In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
As mezcal continues to maneuver its way onto more cocktail lists across the country, it’s time to clear up the main source of confusion which still clouds its popularity for those who are newly exposed to the spirit. Is mezcal a type of tequila? Or is tequila a type of mezcal? Or are they just wholly separate spirits which both happen to hail from Mexico?
Tequila is a type of mezcal. I know, I know, that can’t make sense, because we’re only just now hearing about mezcal, whereas frat house floors have reeked with rotgut tequila for decades, and tequila-based margaritas have been a staple cocktail for party hosts and beachgoers for even longer than that.
The quick and easy way to make sense of it though is to consider the agave family tree. Agaves are a genus of flowering plants, and there are hundreds of different species, most of which can be found in Mexico. Mezcal can be made from any of them.
More specifically, mezcal is a Mexican distilled spirit made from agave. The tradition of distilling agave in Mexico stretches back at least four to five centuries, and it was being fermented into pulque—loosely speaking, agave beer—far longer than that. So these plants were always seen as a choice source of intoxication for the peoples who lived in the region.
Tequila, on the other hand, can be made from only one species of agave, what’s commonly called blue agave and is officially classified as agave tequilana. Tequila must also be made in specific places, most notably Jalisco, although a handful of other locales can produce it as well. The regulations for what became known as tequila were adopted thanks to the ease and affordability of production with blue agave, known for its rapid maturation, high sugar content, and easy cultivation.
Oaxaca is mezcal’s heartland, but the spirit is made all across Mexico, from dozens of different types of agave. Its regulations complicate the matter a bit, as centuries’ worth of mezcal-making traditions have in some cases been shoved aside due to restrictions on where the mezcal (which is bottled, sold, and then in some cases distributed to the United States) can be made. In other words, lots of mezcal being made right now, in the same ways it always has been, can’t be labeled as mezcal.
That’s a topic for another day though. So, long story short, regardless of its newer stateside presence, mezcal is the agave spirit O.G., and sits atop that family tree.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.