Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. All Tequila is not created equal. Ask any connoisseur of Mexico’s finest export and they will tell you that Tequila’s character as a spirit goes far beyond shots and salted rims. Tequila can and should be enjoyed slowly and deliberately. Mezcal is like Tequla’s older brother who smokes… he is still in the family but definitely a different sort of character.
Mezcal (traditionally spelled mescal) is made from the agave plant. Tequila is technically a mezcal, however, there are differences in production technique and in the types of agave used. Tequila is made from a single type of agave plant – the agave tequilana (blue agave) – and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small parts of four other states.
Mezcal can be produced from up to 28 varieties of agave (including blue agave) and is made around the city of Oaxaca. According to official government regulations, it can also officially be produced in some areas of the states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Most mezcals are made from the Espadin agave, although some mezcal producers blend agave varieties to create a distinct flavor.
Mezcal traditionally has a very unique, smoky flavor that makes it fairly easy to distinguish from tequila. It also tends to taste sweeter, or richer, than tequila. Some mezcal producers have adopted production processes similar to tequila, and the resulting mezcal has flavor profile similar to tequila.
Tequila and mezcal classifications:
Silver (also known as blanco) is the Blue Agave spirit in its purest form. It is clear and typically un-aged, where the true flavors and the intensity of the Agave are present, as well as the natural sweetness. It can be bottled directly after distillation, or stored in stainless steel tanks to settle for up to 4 weeks. There are some Blanco products that are aged for up to 2 months to provide a smoother or “Suave” spirit.
Gold Tequila is typically a Mixto, where colorants and flavorings have been added prior to bottling. These “young and adulterated” Tequilas are less expensive and used in many bars and restaurants for “mixed drinks”.
There are exceptions however, as a “Gold” or “Joven” Tequila can also be the result of blending Silver Tequila with a Reposado and/or Añejo Tequila, while keeping the 100% Agave classification.
Reposado Tequila is the first stage of “rested and aged”. The Tequila is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks between 2 months and 11 months. The spirit takes on a golden hue and the taste becomes a good balance between the Agave and wood flavors. Many different types of wood barrels are used for aging, with the most common being American or French oak. Some Tequilas are aged in used bourbon / whiskey, cognac, or wine barrels, and will inherit unique flavors from the previous spirit.
Reposado Tequilas are also referred to as “rested” and “aged”.
After aging for at least one year, Tequila can then be classified as an “Añejo”. The distillers are required to age Añejo Tequila in barrels that do not exceed 600 liters. This aging process darkens the Tequila to an Amber color, and the flavor can become smoother, richer, and more complex.
Añejo Tequilas are also referred to as “aged” and “extra-aged”.
Extra Añejo is a new classification added in the summer of 2006, labeling any Tequila aged more than 3 years, an “Extra Añejo”. Following the same rule as an “Añejo”, the distillers must age the spirit in barrels or containers with a maximum capacity of 600 liters. With this extended amount of aging, the Tequila becomes much darker, more of a Mahogany color, and is so rich that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from other quality aged spirits. After the aging process, the alcohol content must be diluted by adding distilled water. These Extra Añejo’s are extremely smooth and complex.
Extra Añejo Tequilas are also sometimes referred to as “ultra-aged”.
Mezcal is widely known for the agave “worm” (or gusano) that floats toward the bottom of the bottle. It is primarily a marketing gimmick to help boost sales, especially in the United States and Asia. In fact, it is not a “worm” at all, but one of two insect larvae (a caterpillar of a night butterfly or the larvae of the agave snout weevil) that can infest yucca and agave plants.
Tequila never has a worm in the bottle… despite what you may have heard. Legend has it that consuming a mezcal worm is so saturated in liquor that eating it will cause a hallucinogenic reaction. This unfortunately has no truth to it but it will test your machismo.
As a cocktail
Mezcal can be taken enjoyed slowly or worked into perfection as a cocktail. For a creative take on what to do with a mezcal ajejo try this invention by a local Miami mixologist. The “Dusty Rose” combines elements of smoke and spice with a fruit flavor that reminds you of Miami. This cocktail is perfect for a warm night on your balcony with a Cuban cigar in hand. It’s definitely not your average Dusty Rose.
Ingredients: The Dusty Rose
2 oz of mezcal anejo
1 oz of lime juice
5 pièces of pineapple
1 oz syrup of jalapeño infuse agave
Smoky spray ( mezcal fidencio )
The Mezcal used in this Dusty Rose is the “Zignum Anejo Mezcal.”
It is made from green agave and aged more than a year; this is mezcal with much of the smokiness aged right out of it. You’ll find lots of exotic, tropical, and caramel notes on the nose — but no real smokiness to speak of — enough to make you think this is standard tequila and not a mezcal at all. It’s more like an unlit cigar than a cigar being smoked on your front porch- not that that is a bad thing. If you’re a tequila fan looking to dip a toe into mezcal, this is a great place to start.