Tequila, and its fellow countryman, mezcal, are both made by distilling the fermented juice of agave plants. However, by Mexican law, tequila is only made with a single type of agave, ‘blue agave’, and can only be produced in specifically designated geographies (primarily the Mexican state of Jalisco).
On the other hand …
The Mexican state of Oaxaca (wa-hawk-a) is considered the home of mezcal and a traditional center for mezcal making in Mexico; producing roughly 60% of the country’s mezcal. Because Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, it relies heavily on the success of the product abroad. In addition, mezcal is produced from the maguey plant (one of the many species of agave plants that exist in the Americas). This, plus the fact that agave used to make mezcal is roasted in underground wood-fired pits, gives mezcal its characteristically smoky taste that differs significantly from tequila.
A few more things of note
- Remember the saying all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. Well, similarly, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
- Mezcal or Mescal? Either spelling works just fine; I simply prefer the ‘z’.
- The maguey has very large, thick leaves with points at the ends. When it is mature, it forms a “piña” (heart) in the center from which juice is extracted to convert into mezcal. It takes between seven and fifteen years for the plant to mature, depending on the species and whether it is cultivated or wild.
- Typically you can purchase a bottle of mezcal with or without the gusano (often translated into English as the worm), but keep in mind it sees to be a marketing ploy.