On a recent visit to a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, I sat at the bar and eavesdropped on a conversation between a bartender and a patron. The customer was a well-dressed woman in her thirties, nursing a blue-hued margarita. The bartender was the surly sort. The woman politely asked the barman what the difference was between Tequila and mescal (also spelled "mezcal"). Looking put-upon, the bartender leaned forward and tersely replied, "Tequila is Christian Dior. Mescal is Army/Navy store." Perplexed, the woman nodded while the barman shuffled away to fill a waiter’s order.
Noticing that my gaze was directed her way, the woman shrugged at me. As the ever-gallant know-it-all, I chimed in, saying, "I think he was implying that some people perceive Tequila as more sophisticated and easier to drink than mescal."
"What are they made from, grapes?" she asked.
"No," I replied, showing off just a little, "they’re made in Mexico from different varieties of the plant family called agave. Even though Tequila and mescal both come from agave plants, they’re miles apart in character. Kind of similar to how many brandy lovers view Cognac and Armagnac. Both are made from grapes in France, yet Cognac is typically viewed as being elegant while Armagnac is painted as being kind of, well, rustic by comparison."
"So, bottom line, you’re saying that Tequila is better-tasting than mescal?" wondered the woman.
"Not necessarily, but to people who like smoother, less aggressive spirits, probably, yes," I answered. "But, there’s much more to it than…"
Unfortunately, our chat was cut short by the arrival of the woman’s friend, leaving me alone with the brusque bartender. The fascinating, admittedly long-winded exposition that would have riveted the woman to her barstool, I now bestow upon you.
Agave from the ground up
Mescal and Tequila are both created from the fermented and distilled juice of agave plants. There, the similarities pretty much end. Agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) is the botanical name of the flowering plants with lance-like spikes that are members of the greater Liliales (lily) family. Farmers who cultivate agaves over tens of thousands of acres throughout west-central and southern Mexico collectively prefer the traditional agricultural name, maguey (MAH-gay). Maguey is derived from the Náhuatl Indian word, mahayuel, a term that was employed centuries ago when native Aztec holy men invoked the god of the plant.
A Short List of Intriguing Tequilas and Mescals
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Reposado 100% Agave Tequila, $70.
Amate Blanco 100% Agave Tequila, $40.
AsomBroso El Platino 100% Agave Tequila, $50.
Don Eduardo Reposado 100% Agave Tequila, $43.
El Tesoro Reposado 100% Agave Tequila, $40.
Fina Estampa Reposado 100% Agave Tequila, $43.
Herencia de Plata Silver 100% Agave Tequila, $36.
Scorpion Reposado 100% Agave Mezcal with Scorpion, Lot #37, $37.
Scorpion Mezcal Anejo 5 Years Old, $180.
Tequila Corralejo Anejo 100% Agave Tequila, $62.
Tequila Tezón Reposado 100% Agave Tequila, $65.
1800 Antigua Reserva Anejo 100% Agave Tequila, $39.
Gran Centenario Plata 100% Agave Tequila, $50.
Scorpion Mezcal Anejo 7 Years Old, $225.
La Reliquia Reposado 100% Agave Mezcal with Worm, $30.
Oro de Tezón Oaxaca 100% Agave Mezcal with Worm, $20.
The agave family tree includes many distinct branches. Some botanists now estimate that there may be as many as 400 to 500 individual types of agave. American gardeners are familiar with ornamental agaves, especially Yucca and Century plants that thrive in warm, dry climates and poor soils. Other types of agave are grown throughout the tropics, not for their juice, but for their leaf fibers which, when processed, make strong grades of cords, like sisal hemp.
It was in pre-Colombian Mexico that the first agave-based beverage developed. Aztec farmers cultivated agave plants and made this naturally fermented, milky-looking drink called pulque (PUHL-kay) from sweet, syrupy agave juice. Pulque had a low, 5 to 7 percent alcohol content range. Following the Conquistador invasion in 1519, Spanish settlers introduced pot still distillation to Mexico. Soon after, the first agave-based distillates appeared. These raw, crude spirits were the progenitors of Tequila and mescal. While there are several regional styles of agave-based spirits distilled in Mexico (sotol, bacanora and comiteca among them), Tequila and mescal are the most prominent on the international stage.
