Tequila has been a staple on cocktail menus across the country for years, but its smoky flavored relative — mezcal — is reaching new heights of popularity. Made from largely the same ingredients as tequila, mezcal is beginning to catch up as an essential ingredient in Mexican cocktails. Knowing the basic differences between mezcal and tequila will help you select, drink and enjoy each Mexican distilled beverage like a pro.
Mezcal vs Tequila
There are a few key factors that make tequila and mezcal so unique. Tequila, only made from 100% blue agave (technically agave tequilana, a type of succulent), is made in select regions of Mexico - Jalisco, a major state in Western Mexico, is the region with the highest amount of production. The heart of the agave (the piña) is baked in steam ovens before being shredded by machine then fermented and distilled.
Mezcal, on the other hand, is mainly produced in Oaxaca along with a few other regions of Mexico. The type of agave is not as significant, so mezcal can be made from over 30 varieties of agave, including blue agave.
The main difference Between the two liquors, the smoky flavor and aroma of mezcal — it’s most distinguishing feature — is what most people notice. This quality is brought out during the production process when the piñas are roasted in underground pits with volcanic rocks and wood.
Choosing between mezcal and tequila is really a personal preference based on what you're in the mood for at the time. Want a quick guide to explore on your own? Here are a few cocktails that let these Mexican liquors shine.
Great Tequila Cocktails
Photo provided by de cero ¡HELLOTACOS! in Chicago.
Classic Margarita. You can have it frozen, on the rocks, with salt or without. It seems there’s no limit to the fruity flavors that can be added to this refreshing drink. The classic consists of lime juice, tequila and Cointreau or other triple sec (orange-flavored liqueur) on the rocks with a salted rim.
Photo provided by Red O in Los Angeles.
Paloma. Spanish for “dove,” this cocktail is super simple to make. The classic version is tequila with a grapefruit-flavored soda — like Fresca, Squirt or Jarritos — over ice with a lime wedge.
Michelada. A surprising combination, this cocktail includes Mexican lager, tequila, lime juice, a bit of heat (maybe a few dashes of hot sauce) and salt.
Photo provided by Dove’s Luncheonette in Chicago.
Last Word. The original version of this cocktail is made with gin, but the addition of mezcal adds another dimension. Made with equal parts mezcal, green chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino (cherry) liqueur, it’s shaken, strained and served up.
Oaxacan Negroni. Another twist on a classic, this version inserts mezcal where the gin would have been. The smoky notes pair well with the Campari and sweet vermouth. Served with a twist of orange, it makes a perfect apértif.
Margarita. One of the best ways to enjoy mezcal is to use it in place of tequila in a margarita. The smoky essence of the mezcal adds another layer of flavor that is truly delicious.