Like queso and chalupas before them, Mexico’s most prolific spirits have been corrupted by American culture.
You’re familiar with the perception. First, there’s tequila, most commonly consumed as a shot with salt and lime to defang the bite. Next, mezcal—once a worm-infused souvenir from a gift shop in Cancún, now on the menu of every trendy cocktail bar and exclusively described with the hackneyed adjective “smoky.”
Both agave-based beverages have largely been misrepresented by the U.S. marketing machine. Traditionally sipped neat by connoisseurs, tequila and mezcal are rooted in a rich hand-crafted tradition reaching back centuries, each offering sophisticated flavor profiles influenced by factors like age, geography, and manufacturing process.
Whether you plan to indulge stateside or south of the border, you owe it to yourself to approach agave with a little enlightenment.
What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?
The main difference is that while mezcal can be made from 50 different species of agave—either mixed into an ensamble or distilled separately—tequila can only be made from the Blue Weber variety. On a basic level, tequila is just a legal classification for one variety of mezcal. (Think bourbon’s relation to whiskey.)
Mezcal and tequila’s creation process and taste also differ. Tequila’s Blue Weber is steamed but the agave in mezcal is typically roasted which gives it its characteristic smokey flavor.
What is agave?
Agave itself is a succulent that thrives in hot, dry environments. A spiky plant reminiscent of a pineapple crown, it’s more genetically similar to an onion or head of garlic than a cactus, says Emma Janzen—author of the book Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit and digital content editor at Imbibe.
The full family of agave spirits made across Mexico were originally called vinos de mezcales. In the 1800s, a pocket of production sprang up around the town of Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where Blue Weber was abundant. As manufacturing soared, the liquor took on an identity of its own, independent from mezcal—soon becoming the most popular agave spirit of the times.
Mezcal has only recently become a much sought-after spirit: According to MarketWatch, the global mezcal market is projected to grow at a rate of about 22 percent per year from 2018 to 2022. Meanwhile, the global tequila market is expected to increase at a rate of 4 percent per year from 2019 to 2025.
Domestically, the majority of tequilas in stores are brands owned by giant transnational corporations, and the number of mass-market mezcals is rising, too. If you’re questioning whether a bottle is as handmade as the label appears, Janzen suggests you look up the official NOM (Norma Official Mexicana) number listed on the bottle using an app like Tequila Matchmaker or in a database like Mezcalistas, which provide details about the distillery. Quality mezcal labels include additional craft indicators like the name of a specific mezcalero.
“The tequila industry doesn’t demand the same transparency as mezcal [on the bottle], so you won’t always see information like still type, grind type, fermentation type, etcetera,” Janzen says. “You’ll hardly ever see a maestro’s name on a tequila label.”
Tequila: What to know
Have you ever put a bottle in the freezer to mellow its burn? High-quality tequila shouldn’t scald your throat, but it takes a knowing eye to spot the good stuff.
The first thing you should search for on a label are the words “100 percent agave,” because it’s legal to make tequila with adjunct, nonagave sugars (typically cane sugar). These bottom-shelf varieties are called mixtos, and only require 51 percent agave content.
Tequila’s singular origin translates into more consistency of flavor between bottles. In production, a harvested Blue Weber agave plant is trimmed down to its heart, then steamed to extract juices. Like champagne, mezcal and tequila can only legally be called such if they’re made in specific regions. Tequila production is exclusive to the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán.
Different types of tequila
On the shelf, the three primary types of tequila you’ll come across are:
- blanco (joven),
The latter varieties are barrel-aged: reposado for at least two months and anejo for at least 12 months, the wood of the barrel darkening the spirit to a golden color and softening its stronger tasting notes.
Blanco is the beverage of aficionados—the youngest of the bunch, it has the truest agave flavor, unadulterated by time and storage vessel.
The best tequila to buy in the United States
True craft costs more, so know that going in. As for the best easy-to-find bottles available in the United States, Janzen’s favorites include:
- Tequila Ocho ($46, drizly.com)
- Siembra Azul ($53, wine.com)
- Tequila Cabeza ($40, winechateau.com)
- Fortaleza ($54, wine.com)
Mezcal: what to know
Today, well-made mezcal has no insect lurking in the bottom of the bottle. (Decades ago, before it became a novelty, a preserved worm proved the drink was appropriately high alcohol.) It’s a liquor with a rich hand-crafted tradition—a beverage historically consumed in Mexico at major events like childbirths, weddings, and funerals.
While tequila’s Blue Weber is steamed, the agave in mezcal is typically roasted (often in a charcoal pit), where it takes on those trademark smoldered notes. Done right, the smokiness is merely a component alongside many other players.
The complexity of the drink has been short-changed by language. While smoke is certainly one characteristic, if overdone, it can be a sign of a mezcal poorly made. (Some industrial brands even infuse artificial smokiness.) In her book, Janzen describes mezcal flavor profiles ranging from grilled cheese and anise to asparagus and vanilla.
Other varieties are actually infused with nonagave ingredients: one, called pechuga (“breast” in Spanish) is “made when a finished mezcal is redistilled with local fruits, grains, and nuts, and a raw chicken or turkey breast is hung over the still, cooking in the emanating vapors,” reports Eater.
Because it can be made from a range of agave plants, the taste of mezcal can vary dramatically. The vast spectrum of flavor is what makes mezcal unique. The notes are influenced by different agave species and manufacturing processes, as well as by terroir—a concept typically applied to wine that explains how the profile of a grape (or, in this case, an agave plant) is impacted by factors from soil composition to weather and temperature.
Where does mezcal come from?
Mezcal production is limited to the states of Oaxaca, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, Puebla, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán.
Different types of mezcal
The Mexican government officially divides mezcal distillers into three different categories, which must appear on the label to indicate the spirit inside is a certified mezcal:
Ancestral mezcal is produced in the same way it has been for centuries, sans modern machinery (that is, it’s milled by hand and distilled in clay pots as opposed to copper stills or stainless steel tanks). Artisanal can be slightly more mechanized, while industrial production throws the traditional handicraft out the window entirely.
The best mezcal to buy in the United States
Espadín is the most popular agave species in mezcal, and is the one you’ll find most commonly in the United States. Janzen suggests seeking out Neta Espadín ($100, artisanwineshop.com), a newer import she says is “making waves with agave lovers everywhere for its exceptional quality.” That said, she also advocates for branching out to try brands made with other varietals once you’ve properly primed your palate.
Some of the best mezcal you can buy in the United States include:
- Derrumbes San Luis Potosí ($54, totalwine.com)
- Banhez Joven ($26, drizly.com)
- Vago Elote ($60, wine.com).
“Making mezcal in a way that doesn’t cut any corners can be very expensive and takes a lot of time,” she says. “Be prepared to pay a pretty penny for the good stuff.”
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