The difference between Tequila and Mezcal

Mezcal is a word in Nahuatl that means 'oven-cooked agave'. The agave or maguey is a sacred plant that has been venerated in many Mexican indigenous cultures for centuries. There are over 200 different types of agave and over 30 of these are used in the production of mezcal, the most common one being the 'espadin' (Agave angustifolia). Mezcal is recognized as designation of origin and can only be produced in some municipalities in the states of Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacan. The diversity of agaves accounts also for the varieties of flavors and aromas found in the different types of mezcal. Its popularity has been increasing in the last 10 years with several 'mezcalerias' opening in big cities like Madrid, New York, Paris, and London.

Tequila is a type of mezcal that can only be made from one species of agave: the 'blue agave' (Agave tequilana). The drink is original from the region of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, but today its denomination of origin covers also some municipalities of the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Depending on the region where the blue agave is grown, the tequila produced will have different sweetness and odors. There are 4 categories of tequila: Silver or White Tequila with little or no aging, used primarily to make margaritas. Gold Tequila that is unaged silver tequila colored with caramel. Reposado Tequila is aged in wooden tanks for at least two months. And Añejo Tequila that is aged in wooden barrels for at least 12 months. 

Other less known, but also very tasteful distilled beverages are Bacanora and Sotol. These are produced in Sonora and Chihuahua respectively and are mostly artisanal productions. Bacanora is also made from Agave angustifolia, while sotol is made from the sap ofDasylirion wheeleri, a yucca plant.

 

Regions with denomination of origin for Tequila, Mezcal and Bacanora

 

Production

The distillation process of these beverages is pretty much similar. Blue agaves reach maturity within 8 – 10 years and start growing a flower stalk, which is intentionally removed by the jimador. These plants only flower once in their lifetime and removing their sexual organ redirects the plant growth to the central stalk. Since the plant has no more reason to invest its energy in sexual reproduction, its starts storing its pulp and swelling up. Once the plant has a considerable size, the leaves are removed and only theheart or piña, which stores the majority of the fructose, is processed.

For mezcal, the piña is cooked underground with firewood, which gives its distinctive smoky taste. Then it is crushed with a stone wheel pulled by a mule and shredded to extract the aguamiel. For the tequila, the piña is cut into pieces and baked in pressure cookers until the starch is converted to sugars. Fermentation determines the purity of the final product. A 100% pure tequila or mezcal will have only agave juice and water. Mixed types will contain up to 40% alcohol derived from other sources, usually cane sugar.

Mezcal and the worm

Some people relate the famous gusano de maguey to mezcal and even swear by its hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac properties. The worms might alter slightly the taste of the beverage but the real reason to why bottles of mezcal have one is just for marketing purposes. However, when cooked and seasoned with the right ingredients this pest is considered a delicacy, half a pound can be sold for up to $50 USD!