The agave is a noble plant that has been central to the lifestyle of the inhabitants of what is now Central and South America for millennia. In these areas, agaves have been used for food, medicine, building materials, tools, beverages and other items for longer than we have written records of civilization. Today, agaves are recognized worldwide for the premium spirits that their distilled essence creates: Mezcal and Tequila.
Most people are more familiar with Tequila than Mezcal, even though Tequila is a subcategory of Mezcal. Traditionally the word ‘mezcal’ refers to cooked agave; the etymology can be broken down into two Nahua words: ‘metl’ (agave) + ‘ixca’ (cooked) = ‘mezcalli’ (cooked agave). In addition to referring to cooked agave, a sweet caramelized treat that is still enjoyed in traditional markets throughout Mexico today, the word ‘mezcal’ is also traditionally used to refer to any spirit made from cooked, fermented, and distilled agave. Early on, this included the distilled agave spirits from Tequila; the first name for Tequila was ‘Vino De Mezcal De Tequila’ or ‘Cooked Agave Wine From Tequila.’ The mezcal from the area in and around Tequila was so special that it became famous. Because of the socio-political climate and location of Tequila, the regional spirit took on a personality of its own and experienced a unique trajectory of growth, ultimately leading to the multi-billion dollar industry of today’s Tequila. Contemporary Tequila is a far cry from the regionally produced mezcals that made it famous in the first place. While Tequila may be a household name around the world, the true essence of Tequila is difficult to find, with only a handful of producers shining through as diamonds in the rough.
As Tequila broke out as its own spirit, the broader category of Mezcal continued to be a regional specialty across Mexico, with local agave spirit traditions spanning the entirety of the country. A few decades ago the word ‘mezcal’ was given yet another meaning when it became a legally protected term, or Denomination of Origin, for a select group of agave distillates. Similar to ‘Champagne’ which is reserved for a specific type of sparkling wine that has regional rules and regulations, ‘Mezcal’ became a legally protected term. Confusingly, the legally protected term ‘Mezcal’ excludes many traditional agave spirits, and as a result many spirits that would traditionally be recognized as mezcal are called ‘Destilado De Agave’ or ‘Agave Distillate.’ It is worth noting that while these spirits are labeled and legally recognized as ‘Destilado De Agave,’ they are still culturally and colloquially referred to as ‘mezcal.’
So if Tequila is a subcategory of Mezcal, what’s the difference between them today? There are endless variations in production when it comes to artisanal agave spirits, but all agave spirits share the same basic steps. Let’s go through the basics of production, noting the key differences between Tequila and Mezcal.
One major difference between Tequila and Mezcal is the plant variety used to make the spirit. For Tequila, only one variety,” Blue Weber Tequilana,” is allowed, while there are around 40 varieties of agave used to make Mezcal. This makes sense given the regionally specific nature of Tequila, compared to the huge range of regions where Mezcal is made. It is worth noting that historically, a wider range of varieties were used to make Vino De Mezcal De Tequila, and there are still other agave spirits made in the Tequila region from different varieties of agave. Just like grape varieties in wine, different varieties tend to produce different flavors and textures in the resulting beverage. This givesTequila a more consistent and predictable flavor profile than Mezcal, which has a much wider variation.
Depending on external factors like variety of agave, climate of the region, yearly weather patterns, etc, agaves take between 6-30 years to mature before they are ready to harvest for spirit production. Blue agaves for Tequila tend to reach maturity after 6-12 years, and are almost always cultivated in plantations. Agaves for Mezcal can stay in the ground for up to 40 years before harvesting, and are sometimes harvested from the wild, or semi-wild conditions on mountainsides, rather than neatly planted plantations, making harvest more laborious. Traditionally agaves were not harvested during rainy seasons, only during dry seasons when there would be a higher concentration of sugar in the hearts.
To harvest, all agaves have their ‘pencas’ (leaves) cut from the heart, and the heart is removed from the ground, resembling a large pineapple. These agave hearts will then be broken down and prepped for cooking.
Traditional mezcal is made by cooking the agave hearts in an in-ground conical pit, often lined with stones. A wood fire is made in the bottom of the pit along with rocks that turn into red hot coals from the fire. Once heated, the agave hearts are layered into the pit with agave fibers from that last batch as cushioning to prevent scorching. Once the pit is full it is covered with straw mats and/or tarps, then covered with earth and left to cook for around 4 days. This process often imparts a gentle smokiness to the agaves which comes through in the final product.
For Tequila, the agaves are typically cooked in a masonry oven that is powered by steam. Agave hearts are loaded into the oven and heated from below and/or above, sometimes a little bit of the first free run juice is extracted to remove any bitterness. The agave hearts are steam cooked and cooled, a process that typically takes 24 hours, though this can vary widely depending on the producer. Another cooking option for Tequila is the use of an Autoclave, which is essentially a large steel pressure cooker. In both cases the agave is cooked without any wood smoke, leaving the agave flavor unadulterated.
The original way to crush agave after cooking is by hand, with large wooden mallets and machetes. This ancestral technique is still practiced widely throughout regions producing traditional mezcal. Another typical method is the Tahona, a large stone wheel that is drawn by a horse, donkey, or mule; this is common for both Tequila and Mezcal production. Lastly, different kinds of mechanical mills or crushers can be used to shred cooked agaves; we see these being used widely for both Tequila and Mezcal production. Although there is no superior way, the consistency and size of the crushed fiber can influence the fermentation.
This is where the magic happens! Fermentation is widely considered to be the step in production that most greatly impacts that final flavor of the spirit. For Mezcal, the fermentation is almost always natural, meaning it is spontaneous fermentation from the ambient yeasts. One traditional exception to this is the addition of local pulque (fermented agave sap) that works as a fermentation starter. Since pulque is fermented from natural ambient yeasts on the agave, this still counts as 100% natural and spontaneous fermentation.
For Tequila it is more common to add a specific type of yeast for a more controlled fermentation. Some producers cultivate their own strain of yeast to add to their fermentation tanks, which is often considered the crown jewel of a distillery.
There are many variations of stills used for agave spirits, especially when considering traditional mezcal. The style of stills is typically in line with regional practices and materials range from clay pots to hollowed out tree trunks, classic copper alembics, hybrid stills, and stainless steel column stills. The materials used as well as the shape and function of a still impacts the final flavor and texture of a spirit. Each artisanal mezcal should be understood individually, including the materials and type of still.
For Tequila, it is most common to see copper pot stills and stainless steel columns, or continuous, stills. It is also important to note that most artisanal Mezcal stills have a much smaller capacity than Tequila stills.
Resting & Bottling
Once distilled, it is common to rest the agave spirit. For traditional Mezcal, this is typically done in glass or clay jugs. Resting in clay or glass gives the spirit a chance to settle into itself and develop a rich texture and tapestry of flavors. While it is not as common for Mezcal to be rested in wood, some brands do offer wood-aged Mezcals. Mezcal is typically bottled between 43-55% ABV.
For Tequila, resting or aging the spirit in oak barrels, similar to whisky, is a common practice. In addition to settling into itself, the spirit picks up flavor and color from the barrels. Tequila rested in wood for up to 1 year is known as Reposado; up to 3 years as Anejo, and more than 3 years as Extra Anejo. Tequila is typically bottled around 40% ABV.