Mexico, alcohol content and the agave plant. These three elements are all that tequila and mezcal have in common. After that, the two drinks couldn’t be any more different.
Tequila’s a funny old drink, isn’t it? Most of us have tequila stories. Horrible, dark, terrifying stories. If someone shouts ‘tequila’ at the bar, everyone winces. They know what’s coming next. But if someone shouts ‘mezcal’, there’s a silence and some strange looks.
“What’s that?” someone will ask.
“It’s like tequila,” comes the reply.
Cue more wincing. Especially from me. Now that I’ve tried mezcal and have spoken to people in the know, I understand that these two spirits are worlds apart.
So what is the difference between tequila and mezcal?
The most important difference is that – because mezcal is roasted – it has a smoky flavour that tequila, which is steamed, never has. The difference in flavour really is profound and makes mezcal a much tastier drink… in my opinion!
It goes without saying that there are some beautifully made tequilas out there. But there are also some very poor ones too. To be certain you’re getting a high quality tequila, make sure it says ‘100% agave’ on the bottle. If not, you might be looking at something with as little as 51% agave and 49% other spirits mixed in.
Providing you’re buying authentic mezcal (look for the little green leaf on the bottle), you’ll only ever be drinking 100% agave mezcal. All mezcal is made by hand.
The agave plant looks much like a cactus (but is actually a type of lily) and there are many types. Tequila should only ever be made from the blue agave. On the other hand, mezcal can be made from seven of the types of agave that grow in Mexico, each of which has its own flavours and character.
Some mezcal is so rich in flavour and personality, it’s often compared to a single malt scotch or a fine cognac. Not many tequilas have the scope most mezcals can boast.
There are hand-crafted tequilas out there, but much of it that you buy outside Mexico is mass-produced these days. A lot of mass-produced tequila is also chemically fermented to speed up the process. Mezcal, however, is all handmade and considered a craft spirit.
Here is an accurate diagram of how mezcal is made. It’s a labour-intensive, manual process.
Who knows about mezcal?
I got talking to one of the biggest Australian importers of mezcal and owner of Mr Moustache, Hall St, Bondi Regina Beuno Ros about her favourite subject.
Behind the bar at Mr Moustache around 80 different types and brands of mezcal nestle, much to Regina’s glee.
“We import all the El Jorgorio range, the Nuestra Solidad – that’s our house pour – and the Agave de Cortes,” she explains. “Agave de Cortes is the beginner’s brand. It’s the brand which people start enjoying mezcal and start trying it. They get the smokiness, they get the warm flavour, they get the creamy flavour as well.”
El Jorgorio, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. Harvested only from wild agave, it is much more of a premium brand.
“It’s more spiritual, it’s purer – it’s my favourite brand that we have here,” Regina grins.
And the spirituality of mezcal has an essential role it seems. The Pechuga mezcal, which translates as ‘chicken breast’, is an extremely premium product.
“Pechuga is distilled through a turkey or rabbit carcass. So that also involves a lot of spirituality,” Regina says. “That’s what adds to the price – these are very unique products.”
Another reason for big price tags on some mezcal – Mr Moustache has mezcal at up to $60 a shot – is the rarity of the agave plants themselves. Some agave plants like the Dobadaan are even facing extinction.
“In mezcal, the premium part is how old the plant is, not how many years the mezcal has been ageing. The ageing means nothing. Actually the less it’s aged, the better the mezcal,” Regina tells me.
“The very premium mezcal uses agaves that are 30 years old. So you’ve got to think about the producers waiting 30 years to get money back out of that plant,” Regina says. “The standard is seven years.”
The other main brand sold at Mr Moustache is the Nuestra Solidad. This mezcal is from three different regions and Regina uses this to show the complexity of mezcal, which she compares to that of wine – the same way a Hunter Valley Shiraz is different to a Barossa one.
Regina continues this comparison:
“There’s no better mezcal there’s no worse mezcal. Mezcal is like wine. It adapts to every person’s palate. Our responsibility here at Mr Moustache is to cultivate and educate people here.
Mezcal goes with emotions as well. When you drink one you’ll feel this way, when you drink that one you’ll feel that way, so at the end of the day you’re going to select your favourite one based on the emotion that mezcal gave you.”
To make it easier to find your mezcal soul mate, Mr Moustache* offers mezcal flights, where you can try 15ml samples of four different mezcals. If you haven’t had it before, it’s a great way to get to know this tantalising spirit.
*Sadly, Mr Moustache is no longer in operation.
Mezcal is wonderful stuff indeed. Good tequila is a fine thing too, after all, it’s really just a type of mezcal anyway, but smoky artisan-made mezcal beats one-dimensional, over-distilled factory tequila any day.
Just a heads up, mezcal is made from more than 7 types of agave in Mexico – it’s something between 20 and 30 types, although some of these are more common than others. The diversity of the base materials is another reason why it’s such a complex and interesting spirit. Thanks for sharing this post!
I totally agree, Bob. There are some great tequilas out there. Sadly they’re really quite expensive here in Australia but it’s still nice to splash out once in a while. I think I still prefer mezcal over tequila, but then I like very peaty scotches too.
Thanks for the heads-up on the number of agave plants the mezcal makers use. I was trying to find a bit more information about how many there are, but as with the hazards of internet research – there was lots of conflicting information! In the end I went with a more conservative number! But what you said about the complexity of mezcal is exactly what Regina was telling me. The character of each of the different types of agave really come out in the mezcal.
Thanks again for your comment. Appreciate you stopping by. 🙂
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