Agave is a world-renowned agricultural product found in everything from syrups to soaps. Tequila and mezcal are among these numerous agave products, and they are among the most popular. And while an agave aficionado may be able to suss out the details between these two spirits, most of us are just curious: What is the difference between mezcal vs tequila?
The differences between the two are spelled out here, as they should also be on the labels and brand themselves.
A Spirited Comparison
With alcohol branding and marketing, there are a number of ways to align a product’s distinct characteristics, a brand’s equity, and the industry category. This one-two combo doubles down on the opportunity to be more competitive. First in the product category, followed by in-brand awareness.
While there may be straight-forward distinctions to some with mezcal vs tequila, for a large part of the alcohol-consuming world, the details escape common knowledge. It’s with this in mind we devised this guide: to explain the differences and the commonalities; how they are used in modern times, the ancestral and historic periods that shepherded the tradition, and which makes a better margarita.
Both mezcal and tequila derive from the agave plant. However, while most agave spirit brands focus on the long, spiky leaves as the origin, it’s more specifically the “piña” – or pineapple – or that deserves the most attention. It’s this part of the plant, the base, from which we get the tasty two.
But the difference is in the type of agave plant as well as how and where it’s distilled, when we talk about mezcal vs tequila.
How Mezcal and Tequila Are Made
We’ve touched on both tequila and mezcal being produced from the agave plant. Over time, the popularity between the two spirits has shifted quite a bit, with one becoming increasingly more popular than its cousin most recently.
It’s time to dig a bit deeper. In general, it’s good to know that all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. It’s also important to note that both mezcal and tequila come from very specific regions within Mexico, which help brand them what they are, as agave spirits. In this section, we will discuss the process of how these spirits are made and uncover along the way what makes them different.
How Is Tequila Made?
Starting from the source, tequila is made from a specific agave plant – the Blue (Weber) Agave plant. This plant is a native succulent plant from the state of Jalisco, in Mexico. There’s even a town within the state of Jalisco named Tequila (and yes, you will find some tequilas from that area). There are a few other different areas within Jalisco from where you may find tequila being made, including:
Any other agave spirit that’s not derived from the Blue Agave plant in these following areas is not really considered “tequila.” Also, it’s only considered tequila if it is either 100% from Blue Agave, or at least 51% Blue Agave sugars used in the distillation process (these lower percentage tequilas are called “mixtos,” or the “bottom of the barrel” or bar well-worthy). Anything less is not tequila. Even some within the “mixtos” version are questionable to the tequila aficionado.
Once the pineapple part of the plant has been prepared, the bases of the Blue Agave are placed in a giant oven. There, they’re steam-cooked until the fermentation/distillation part of the process. This is one of the main characteristics of tequila – the cooking process.
The other main characteristic of tequila is how it’s distilled. Tequila is pot-distilled in copper stills two to three times. However, it’s not uncommon to also see stainless steel ones, even if it’s less traditional to do so.
How Is Mezcal Made?
Same as tequila, mezcal is made from the agave plant. However, the difference here is that mezcal can come from any type of agave plant, or “maguey” – not just the Blue Agave like tequila. There are a ton of different varieties of agave plants used to make different types of mezcal, like:
- Espadín – This accounts for more than 90% of mezcal production and is the most common agave.
- Tobalá – Deemed as the “king of mezcals” this particular variety is very rare and harvested from the wild!
- Tobaziche – This agave is harvested from the wild and can make herbaceous and savory mezcal.
- Tepeztate – This agave takes up to 30 years to reach maturity. This obviously means good luck finding any and probably not the best choice for cocktails.
- Arroqueño – The mezcal made from this plant is floral, vegetal, and often has a spicy, bitter chocolate note.
Like its cousin tequila, mezcal is only from certain areas of Mexico. However, those areas differ quite a bit, as mezcal usually comes from a more tropical region of the country vs tequila, which comes from a more desert-like climate. The most common areas in which mezcal is made are:
- Oaxaca (the majority of mezcal is made here – over 85% of mezcals)
- San Luis Potosi
There are other areas from which mezcal can be made, but it’s not common.
Much like tequila, the heart of the plant, or the pineapple, is secluded and cooked. However, instead of being tossed into the oven, mezcal gets roasted/smoked, usually underground, in a dutch oven-like way. The pits are usually lined with volcanic rock and are filled with wood and charcoal (you can really taste this in the mezcal, which gives mezcal its smokey characteristics.
The other main characteristic of mezcal is how it’s distilled. Mezcal is distilled in more traditional ways, usually being distilled in clay pots multiple times. Mezcal is divided into three different categories when it comes to production and distillation:
- Ancestral – This, as its name suggests, is the most traditional way, the way it’s been produced for centuries before – sans modern machinery.
- Artisanal (artesanal) – With some modern machinery to make the process more efficient, it’s still done with craft and care as some processes in production are still done by hand.
- Industrial – As its name implies, more machines are involved in the production of this type of mezcal.
An educated consumer can determine quality from the label and price rather than starting at the price and moving to taste. As is always the case, brand labeling or packaging is superficial to this point; yet, as a powerful purchase motivator, we yearn for consistency, and will pay for it at a premium. We want to not have to visually scan shelves with our eyes, so we use color and labels to allow products to stick out more readily.
What do consumers look for? They look for any content dealing with production, origin, aging, and flavors. Does your mezcal or tequila clearly label these distinguishing factors?
Mezcal and Tequila Branding and Marketing Services
What we’re getting at here is that there is a lot of diversity among the agave spirits of mezcal and tequila that should be highlighted in the brand itself. There’s more to the bottle than what’s inside. How does your brand stand out from the others?
What consumers of these succulent spirits want are the stories behind the production. When alcohol enthusiasts sip on something, they’re searching for more than the flavor notes you’ve described on the label – they’re searching for a connection to the culture and craftsmanship. What will you tell others about your mezcal or tequila? How will you tell the story?
That’s where The Brandsmen come in. As enthusiasts ourselves, we know the craft that goes into both mezcal and tequila. The word “artisanal” stands out to us, as we put a lot of thought, effort, and love (yes, we love what we do) into our work. We understand that about the agave spirits and we understand how to get that out to others in the right way.