Tequila vs Mezcal: Which is which, and which is better?

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The perennial question that always gets asked when talking about mezcal: Is mezcal tequila?

The answer is no, tequila is mezcal. Mezcal is a much wider category of spirit that includes any distillation made from agave in any region of Mexico (although there is recent talk about creating a denomination of origin for mezcal similar to tequila or champagne.) Tequila can only be made from a single plant (blue agave), and only in certain areas of the country, most famously, of course, is the town of Tequila.

The most important and notable difference between these two spirits is the way the agave “hearts” (the core of the agave plant once its leaves have been removed) are cooked. For tequila, the blue agave hearts are cooked in steam ovens, in mezcal making, agave hearts are slow-smoked in an earthen pit, giving the spirit its trademark smoky flavor. Both types of hearts are then mashed, fermented, and distilled.

There are very few small tequila producers out there anymore, overrun as they are by folks like Jose Cuervo and Herradura, but there are hundreds upon hundreds of artisanal mezcal makers. With the latter, there are a few ways to distill (in clay pots, with copper pots) and a handful of ways to ferment (in wooden barrels, in leather slings) making each local mezcal not only different from its neighbor but also different from the previous batch. In that way, tequila is a much more standardized taste experience and mezcal much more full of surprises.

Agave fields in Oaxaca

There are also dozens of different agaves used in mezcal. To name a few: espadin (one of the most common agaves), jabali, americano, tepeztate, and tobalo. Regional agave diversity and local soil are other elements that add to each mezcal’s unique flavor.

Once distilled, mezcal is around 45 to 50 proof. Mezcales that you find on the market with a much lower alcohol content (like 400 Conejos the mezcal brand from Bacardi which is 38% alcohol) have a lot of water added to the final product. That might make them more palatable for some drinkers but serious mezcal lovers tend to go for 45 proof and up.

The worm at the bottom of the bottle, which in popular culture is associated with tequila, is actually a mezcal tradition. The mezcal worm began as a way to distinguish mezcal from tequila and was transformed into an added element of flavor, especially for older mezcal drinkers that see it as tradition. The worm, which is found in the agave plants, adds a touch of acidity or saltiness according to its fans.

Source: Luxury Latin America

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