Upscale icons and wicked attitudes
Tequila sales continue to steadily grow in the United States (up 8.6 percent in 2004) and far overshadow the comparatively meager sales of mescal. What’s driving this momentum is the continued popularity of the margarita. But increasingly, people are also enjoying premium and superpremium Tequilas as sipping spirits or as shots. Considered an oddity with a naughty image before the 1990s, Tequila has become a polished mainstream libation in the span of one generation. Where a standard 750-milliliter bottle of Tequila once sold for $12, now there is a plethora of $75 ultrapremium bottlings. Mescal, by contrast, has the same image that Tequila had in the 1970s: It’s an arcane and obscure south-of-the-border spirit with a wicked reputation.
In addition to dissimilarities in public profile, Tequila and mescal have inherent differences in pedigree, place of origin, manufac- ture and essence.
All Tequila is produced in five west-central Mexican states: Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas. Jalisco is the epicenter of the Tequila industry and is home to most of the distilleries. Tequila is legally made in two fundamental types: 100-percent agave and mixto. Those bottled as "100% agave" are comprised totally from the fermented and twice-distilled juice of one kind of agave plant, the blue agave. The official botanical moniker of blue agave is Agave Tequiliana Weber azul, named after the German botanist, F. Weber, who classified agaves at the turn of the 20th century. Herbaceous, 100-percent agave Tequilas are considered Mexico’s elite offerings.
The lesser class of Tequila, mixto (pronounced MEES-toh) is a marriage of convenience between pure blue agave spirits and what are termed "other" sugar cane-based spirits. The saving grace of mixtos is that, by law, blue agave distillate makes up the majority of the blend. Typically, smooth-tasting, 100- percent agave Tequilas are of higher quality than mixtos and, therefore, cost more. Most mixtos are perfectly suitable for mixing in cocktails, though nowadays enlightened bartenders make particularly distinctive mixed drinks with the more flavorful 100 percent agave Tequilas. Tequilas labeled blanco (white) are not aged in wood containers, while those labeled as reposado (rested) and anejo (old) are matured in oak barrels. All Tequilas are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof).
Tequilas in the premium ($20 and up) and superpremium ranges (more than $30) have benefited both from advanced technology and modern distilling philosophies and, as such, are acknowledged by spirits experts as being clean-drinking, cultured spirits of world-class stature. One final item about Tequila: Unlike some cheaper brands of mescals, Tequilas do not have, and never have had, worms in the bottles.
Mescal, by contrast, is made from any of five agave varieties rather than one. The five non-blue agave types are one pivotal reason for mescal’s marked taste difference from smoother, silkier Tequila. Mescal production originates in primitive factories called palenques that are located in the five south-central Mexican states of Oaxaca, Durango, San Luis Potasi, Guerrero and Zacatecas. Alcohol-by-volume content of mescal ranges from a low of 40 percent up to a high of 47.5 percent in more specialized bottlings.
One more important point of difference is in the distillation method. While Tequilas have nearly always been double-distilled in pot stills, mescals for decades were, and for the most part still are, distilled only once. This means that many natural chemical compounds and oils remain in the finished product. These are thought in some quarters to be negative traits that gave off musky odors reminiscent of burning tires, rotting meat or creosote. Mescal proponents argue that these biochemical remnants are what make mescal unique and refreshingly different from Tequila. The champions of mescal claim that mescal is more authentic than Tequila because its chemical properties aren’t stripped away through distillation.
That said, more than a few of the better, pricier mescals are now twice-distilled and, because of that change, are cleaner tasting. Many mescals, however, remain single-distilled. The mescal distillers looking to appeal to finicky American consumers have also stopped placing a gusano, or worm, in their mescals. Only the low-end brands that trade off their outlaw images, like Monte Albán, Gusano Rojo, and the most traditional distillers continue with that practice. A very good brand named Scorpion includes a small scorpion in its bottles.
Mescals have become surprisingly specialized as demand has gradually grown. There are even so-called "single village" mescals bottled under the Del Maguey label. These highly idiosyncratic mescals come from individual municipal locations in Oaxaca. Other high-end mescals are being matured in oak barrels for periods as long as five or more years.
Will mescal eventually evolve to the point where it will become the next…well, Tequila? Dedicated mescal mavens hope not.
The message from mescal distillers is simple: The fact that mescals are different from Tequilas is their heritage and primary virtue. Many mescal supporters contend that Tequilas, in their ascent to fame, have in the process become boringly homogenized.
This much I do know: Mescals will be seen more and more in the American market. The more the consumer knows, the better the choices he/she will be able to make regarding Mexico’s fascinating agave spirits.
Now, if you find yourself a stranger in a strange town, and someone should ask about the difference between Tequila and mescal, you are locked and loaded.