavor from roasting. Tequila is made from blue Weber agave and steamed.

Can mezcal and tequila be aged?

Yes, both mezcal and tequila can be aged. Based on aging, tequila is classified as blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo. Mezcal is traditionally unaged but can be found in aged varieties like reposado and añejo.

How do I drink mezcal?

Mezcal should be drunk ‘neat’ to enjoy the natural complexity, but you can pair it with small increments of water to open up all the flavors. Enjoy!

Where are mezcal and tequila made?

The regions where mezcal and tequila are made are Jalisco for tequila and nine Mexican states, Oaxaca being the biggest mezcal producer. Cheers!

What’s the role of CRT and CRM in tequila and mezcal production?

CRT and CRM are the governing bodies that regulate tequila and mezcal production to ensure standards and traditional methods are met.

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