What's The Difference Between Tequila And Mescal?

The short answer: plenty
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

Because of its worldwide reputation and its popularity, many people have the misconception that tequila is Mexico’s only national drink. But we have another national drink, which is starting to create its own buzz in the world: mescal. Unfortunately, mescal often falls in the shadow of its more famous relative, and does not get the praise it deserves, even though some mescal is higher quality than tequila.

2226teqmex.JPGSo, what’s the difference between the two? Basically, tequila is a variety of mescal. Tequila is made using industrial processes that produce high volume quantities. It contains 49% carbohydrates in the ingredients. Mescal is made from traditional processes and is 100% agave, free of chemical additives. (Agave is a plant native to Mexico and the southwest United States. Common names include maguey, or century plant, because of the long time it takes to flower.)

Tequila comes from Jalisco while mescal is from Oaxaca. Both drinks are made from agave, but different types. Tequila only uses the tequilana weber variety of agave while mescal has an extraordinary diversity. At least 30 varieties are used to make it. So, each drink has special flavors and aromas. Sometimes mescals are made from a combination of several varieties of agave. The industrial process involved in making tequila lessens the aromas and flavors offered naturally by the agave plants. Mescal production standards are stricter. Mescal preserves the ancient techniques for processing, ensuring a high quality natural product.

For processing both drinks, the agave pulp leaves are cut from the heart and then grated and squeezed. The juice is mixed with sugarcane juice, corn and yeast. For tequila, it is then fermented for days in steel tanks where twice-distilled water is added. Finally, it is aged in wooden barrels or tanks for two months to seven years. During this period it gets its characteristic color. Sales prices are based on the aging time.

Because certified mescal is 100% agave, mescal is less likely to cause a hangover. To differentiate mescal and tequila by taste, mescal has a strong aromatic flavor and tequila tastes neutral. By appearance, you can recognize the mescal by the worm in the bottle.

In Mexico, mescal is generally drank straight up, not mixed in a cocktail. There are a couple of rituals associated with it. One is saying “Arriba, abajo, al centro y pa’ adentro,” (Up, down, center and in) while toasting the first shot. The other involves spilling a small portion onto the ground as an offering to Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey and the fertility of the earth. While mescal is generally not mixed with any other liquids, some add salt, or eat orange or lime slices with it.

The most traditional Oaxacan way to drink mescal is as a shot, with a plate of fried larvae that’s been ground with chili peppers, salt and lime. You take a pinch of the larvae mixture and place it on your tongue, then immediately being to sip the shot slowly. For first-timers, the flavor can be disagreeable, harsh and even make you cough. It’s an acquired taste.

Mescal has not become as popular as tequila because of its smoky flavor. However, in recent years, mescal has had more sales outside of Mexico than within. A number of bartenders in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, have been introducing more mescal cocktails into their drink menus, but the smoky flavor makes it a challenge. So, for now, mescal does not have a signature drink, the way tequila has the margarita. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try!