If you try to keep up with craft cocktails, it can seem like there’s always a new spirit you need to learn about. In the past decade or so, you’ve likely heard more and more about mezcal as its popularity has taken off. But, what do you know about it, beyond the fact that it’s ‘smoky?’ Plus, what about tequila? Aren’t they made from the same stuff?
These are fair questions, and if you want to know what’s better for a margarita (tequila) and what deserves to be sipped on its own (mezcal), you’ve come to the right place. Plus, what’s the deal with the worms?
In this article, you’ll learn all about tequila and mezcal, what the differences are between the two, and what similarities they share as well.
Tequila and mezcal are both distilled alcoholic beverages derived from the agave (or maguey) plant. Just like cognac is a kind of brandy, tequila is a kind of mezcal. Both can trace their roots back to pulque, the fermented drink made from aguamiel [literally ‘water’ and ‘honey’], the sap of different agaves, and related plants.Pulque had religious and ritual importance for indigenous people in what became Mexico, all of which was forced to change with the arrival of the Spanish in the fifteenth century. (1)
Distillation upped the alcohol percentage for starters (pulque is around 5-7% alcohol by volume). It also changed the way in which people drank and thought about the beverage. Today, pulque is less popular than beer in Mexico, but tequila and mezcal are known worldwide.
When it comes to knowing what to call the plant out of which tequila and mezcal are made, you’d be forgiven for being confused. This is a place where traditional and scientific names complicate things.
The word maguey was used by the Spanish colonists to describe a whole set of plants in Mexico. They’d first heard the word in the Caribbean to refer to aloe. Maguey looks similar but is only a cousin botanically. Today, you’ll still see a lot of references to maguey in Spanish-language documents referring to tequila and mezcal regulation. (2)
Agave, on the other hand, is a name given by the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. The plant’s namesake is a Theban princess and leader of the Maenads, worshipers of the god of wine Dionysus. She’s responsible for some pretty intense stuff related to Euripides’ play The Bacchae. Rest assured, having a margarita will not do for you what Dionysus did for Agave. (2)
For English-language readers, you’ll most often see ‘agave’ when reading about mezcal and tequila, though there are kinds of mezcal (and other beverages) made out of different plants that wouldn’t qualify for inclusion in tequila.
We’ll start with mezcal.
Mezcal is one kind of spirit made from agave. Plenty of other spirits are made in an almost identical manner—raiclla, sotol, and bacanora , for example—but don’t meet the Mexican government’s classification under the rules of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal.
While tequila can only be made from blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from dozens of different varieties. Each will have its own character, depending on where it was produced and how the agave used was grown and processed. Mezcal is allowed to be produced in nine states in Mexico, though most are made in Oaxaca. The climate, soil composition, and elevation in these states are widely varied, and so too are the spirits they produce.
Agave plants can take between eight and 30 years to mature fully, and each is only used once. When they’re ready to be harvested (which is, itself, tough to tell unless you have plenty of experience), it has to be done by hand. The jimador—the name for someone who farms and harvests agave—needs to pick the right moment. The flower of some agave plants can reach 10 to 15 feet in height, but once they do, the plant is already spoiled for agave production.
Before it can be harvested, the jimador must hack away its leaves with a machete. The sap from the agave plant can irritate the skin, so the harvesting process has to be done carefully. By the time it’s done, the mezcaleros [‘mezcal producers’ or ‘makers’] use their machete blades as shovels to dig out the hearts of the plants, called piñas because of their resemblance to pineapples or pinecones, which are then processed to make mezcal. This process has to be repeated more than a hundred times for a single batch.
Mezcal is made using an earthen oven:
Every mezcal producer has their own process, and they need to be careful. If the roast is overdone, the agave is wasted. Since the plants take many years to mature, this can be a major problem.
Once they’ve been properly roasted, the mezcalero will hack the agave hearts into smaller palm-sized pieces. Those pieces will then get crushed using a method that the producer chooses. The oldest still in use is to smash the heart with a sledgehammer after putting it between two pieces of wood. A more ‘industrial’ method involves putting them under a tahona, which is a large stone wheel that gets pulled in a circle by an ox or burro.
