All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
Both spirits are made from the hearts of agave plants. Tequila hearts are steam-cooked, while mezcal hearts are often roasted in the earth for days, giving them earthy, smoky flavors. Tequila is distilled at least twice, to strip out impurities and give it a clean flavor. Mezcal may be bottled after a single distillation, and it tends to have a more rustic character.
High-quality tequila is made entirely from the blue variety of Agave tequilana Weber, by a government-regulated distillery, and only in strictly delineated regions of Mexico. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from dozens of agave species, and it is distilled in far-flung hamlets all over the country. One type of agave, called Tobala, grows only in the wild, and must be hunted like truffles.
Tequila is indeed a type of mezcal – but it is a highly refined one. Tequila production is tightly controlled, while mezcal is subject to looser regulations that leave more room for producers to impart personality and regional character to their spirits.
It might sound like we’re talking about terroir here – and in fact, we are. Great mezcal expresses its terroir like the finest Burgundy; one reason why mezcals are some of the most exciting spirits on our shelves right now. While only one variety of agave is permitted in the five states denominated for tequila production, terroir still plays a role in style, particularly near Jalisco in the state of Nayarit, where the majority of tequila comes from.
The main growing environments can be broken into two categories: Highlands and Lowlands. The Highland climate is cooler, with a terrain rich in minerals: this yields a much larger agave and produces sweet and fruity tequila. The Lowland climate is slightly warmer, with volcanic soils: this yields a smaller agave that produces more herbaceous, earthy, and vegetal tequila.
Because agave takes 8-10 years to mature, the climate for those years is very important to the final outcome of the tequila. Additional factors such as precipitation levels and humidity are followed closely, and it is up to the Jimador who works the land to know and understand when the agave is ripe. It’s a time-honored art form that dates back centuries.
Some Staff Favorites:
Herencia Mexicana Blanco Tequila (Staff Pick)
This tequila just seems determined to make you fall in love with it. With its heady nose of deep jasmine flowers, lemon, and sweet sap, stopping to smell the flowers never had more meaning. Classic and delicious on the palate with gorgeous notes of sweet agave, mineral, and pepper. Gorgeous texture and gentle but complex spice elements help keep the senses thoroughly stimulated. The best value I’ve ever seen for a true tequila of this quality; the only bad thing about it will be the day that it runs out. Equally a must for the connoisseur and beginner alike. -NAB
Dos Manos Blanco Tequila (Staff Pick)
Clearly outlined in Article 4, Section 5 in the Tequila Trade Agreement between the U.S.A. and Mexico: There will be no corrective or punitive punishment of bottling facilities in the U.S.A. for not complying with the Official Mexican Standard of Tequila. Basically, strict Mexican tequila laws, for cheap Tequila producers that export in bulk to the U.S.A. for bottling, do not apply. Since I read this, I have been extremely careful with cheap tequila to avoid drinking tampered product. Is it bottled in Mexico? Does the label say 100% “puro de agave?” These are all good indicators of initial Tequila quality. When I found Dos Manos, I jumped for joy. Bottled in Mexico, 100% agave, delicious, versatile and CHEAP! Dos Manos blanco is good for everything; use it for mixing, sipping, and shooting without fear of a horrible hangover.-DF
Fidencio Clásico Mezcal
This Espadín agave mezcal is produced by roasting their estate grown agave in the traditional method, which for the Zapotecs, is in a stone lined earthen pit. The smoke, however, doesn’t take over the clay and minerality that we like so much and also provides just a touch of roasted herbs.