Over recent years we have experienced a flurry of Mexican restaurants in the UK, introducing customers to the secrets of Mexican drinking trends, and bringing us a wider selection of agave spirits. Unfortunately, that is still not quite enough, and these spirits are not as well known as you would expect. Some may be able to name a few Tequilas, but when it comes to Mezcal they can’t think of any. Even those who have heard of Mezcal struggle to understand the difference between it and Tequila. Surprisingly, Mezcal production in Mexico is much bigger than the production of Tequila, yet it remains in Tequila’s shadow.
So what is it the Mexicans know that we don’t? Here’s a quick run-down on the differences between Tequila and Mezcal.
What is Mezcal?
Back in the day, Mezcal was mainly drunk by the poor; you wouldn’t see wealthy people drinking Mezcal. This idea of Mezcal being a poor hombre’s drink stayed in people’s minds for a very long time, like grappa was once seen as a poor person’s drink in Italy. It was often sold in bottles without labels (some still are), straight after distilling. It sure didn’t scream quality. Some small production distillers are still not bothered about certification or export, they happily just sell to the surrounding area. But luckily, over the years, perceptions have changed and Mezcal is making its way up to the mainstream market.
There are around 1,200 Mezcal distilleries, big and small, in Mexico. Production takes place in nine different regions in Mexico (most commonly known is Oaxaca) making it the largest area of Denomination of Origin. There are hundreds of agave varieties from which around 30 different agave plants can be used to make Mezcal, unlike Tequila, which can only be made from blue agave. Therefore, there are several types of Mezcal available depending on both the agave used and the region it is made in.
The only thing people tend to know about Mezcal is that it is smoky. The smokiness of Mezcal comes from slow-roasting the hearts of the agave plant, the piñas (they look like pineapples). The hearts are buried underground with hot rocks. The smokiness level depends on the length of roasting and whether the pit is covered with leftover mash from previous distillation. Normally the mash makes the smokiness softer and more mellow. Consider it a sign of quality.
There are also other differences between Tequila and Mezcal when it comes to distillation. Often no yeast is added to Mezcal during fermentation, making the process longer compared to Tequila. Wooden vats are the most common for fermentation, although other containers can also be used, for example, stone, steel tanks or even animal skin. The stills are very old-school, small and partly made with clay, known as ancestral stills. Artisanal Mezcal can be made using 200-500 litre copper stills and some modern distilleries may use stainless steel stills. Mezcal doesn’t need ageing as it has already so much flavour, but there are many aged Mezcals available. Joven is young, unaged Mezcal, Reposado is aged two to 12 months and Añejo minimum of one year. I don’t want to bore you too much about the production; if you are interested in finding out more, see technical stuff section
QuiQuiRiQui, from the village of Santiago Matatlan, has a nice balance of smokiness and sweetness of agave, a great Mezcal for beginners. The Marca Negra range has a great variety of Mezcals: one is made with 100% Espadin agave (which comes as high as 50.2% ABV), one with Dopadán agave, which is not commonly seen for Mezcal production, and Marca Negra Tapeztate is made with wild-grown agave called Marmorata.
And how about Tequila?
Similar to Scotch whisky or Cognac, Tequila can only be produced in a specific region. Tequila comes from the Jalisco region and a few small surrounding areas in Mexico. Tequila has to be made from blue agave. There are some mixto Tequilas (silver, gold) available, where a minimum of 51% blue agave is mixed with other sugars. These are not to be confused with true Tequila, which is made of 100% blue agave. The most well-known mixto brand is probably Jose Cuervo.
Tequila started as a Mezcal. Until the early 1900s many types of agave were used to make Tequila, like with any other Mezcal, but it was commonly known blue agave gave the best, more premium, flavour. As the blue agave plant takes several years to grow, in the 1930s the distillers created a mixto Tequila to meet the increased demand. It wasn’t until 1980s that Tequila reached the mainstream market, and people became more interested in what was in the bottle. The market changed from mixto Tequilas to 100% blue agave, although mixto still remains as a popular choice, especially in America.
Tequila has five categories: Blanco, Joven (Gold), Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo. Blanco is clear in colour and is aged for less than two months. Joven is also a young tequila, which is a often a blend of aged and unaged tequilas. Watch out for “fake” Joven, these are very similar to Blanco, but with added caramel colouring. Reposado has a golden colour and it is aged for two to twelve months. Añejo is darker gold in colour, similar to some whiskies. Añejo means aged, and these Tequilas can be aged for one to three years. Ageing takes place in Bourbon barrels. Extra Añejo is aged minimum of three years.
There are around 100 Tequila producers compared to 1,200 Mezcal. The hearts of blue agave are cooked in stone ovens rather than in roasting pits. The cooked hearts are crushed by machinery. When it comes to the distillation process, the juice is fermented in huge stainless-steel vats. With the help of yeast, the fermentation process will be much faster compared to Mezcal. After fermentation, Tequila is distilled twice. Mezcal production is much more hands-on compared to the processes of Tequila. As there is more demand for Tequila worldwide, their production is much larger scale and done with a help of big machinery.
There are so many great Tequila brands available, but here’s a few to get you started. The full range from Herencia de Plata is great. Their Reposado and Añejo are excellent sipping Tequilas, and Olmeca Altos Plata and Reposado are good in cocktails, although their Reposado is also great neat. Not to be confused with Olmeca Blanco or other Olmeca Tequilas, as these are both mixtos and not 100% blue agave. Don Julio Añejo is aged in American white-oak barrels for 18 months.
How to drink it?
Both Tequila and Mezcal are best served neat at room temperature. Tequila is often enjoyed as a shot, but it really shouldn’t be (you can hardly call it enjoyable). It takes years to make Tequila or Mezcal as agave takes eight to twelve years to grow (some plants can take up to 20 years), therefore it should be sipped and properly appreciated.
The official Tequila glass has a stem and looks like a champagne flute or sherry glass. If you enjoy Tequila from this type of glass it often keeps you from downing the drink all at once. You can also use tall shot glasses. When drinking Mezcal, for authenticity, invest in a copita cup. It’s made with clay, so just make sure it is glazed to avoid getting flavours from the clay. Alternatively, use a tulip glass for tasting or a small short glass for sipping. In Mexico Mezcal is often served with slices of orange and sprinkled with ground chilli and salt.
Tequila can be served with sangrita, a spicy tomato juice, which helps to clean the palate. Both should be sipped. In Mexico you can ask the bartender for a Bandera, and you will be served three drinks: lime juice (green), Tequila (white) and sangrita (red) to reflect the colours of the Mexican flag.
Have you ever tried Mezcal? If yes, what did you think? How do you normally drink Tequila?
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