Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, learn to enjoy (and tell the difference) between two of Mexico's finest spirits, Mezcal and Tequila!
When it comes time to reach South of the border for liquid refreshment, you have a number of solid spirits to choose from. Tequila is the most popular agave-based booze that hails from Mexico, but a growing interest in mezcal has led to a showdown for the public’s palate. Here’s what you need to know about each category, along with drink recipes that showcase the tastiest attributes of both beverages.
What’s The Same
Both of these spirits are distilled from the agave plant and both are made in Mexico, but just because they have the same base doesn’t mean they are identical twins. Different preparation methods insure completely different flavor profiles - just like you can get Cognac, vodka or wine using grapes as a base.
While mezcal can be produced anywhere, authentic tequila can only be distilled in specific, approved regions in Mexico, notably the Jalisco region.
To be true tequila, it must use blue agave. While there are many different types of agave, only the blue version of the plant that gives this spirit its punch is used in the distillation process. The rules surrounding mezcal, on the other hand, aren’t that strict. The spirit can be made using a variety of agave, and some would argue that tequila is just one of the many types of mezcal. (Controversy alert: even though that’s technically accurate, tequila lovers would not likely agree. So be careful who you’re talking to if you’re going to choose sides!)
Most mezcals are made with a key added step in the preparation process that adds a wallop of smoke to the mix. After the agave plants are harvested, they are baked over coals, and this provides a hefty hit of char that makes its way to the end product. Think of the end product as like the Mexican version of a peaty Scotch.
Sometimes a worm is added during the bottling process and while there are a number of theories as to why this is done, it has definitely become a signature feature of some mezcals.
Tequila is a vast category; you can find labels that are so smooth that they could almost be mistaken for vodka and others that are so meaty that they should be sipped with one or two ice cubes and enjoyed for flavor like any other fine spirit. There are three basic categories you need to know:
Blanco: The purest form of tequila. Think of this variety as blue-agave, unadorned. These varieties are usually clear and have not been aged – they make great mixers and are a good place for a novice to start.
Reposado: It’s important to note that the differences here don’t necessarily mean a tastier product. Reposado tequilas are aged in barrels for less than year, changing the flavor profile. The wood that makes up the barrel seeps into the liquid, which usually emerges with a light-brown hue.
Anejo: Fancy tequila (its sister category Extra Anejo is extra-fancy). Anejo labels are aged for more than a year in a barrel. All of that extra time and effort means you’ll experience lots of extra nuance in the flavor department, along with a higher price tag in the financial department. These are for serious sippers.
Cocktails to Try
Mezcal: The best way to get started with mezcal is just to swap it into a traditional margarita for a Mezcal-rita. This will let you experience the smoke without being overwhelmed by it.
- 2 ounces of mezcal
- 1 ounce of lime juice
- ½ ounce of triple sec or Cointreau
- 1 teaspoon simple syrup or agave syrup
Salt your glass. Mix all ingredients with ice in a shaker and shake it up until chilled. Serve in your glass and garnish with a lime wedge.
Tequila: For a nice variation on the classic tequila-based margarita, mix yourself one of these citrusy concoctions, which replaces the traditional lime with grapefruit juice.
- 1.5 ounces blanco tequila
- 3 ounces grapefruit juice
- Float of club soda
- Wedge of lime
Pour ingredients into a highball glass filed with ice, using whatever amount of club soda you need to top off your beverage. Use can use a wedge of lime to garnish the glass (which also is tasty with a salted rim, for the record)
Whether you choose to mix 'em or just sip 'em, let us know which one of these fine spirits you prefer: Mezcal or tequila!