Ingredient Intelligence

What Is Mezcal? And How Is It Different from Tequila?

published Jun 21, 2022
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two hibiscus mezcal cocktails on a table
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner

If you go to any bar, they’ll likely have at least a few different types of tequila. It’s a staple distilled liquor that’s enjoyed in fruit-forward drinks like margaritas, palomas, and tequila sours. If you want to switch things up, however, you should try asking your bartender for a cocktail with mezcal instead of the usual tequila — or for a glass of mezcal straight-up for sipping.

Mezcal and tequila are related liquors, although they are definitely not the same (tequila, is in fact, a subset of mezcal — more on that later). Plus, if you’ve ever had a sip of a drink with mezcal, then you know its flavor is quite distinct. Here’s everything you should know about this unique liquor and how it’s different from the tequilas you might be more familiar with.

What Is Mezcal?

To put it simply, mezcal is the general term used to describe a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, also known as maguey. It’s believed that the name mezcal comes from the Nahuatl term “mexcalli,” which translates to “cooked agave.”

“Mezcal also has its own set of rules and laws that govern what constitutes a mezcal versus other agave-based spirits,” explains Luiz Fernandes, head bartender at Labaredas Brazilian BBQ & Bar in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Similar to tequila, mezcal can legally be produced only in eight specific regions in Mexico: In the case of mezcal, the regions are Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacán.

Credit: Shutterstock/Edgar Xolot

What Is the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

Mezcal is the general category for any distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, so tequila is technically a type of mezcal. Tequila is made specifically from the Blue Weber variety of agave plant. Mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant, although the large majority of mezcal — 80 to 90% — is made from the Espadin variety, Fernandes explains.

Does Mezcal Taste Like Tequila?

While mezcal and tequila share some flavor characteristics, mezcal has a particularly smoky flavor, much more so than your average tequila. Mezcal gets its signature smoky flavor from how the agave plants from which it is made are cooked. While tequila is made from agave plants that are cooked in brick ovens, “Mezcal is traditionally cooked in underground earthen pits,” says Fernandes. “The producers line the pit with lava rocks, charcoal, and wood; set it on fire; and then put the agave in to roast over a few days.” The pit is then covered with dirt while the agave caramelizes. The distillate that is left over takes on a smoky flavor from this process.

Fernandes also adds that mezcal’s taste can be described as more than just smoky, too. “Mezcal is incredibly complex and rich in flavors,” says Fernandes. “A well-made mezcal will have incredible flavors of the roasted agave, beautiful minerality, and delicious earthy, almost grassy flavors.”

Is Mezcal Stronger than Tequila?

While the term “stronger” is very subjective, many people use it to refer to the level of alcohol by volume (ABV) in a distilled alcoholic beverage or spirit. “Usually mezcal and tequila do have similar ranges of ABV and proof (though some do vary greatly),” explains Fernandes. “What it boils down to when talking about the flavor of mezcal is that for someone who isn’t accustomed to a smoky spirit, they can find it harsh in comparison to tequila.” It’s also worth noting, however, that some mezcals have a smokier flavor than others, so Fernandes recommends starting out with one on the smoother side if you’re a beginner. 

How to Drink Mezcal

When it comes to the best way to drink mezcal, the spirit is great for sipping neat, and can also be mixed into cocktails. As for what types of cocktails to make with mezcal, Fernandes recommends making drinks that both cater to your flavor preferences and also put the spirit front and center.

“When trying to turn people onto mezcal for the first time I try to make them cocktails with mezcal that create a bridge for their taste buds to get used to the smoky flavors,” says Fernandes. “I like to showcase how incredible mezcal can be in a cocktail without hiding it. I like to make spicy margaritas with mezcal to get a really fun, smoky and spicy take on the classic.” Fernandes also recommends making a paloma with mezcal as well as other drinks like the Tia Mia, the Saladito, and the Naked & Famous, a personal favorite of Fernandes.

In terms of pairing mezcal with complementary flavors, you can look to many traditional fruits and juices often used to make cocktails. “Mezcal has some great ‘flavor buddies,’ says Fernandes. “Pineapple and mezcal is usually an incredible combination. Ginger is another. Lime and lemon juice are also great.”

Mezcal Brands to Try

Some brands of mezcal that Fernandes recommends looking into include Del Maguey, Fidencio, Rey Campero, and Derrumbes San Luis Potosí. 

If you’re up for doing some research on mezcal, Fernandes also recommends looking into books like Tequila & Mezcal: The Complete Guide by Kobe Desmet & Isabel Boons and Spirits of Latin America by Ivy Mix, which has cocktail recipes in it to help you get started.