Commonly confused with its cousin tequila, mezcal is a smoky agave-based spirit from Mexico making waves in the states. If you're working on building the home bar, this is one spirit deserving of a spot on the shelf.

By Katlyn Moncada
December 14, 2020
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Native to certain states of Mexico, mezcal is making its way North onto cocktail menus all over the country. In fact, Business Wire predicts the market demand for the agave-based alcohol will grow by more than $980 million in the next four years. But what is mezcal, anyway? If you're like me and not a mixologist or well-versed in types of alcohol, you might wonder what the difference is between mezcal and tequila. They are both agave-based spirits, after all. While this is true, their succulent plant roots are the only relation shared. There are more than 200 varieties of agave. Tequila is solely made from blue Weber agave. Mezcal is made from one (or a combination) of about 30 types of agave that are roasted and fermented. Tequila is a type of mezcal (aka all tequila is mezcal), but all mezcal isn't tequila. Still confused? Totally fine. Read on to learn more about mezcal as well as some delicious ways to drink it if you decide to give it a try.

What Is Mezcal?

Mezcal translates from Nahuatl (a native Aztec language) words metl and ixcalli to "oven-cooked agave." It is commonly referred to as "maguey" in Oaxaca, where the majority of mezcal is produced. Depending on the variety of agave used, the plant is harvested in mature states of up to 15 years! As for the mezcal process, mezcal is cooked in an earthen or stone-lined underground pit for a few days. This helps start its signature smoky flavor. From there, the cooked agave is milled and fermented. Once fermentation is complete, everything (juice and fibers) is distilled up to three times.

Types of Mezcal

The various aging times and processes determine how to categorize the mezcal classes and labels:

  • Blanco (Joven): Unaged and unadulterated, this is the most common class of mezcal.
  • Madurado en vidrio ("Matured in glass"): Mezcal stored in glass for more than 12 months, underground, or somewhere with little change in light, temperature, and humidity.
  • Reposado: Mezcal "rested" in an oak barrels or wooden vessel for a minimum of two months.
  • Añejo: Mezcal aged for a minimum of one year in oak barrels or wooden vessel.
  • Abocado: Flavored or infused mezcal that may include maguey "worms," fruits, or herbs.
  • Destilado con ("Distilled with"): A traditional process in which a second or third distillation is done with other ingredients added to the still.

What's the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

"If you think about it, scotch and bourbon are both whiskeys, right?" says Lou Bank, co-host of podcast Agave Road Trip as well as the founder of S.A.C.R.E.D., a non-profit that helps rural Mexican communities where heritage agave spirits are made. "Mezcal and tequila are both agave spirits." As mentioned earlier, tequila is only made from blue agave, while mezcal is made from one (or more, called an "ensemble") of the 200+ other agave varieties. And while good tequila is 100% agave, Bank says tequila is only required to be 51% agave to be considered tequila. All mezcal, however, contains 100% agave.

Not only is the type of agave different, but Bank says the regions where they're produced is also different. Tequila is produced in five different Mexican states: Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Mezcal is produced in nine states, including Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca (nearly 85% of mezcal produced here), Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

Credit: Courtesy of BeckerArtStudios / Etsy

How to Drink Mezcal

If you're really wanting to experience mezcal the traditional way, you'd drink it out of a vessel known as a copita ($30, Etsy). This small, shallow cup can be made of glass, wood, or ceramic. And since mezcal is a strong alcohol (up to 55% ABV), it's traditionally meant to be sipped and savored slowly from your copita. If you're not a fan of drinking mezcal straight, it's a great base for cocktails.

The Spark Negroni cocktail made with mezcal.
| Credit: Courtesy of Vamonos Riendo Mezcal

Mezcal Cocktails

To introduce you to some of the flavors that would pair well with mezcal, here are some mezcal takes on common cocktails by Oaxacan Alchemy and LA bartender Cari Hah.

The Spark Negroni

1.5 oz. mezcal, such as Vamanos Riendo Mezcal
1 fresh pineapple chunk
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet vermouth

In the bottom of a double Old Fashioned glass place your pineapple chunk. With a flat bottom muddler gently press the pineapple to release some of the juices to the glass. Do not smash it, just press it! Add remaining ingredients. Add a big ice cube and stir. Sprinkle with sea salt on top.

The Optimistic Martini

2 oz. mezcal, such as Vamonos Riendo Mezcal ($69, Reserve Bar)
¾ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. Benedictine
Grapefruit Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with grapefruit oils by gently twisting a grapefruit peel over the glass.

Because tequila and mezcal are related, you can also try getting creative by making a margarita with mezcal. Or for a spicier drink, try our recipe for this smoky pineapple cocktail with some heat from serrano chile pepper.

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