Tequila is Mexico’s most famous spirit, but mescal, a lesser-known alcohol, is gaining popularity as well. While all tequilas are mezcals -- as mezcals simply refer to agave-based liquor -- not all mezcals are tequilas. There are three key differences between the two.
For one, they are produced in different regions of Mexico, with tequila mainly produced in Jalisco and mezcal mainly produced in Oaxaca. Additionally, by law tequila can only be made using Blue Agave, while mezcal can be made with about 30 separate varieties of agaves (including Blue Agave, although most are made using Agave Espadin). And lastly, tequila and mezcal are produced differently, as the pina -- the part of the agave left after the leaves have been removed -- is cooked differently. When making tequila, the pina is typically cooked in an autoclave before being shredded and fermented. On the other hand, for mezcal it is usually cooked underground using volcanic rock and wood, which is why most mezcals have a very smokey flavor. Interestingly, the notorious worm people often talk about when discussing tequila is actually sometimes found in mezcal but almost never found in tequila.
There are also a number of different traditions that revolve around the two different types of spirits. Let’s start with tequila. While most people tend to do the salt-then-drink-then-lime routine when taking a tequila shot, some bars in Mexico will serve your shot in a traditional hollowed out bull horn vessel. This was once the standard, with the horns being filled with tequila then passed along quickly as there was only a limited supply -- which is how the tequila shot was born. Many Mexicans also enjoy sipping Sangrita -- a mixture of orange, lime, pomegranate and chili powder -- along with their tequila shot to cleanse their palate.
In terms of mezcal, the traditional way to drink it is with an orange wedge coated in worm salt -- a mixture of salt and ground gusano worm. Drink the mezcal then bite the orange.
While tequila and mescal both come from specific places, both can be found throughout Mexico. If you want to tour a distillery, you’ll need to travel to the source of your chosen spirit. Otherwise, the best education is earned by sampling.