What’s the Difference Between Mezcal and Tequila?

If you’re a fan of margaritas or other tequila-based cocktails, you’ve probably seen mezcal popping up on menus right alongside tequila. But what is mezcal – and what makes it different from its agave cousin, tequila? Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, we asked our expert mixologist, Joey Torkelson, to school us on all things mezcal.

Q: Everyone is familiar with tequila, but your average consumer isn’t as familiar with mezcal? How would you describe it?

A: Amazingly enough, mezcal doesn’t really taste like tequila at all. Mezcal has a smokiness that sets it apart from most, if not all, spirits. If you have ever tasted chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, you will have the basic concept of what Mezcal resembles – but in a liquid form of course. 

Q: What makes mezcal different from tequila?

A: The first thing to keep in mind is that all tequilas are technically mezcals, much like scotch or bourbon are all part of the whiskey family – but not all mezcals are tequilas. Mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plant species while tequila can only be made from blue agave.

The production process is what also sets the two spirits apart. Typically, tequila is made by steaming the blue agave inside industrial ovens before distilling it two or three times in copper pots. On the other hand, producers cook mezcal in earthen pits lined with lava rocks and filled with charcoal and wood before they distill the mezcal in clay pots.

The aging process of both tequila and mezcal is varied depending on the end flavor profile determined by the distiller, such as using oak casks versus metal. The aging process for tequila varies, which is how distillers produce blanco, resposado and anejo tequila – they’re all aged for different amounts of time, causing the tequila to darken as it ages.

Q: In general, how does mezcal’s flavor compare to the flavor of tequila?

A: Generally speaking, tequila tends to have a smooth, sweet flavor, whereas mezcal is often described as savory and smoky.

Q: Which flavors pair well with mezcal?

A: Just as one would cut a lime while drinking a nice tequila, orange slices and sal de gusano would be the perfect pairing while sipping Mezcal. Meaning “worm salt” sal de gusano provides an earthy, umami taste that pairs well with the smokiness of mezcal. I urge you to seek it out and try it for yourself – you will be both amazed and intrigued. Grapefruit, hibiscus, chocolate covered espresso beans and even Tajin are also great partners with mezcal.

Q: Do you have any favorite mezcal recipes?

A: Well, of course I do! First and foremost, I really enjoy sipping mezcal on its own.  At a trade show a few years back, I made a Smoky Paloma for the attendees. It seemed too polarizing for the masses, which it definitely can be. Thereafter a colleague and I thought we would give it a try on its own. I particularly like the Casamigos brand – it comes in a beautiful frosted charcoal bottle! 

Try Joey’s Smoky Paloma recipe:

  • 5 oz. Mezcal (I prefer Casamigos)
  • 1 oz. Island Oasis Margarita Mix
  • 3 oz. Fresh Squeezed Grapefruit Juice or Simply Grapefruit Juice
  • 3 oz. Carbonated Water
  • Directions: Pour all ingredients over ice; stir and serve in 16 ounce glass. Garnish with a salted rim.

*Expert tip: Substitute 1 oz. tequila for 1 oz. of Mezcal if you find the flavor too polarizing 

Mezcal is an acquired taste. Your first sip may remind you of the first beer that you tasted. You will probably make a “face” and wonder what all the fuss is about. As you continue your spirits journey, you may or may not end up loving Mezcal. You never know until you try! Cheers!

Want more pro bar tips from Joey? Visit the Island Oasis Margarita of the Month page for monthly tips and recipes.