The age of the craft cocktail is upon us, and tequila is the star of the show. It topped the charts in terms of spirit category growth in 2018, according to Nielsen. No longer reserved for shooting back with some table salt and a dried-up lime wedge at your local dive, bartenders have been getting increasingly creative with the Mexican spirit. We’ve seen it infused with chiles to give cocktails a punch of heat and mixed with bright, fresh ingredients like celery and ginger to impart freshness. But there’s another spirit that’s taken over cocktail lists: mezcal.
With a smoky flavor that instantly adds depth to any drink, bartenders have been showing off the wide range of combinations that make mezcal sing—from fruity preparations utilizing pineapple or passionfruit juice to cooling cucumber and even tart kombucha. But what even is mezcal, and how does it differ from tequila? You don’t need to know the differentiating factors to enjoy a cocktail prepared with it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to speak with authority when ordering.
First, let’s bring it back to tequila just for a minute. Tequila is a spirit produced with agave and has something called an appellation of origin—meaning it can only be made with one single type of agave: the Tequilana weber blue, or blue agave. That Appellation of Tequila origin also means that tequila is exclusively and legally produced in five states in Mexico, including the state of Jalisco where the spirit was first discovered. There are four varieties of tequila—blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo, which is aged for at least three years in a barrel.
Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from dozens of agave varieties that have completely different characteristics depending on where the agave is grown. Another important thing to note is that tequila is actually a type of mezcal, similar to how scotch is a type of whiskey. While all tequilas can also be considered mezcals, not all mezcals are produced using the same distinct process tequila goes through.
“In tequila production, there’s a combination between technology and tradition, where technology is used to make distilleries more efficient and deliver consistency in each bottle,” says Graciela González of Destiladora González González. “Mezcal is known for its artisanal methods that add the flavor and smokiness that makes the spirit so unique.” While González prefers her tequila neat, we’re definitely thinking of copying the distiller’s simple preparation of mezcal: neat with an orange wedge and a dash of cinnamon.
The word mezcal also carries somewhat of a double meaning, which is what leads to popular confusion about the spirit. “As a generic word, mezcal is the native name of all types of agaves and is the name given to any distilled beverage obtained from agaves,” says Grisel Vargas, a Tequila Connoisseur of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry. She says that mezcal also refers to a specific distilled beverage from 14 different types of agaves approved by the Mezcal Regulatory Council.
That smooth, smoky flavor we’ve come to associate with mezcal? That comes from the cooking process of the agave, which happens in wood-fire ground ovens. In Mexico they say mezcal should be enjoyed slowly. When sipping, mezcal is “meant to be kissed” in order to truly appreciate all of its distinct flavors.