Mezcal –VS– Tequila
Few understand the difference between tequila and mezcal, and many don’t even know there is a difference. While traditionally, all tequilas were known as a type of mezcal. Today, they are distinct products, differentiated by the production process and taste, much the same way rye whisky differs from Scotch whiskey. Most mezcal is made today in the state of Oaxaca, although some is also made in Guerrero and other states. Tequila comes from the northwestern state of Jalisco (and a few nearby areas). They both derive from varieties of the Agave plant, known to the natives as mexcalmetl. Tequila is made from only agave tequilana Weber, blue variety. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from five different varieties of agave. Tequila is double distilled and a few brands even boast triple distillation. Mezcal is often only distilled once.
To make mezcal, the sugar-rich heart of the agave called the piña, is baked in a rock-lined pit oven over charcoal, and covered with layers of palm-fiber mats and earth, giving mezcal a strong, smoky flavor. Tequila piñas are baked or steamed in aboveground ovens or autoclaves.
Tequila and mezcal share a similar amount of alcohol in the bottle (around 38-40%), although mezcals tend to be a little stronger. Because mezcal feels a little more like lava as it flows down the back of your throat it is not quite as popular. This is evident in the number of brands of each type of drink. Currently there are over 500 different brands of tequila while the manlier mezcal boasts only 100 brands.
Another interesting error is an urban legend related to a worm. The worm-in-the-bottle myth is old and tired. The truth has been broadcast and expounded for years by the cognoscenti of tequila, in newspapers, magazines and on the internet. Yes, it’s true, some American-bottled brands put one in their bottle to impress the gringos and boost sales, but it was a marketing ploy developed in the 1940s, not a Mexican tradition.
Sometimes however, there is a worm, properly a butterfly caterpillar, in some types of mezcal. You may also get a small bag of worm salt and chile powder tied to a mezcal bottle. There are two types of worms in mezcal: the red, gusano rojo—considered superior because it lives in the root and heart of the maguey—and the less-prized white or gold gusano de oro, which lives on the leaves. The red gusano turns pale in the mezcal, the gold turns ashen-gray. Both larvae are commonly eaten as food and are sold in Zapotec markets.
Yes, you’re supposed to eat the worm in mezcal. Don’t worry: it’s quite well pickled and free of pesticides (they’re often raised just for use in mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year). But dispel any idea it has any magical or psychotropic properties, that it’s an aphrodisiac or the key to an "unseen world." It’s merely protein and alcohol—but it’s very rich in imagery.
Another common misunderstanding is that tequila is made from a cactus. The reality is that tequila is made from distilled sap from hearts of the agave plant. This plant is actually related to the lily and amaryllis. It is known as a succulent and, although it shares a common habitat with many cacti, it is not one itself. A mature agave has leaves 5–8 feet tall, is 7–12 feet in diameter and has a life span of 8–15 years.
There are 136 species of agave in México, of which the blue agave, agave tequilana Weber azul, is the only one allowed for use in tequila production. Several different species of agave are allowed for use in mezcal, including tobala, a rare and wild species. And just to clear the record, no Mexican alcoholic drink is made from cactus.
Tequila is known to have been the cause of antics and behavior not normally observed in human beings.
There’s a large market of excellent tequilas available in México at $20–$30 USD, and a very good choice in the range from $30-$50 USD. Under $20, most of the tequilas are mass-produced for the local market, and usually a mixture (not 100% agave). Above that price, they’re aiming mostly at the snobbery of the export and premium market, often with collector bottles and recently introduced individually numbered bottles.
Taste is the ultimate deciding factor. Some people prefer the rougher edge of the young blanco tequilas with their more distinct agave flavor. Others like the sharper, almost peppery flavor of a middle-aged reposado. And some may prefer the smooth, woody aroma in an older añejo. Like single-malt scotches, or small-brewery sakes, tequilas vary according to the company making them, the process, and the growing environment. The temperature, soil, types of equipment, age of the plants and the means by which the plants are baked and aged all affect the flavor and body. Fancy packaging, wooden boxes and elegant bottles are now common with premium tequilas. They have become collector’s items in their own right. While they don’t add to the basic quality of the drink in the bottle, they do add to its charm and certainly its visual appeal.