After this, the resulting pulp is taken and placed in open-air barrels made of wood. They leave them to ferment for between four and 10 days, with the time based on the variety of agave, the weather, and how the roast went. This is another place where the mezcalero’s judgment comes into play. If the fermentation stopped here, you’d have pulque.
The first technology used for distillation was clay jugs. Those producers who still use this method will label their mezcal as being produced ‘en barro’ or ‘in clay.’ This adds a minerality and smoothness to the flavour. Other producers use copper stills instead of clay. Some producers distil their product two or even three times.
At this point, you’ve got mezcal. Unlike whiskies or other spirits, mezcal isn’t diluted down to a uniform alcohol percentage, so it will vary a lot based on the specifics of the batch produced. As the industry grows, more and more industrial techniques make their way in from tequila production. (3)
Here are some terms you should know as you start getting into mezcal:
These terms will help you as you navigate the wide world of mezcals.
With all the hype mezcal has been receiving in the last years, you could be forgiven for thinking tequila had been overlooked. What that fails to note is that tequila is still vastly more widely distributed than mezcal. So, what is it, and how is it made?
As mentioned above, tequila is made from blue Weber agave plant or agave tequiliana. It’s native to the state of Jalisco, and can grow taller than two meters. There are important geographical differences in the plant too:
By law, tequila can only be produced in five states, but most production takes place in and around Tequila in the state of Jalisco. Tequila agave is harvested after eight to 10 years, though some distilleries are now harvesting immature plants to keep up with demand.
Unlike mezcal, the agave turned into tequila isn’t roasted the same way. As Jalisco was deforested, they switched to coal- and gas-powered ovens, and today they use steam-powered ones. Some are still made from stone, while others are stainless steel. The agave hearts are baked between 60 and 85 degrees Celsius for between two and three days. Some large distilleries pressure-cook the agave, but this is frowned upon by those passionate about tequila.
To crush the hearts, most distilleries now use mechanical crushers rather than the more traditional methods still favoured by many mezcal producers.
A lot of variation can occur during fermentation. If sugar is added, the resulting tequila is called a mixto [‘mixed’]. As long it has at least 51% agave, it’s still considered tequila, and while there can be some snobbery about what’s best when it’s mixed in a margarita, you may not mind a mixto. (4)
Some other types to keep an eye out for:
You mean the gusano? As in the larva of one of two species of moth found in the agave plant? Who wouldn’t want one in their bottle of liquor? It’s worth reiterating: the worm will not cause any hallucinations, no matter what your cousin who got tricked into eating one in Cancun 20 years ago tells you.
The actual history of why there’s a worm in some bottles (now sold as con gusano, i.e. ‘with worm’) isn’t 100% clear. It’s not an ancient tradition, though the gusanos themselves are a part of pre-conquest cuisine. In Oaxaca, for instance, they’re toasted and mixed with different chili peppers to make sal de gusano [‘worm salt’]. It’s worth noting that, while they have their devotees, this is not a ‘traditional’ accompaniment for mezcal. (5)
How do we know this? One work on the history of the beverage, Mezcal, elixir de larga vida [‘Mezcal, long life elixir’], claims that a former artist who wound up working in a bottle shop came up with the idea in the 1940s. When the shop started bottling mezcal, he had the idea to introduce the worm to distinguish it from the competition. (5)
Some other stories that are told about the worm include:
Just remember—mezcal and tequila aren’t going to make anyone’ trip’ anytime soon. There’s a history of etymological confusion that leads to ‘mescaline’ and mezcal having similar names and nothing else to do with one another.
Some people like the worm and think it adds flavour to the mezcal, and some people think the worm ruins the flavour of mezcal. Just know: it’s not a must, and you won’t find any larva in your tequila no matter what. (6)
If you’re curious about mezcal and tequila after reading this article, give Don Taco a visit. If you come by on Thursdays, you can enjoy a $5 margarita. You can also consider trying a paloma, a cocktail that mixes tequila with grapefruit before finishing it with lime and a salt rim.
If you’re curious about mezcal, give one of our mezcal tasting plates a try. Remember, it’s meant to be sipped and enjoyed. With the newfound knowledge about its production process you’ve gained here, you’ll have plenty to talk about
Remember, no worms necessary, just good flavours and good times.