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What Is Mezcal? (Hint: It’s *Not* a Type of Tequila)

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You and tequila go way back, and not a single Taco Tuesday passes without a freshly shaken margarita from your favorite cantina. But you may have noticed another liquor on their menu too: mezcal. Whether you’ve heard your budding mixologist friend rave about it or noticed it at your local bar, there’s no doubt that the Mexican spirit is everywhere as of late. (In fact, the U.S. surpassed Mexico as the top market for mezcal back in 2020.) So, what is mezcal anyway, and how is it different from tequila? We tapped Benjamin Nava, master mezcalier at Marriott Cancun Resort, and Sonya Vega Auvray, founder of Doña Vega Mezcal, for the facts.

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What Is Mezcal?

Mezcal—derived from the Nahuatl word for “oven-cooked agave plant,” mexcalmetl—is defined as any agave-based liquor (including other popular spirits like raicilla and sotol). Most Americans know mezcal to taste smoky, but there are actually many different varieties out there with differing degrees of smokiness. They can taste earthy, fruity, peppery and beyond. Everything from the type of agave plant to the soil to the fermentation method influences the final product’s taste.

The ideal mezcal is balanced, well-rounded and distinct with a notable aroma that’s equal parts floral, herbal and sweet. “When tasting…the alcohol note [should] not invade your palate, and from there it has to awaken the sweet, floral, herbal, mineral and earthy flavors, depending on the type of agave plant that is being tasted,” explains Nava. “In the end, there must be a very pleasant taste of an elegant smokiness but with the distinctive flavor of the cooked agave, some say it’s like roasted pumpkin.”

In Auvray’s opinion, mezcal’s stateside rise can be chalked up to Americans looking for more complex spirits, as well as their mounting interest in wellness. “Most mezcals are organic and not cut with sugars, making it the ‘cleanest’ agave-based spirit,” she says. If you ask Nava, he credits the spirit itself for its growing popularity: “[The] wide fan of aromas and flavors with the diversity of agave plants that can be used to make mezcal is something that has them all fascinated and makes [them] want to know and taste all of the other options that mezcal has to offer.”

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How Is Mezcal Made?

Agave plants are first matured for at least eight years before being harvested. Once they’re picked, the heart of the plant, also called the piña, is roasted for several days, which gives many mezcals their signature smokiness. The roasted plants rest for a few weeks, which allows the agave juice inside the piña husk to ferment. Finally, the juice is distilled to create mezcal. Some distilleries will then age the product in oak barrels to create añejo mezcal.

Because agave takes years to mature, mezcal can be expensive to produce, hence some brands’ higher prices. But you may want to shop based on agave plant rather than cost. “Once you find your favorite agave plant, you can then start looking into the brand names so that you learn to appreciate the expression each maestro mezcalero gives to the mezcal,” explains Nava.

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How Is It Different From Tequila?

To be called tequila, the spirit must hail from Jalisco, Mexico (or one of a few specific municipalities in Michoacan, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas) and be made with at least 51 percent blue agave. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from more than 30 different types of agave in 13 different Mexican states. In terms of flavor, tequila tends to lean more smooth, sweet and earthy while mezcal is typically smoky, savory and nuanced, although there are endless varieties of both to sip on.

Although they’re different spirits, both tend to lend themselves well to similar cocktails and mixers. For instance, mezcal pairs well with citrus juice, so you can easily use it in margaritas and palomas in tequila’s place. Sweet, tropical fruits like mango and passionfruit also complement its bite, as well as spicy or herbaceous ingredients (think ginger-laced mezcal mules and minty mezcal juleps).

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What Should Beginners Look For When Shopping For Mezcal?

Start with something with less of a bite and smooth, subtle smokiness if you’re trying mezcal for the first time. “Whether it’s in a cocktail or served neat, an espadín capón is a smoother sip made with more mature agave,” explains Auvray. She also suggests buying mezcal that has its batch number on the bottle.

Nava says it’s important to make sure its alcohol content is high enough. “In order to enjoy the experience of mezcal…it’s recommended that it is above 90 proof so that you can really find the expression, flavor and aromas of the agave plant…Look for ones made with wild agave plants; it might not be an easy task, but every day you find more and more artisanal products and wild agave plants mezcal, [such] as Sierra Negra, jabalí, bicuishe [and] tobasiche.” (Just FYI, wild agave plants take longer to mature than industry-standard espadín, and mezcaleros require more of them to produce the same amount of mezcal, so wild agave mezcals tend to be rarer, more expensive and more unique in flavor.)

When it comes to sipping it, Auvray suggests a simple, old-school method. “Traditionally, mezcal is to be enjoyed at room temperature from a copita. After taking a sip, you take a bite of an orange slice that is coated in salt to preserve a clean palate for every sip.”