Mezcal vs. Tequila: 7 Differences to Know

Tequila and Mezcal shot

Many people don't understand the differences in mezcal vs tequila. Both are products of Mexico and distilled from agave, and they are often used interchangeably in popular cocktails such as the margarita or paloma. However, there are differences between mezcal and tequila as well, such as the region where they are produced, how they're made and classified, and how they taste.

Mezcal vs Tequila - Similarities and Differences

The following chart shows the similarities and differences between mezcal and tequila at a glance.

Chart with similarities and differences between Mezcal and Tequila

Understanding the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila

The chart above provides a quick, at-a-glance listing of the difference. The key differences include the following.

1. Tequila Is Mezcal, but Mezcal Isn't Always Tequila

All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Tequila is a form of mezcal made from one variety of agave that is distilled according to certain processes in the state of Jalisco.

2. Where They Are Produced Differs

There is some overlap between tequila and mezcal as far as where they are produced in Mexico. However, in general, the region of production differs between the two.

  • Almost all tequila comes from Jalisco.
  • Tequila can also be produced in some parts of four other Mexican states, as well: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
  • Mezcal can be produced in Jalisco, but it's primarily produced in nine other states: Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

3. They Use Different Varieties of Agave

While both tequila and mezcal are produced from the heart of agave known as the piña (which translates to pineapple), tequila is produced only from blue Weber agave, while mezcal can be made from one of dozens of agave varieties including blue Weber and many others.

Blue agave in Jesus Maria

4. The Agave Is Cooked Differently

While both tequila and mezcal are made from the heart of the agave plant, how they are processed varies. Agave needs to be cooked in order to create fermentable sugars necessary to make alcohol, but how this is accomplished is distinctly different between tequila and mezcal. For mezcal, agave is roasted in earthen pits lined with lava rocks, while in tequila it's steamed in ovens above ground.

Burning of agave pineapples for the preparation of mezcal

5. Distillation Is Different

In general, tequila is double or triple distilled in copper pot stills. Mezcal is typically distilled in clay pots.

Spanish-language sign stating 'Destilación' [Distillation] on the outside of a tequila factory

6. Flavor Profiles Are Different

The differences in agave used, cooking, and distillation all result in different flavor profiles between tequila and mezcal. In general, tequila tends to be sweet, complex, fruity, and a little toasty from the oak aging. On the other hand, mezcal tends to be smoky, earthy, and savory when compared to tequila, and it has a slightly funky (in a good way) flavor with vegetal, floral, and/or tropical notes.

7. They Have Different Categories and Classifications

Tequila and mezcal are similar in that they are both categorized by age, and naming conventions are similar.

Aged for Mezcal Tequila
0-2 months

Joven

Blanco

Abacado

Blanco

Silver

Plato

2-11 months Reposado Reposado
1-2 years Añejo Añejo
3+ years Extra añejo Extra añejo

Mezcal also comes in different styles based on how it's made (versus how it's aged). These styles are defined by law and included on the label. The varying styles of mezcal include:

  • Mezcal - Industrial mezcal using modern equipment and distillation processes
  • Mezcal Artesenal - Mezcal made in a specific region using specific artisanal processes
  • Mezcal Ancestral - Mezcal produced using entirely traditional processes such as roasting in pit ovens and fermenting in traditional materials such as clay pots or hollowed tree trunks; ancestral processing must include maguey fibers (which is a member of the agave family)

Tequila may also be labeled in two different styles, mixto and 100% agave. Mixto tequila has color or flavor added and may be labeled as:

  • Joven
  • Gold
  • Oro

Differentiating Tequila and Mezcal

While many people use tequila and mezcal interchangeably in cocktails, there are some subtle and some substantial differences between the two. The best way to understand how these differences affect the flavor of the resulting spirit is to try several varieties of each.

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Mezcal vs. Tequila: 7 Differences to Know