Meet tequila’s smoking hot cousin

By Mary Tomlinson
May 02, 2018
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You may think you know tequila—the star of margs on taco night, the bracing shot preceding a bite of lime, and the essential liquor in the Rolling Stone’s favorite cocktail. But tequila only represents a fraction of Mexico’s history with agave spirits—a distilling tradition that actually begins with mezcal.

Ah yes, mezcal, that vaguely familiar name buzzing around craft cocktail bars. First, a definition. All liquors distilled from the agave plant—including tequila—are mezcals. Yes, you’ve been technically drinking a mezcal this whole time, you sneaky hipster. All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas.

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What Makes Tequila, Tequila?

Tequila is the product of a specific methodology and place, like many protected appellations (such as Champagne or Cognac). It can only be made in five Mexican states, with 97% coming from the state of Jalisco, home of the city of Tequila and birthplace of the liquor. It also must be made from the blue Weber agave. When the succulents reach peak maturity after seven to ten years of growing in volcanic soil, jimadors cut off the leaves and harvest the piña (the base of the agave) to be steamed, crushed, fermented, and distilled into tequila.

Americans first started drinking tequila during Prohibition, but the beverage became a powerhouse in the ‘70s and ‘80s. With greater demand comes greater scale, and so humble distilleries evolved into beverage behemoths with autoclaves, mechanical agave shredders, stainless steel tanks, and millions cases of tequila. Last year, 17.2 million cases of tequila were sold in the U.S. alone.

So…Then What is Mezcal?

While tequila was off getting famous across the border, mezcal just…kept doing its thing, being produced by small distilleries using the same centuries-old methods. When the agave piñas are harvested (mezcal can be made from up to 30 different varietals of agave, but most are made from espadin agave), they are smoked in earthen pits or stone ovens, imparting mezcal’s signature smoky flavor. The piñas are then crushed under a mule-powered tahona wheel (that’s right: mule-powered). The extracted agave juice is fermented with wild yeast in containers made from wood, clay, animal skins, or tree trunks, then distilled over direct fire in copper or clay stills. The result? An earthy, smoky product with terrior written all over it. The tasting notes of mezcal (mostly made in the state of Oaxaca) are more rustic and smoky—but depending on your bottle, the smoke can be subtle or pronounced.

Roasting agave piñas, Oaxaca, Mexico
Travel Ink Creative/Getty

The artisanal product was practically nonexistent on the American drinking scene until about two decades ago. One of the few Americans who knew of the spirit before then was Ron Cooper, a West Coast artist who first came across mezcal on a ‘60s road trip to Mexico. Still wonderstruck by the spirit 30 years later, Cooper returned to Oaxaca to collect bottles from a breadth of mezcal distilleries, started Del Maguey, and exposed American tastemakers to the unbeknownst spirit. Combined with the cocktail scene’s movement towards craft elements, America has seen a mezcal boom: from 2009 to 2017, sales jumped from 50,000 cases to 360,000 cases.

Del Magey mezcal, Gran Centario Plata, Clase Azul reposado
Courtesy of manufacturer

How to Buy Tequila and Mezcal

To legally be called tequila, it has to consist of at least 51% agave. But seek out bottles made from 100% agave. The rest, called “mixto,” cut the liquor with corn or sugarcane, making a lower quality product that will contribute to hangovers. The assertive, herbaceous flavor of blanco tequilas, aged less than two months, make excellent traditional tequila cocktails. We recommend Gran Centario’s Plata for a classic margarita, a fizzy Lime Paloma or the brunch-ready Carrot Cooler.

As reposado tequilas are aged up to a year in oak barrels, their increased woodiness makes them an superb substitute for whiskey in cocktails—Clase Azul’s 8-month-aged reposado not only mixes well, but looks beautiful on your bar in a blue and white bottle hand-painted in Mexico. Añejo (aged at least one year) and extra añejo (aged 2 to 3 years) tequilas are smooth enough to sip on their own.

Mezcal is a littler trickier to find, but Del Maguey (Ron Cooper’s brand) is one of the better-known purveyors of mezcal in the U.S. The mezcal visionary offers both 100% espadin bottles (the most common varietal of agave used in mezcal) and blends of multiple agave varietals for when you feel like branching out. Houston’s cocktail heavy-hitter Bobby Heugel (The Pastry War, Tongue-Cut Sparrow) recommends the smoky-sweet, vanilla-tinged Mezcal Vago’s Elote, an espadin mezcal infused with roasted sweet corn.

Our Favorite Tequila Recipes

Photo: Greg DuPree; prop styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas; food styling: Torie Cox and Erin Merhar

Kick off this tasty frozen beverage with a quick Red Chile Simple Syrup to blend with frozen mango, blanco tequila, and fresh lime juice. A little bit of heat, a little bit of sweet, and a lot of refreshing flavor.

Hector Sanchez

Swap simple syrup with agave nectar for an all-agave marg that’s worth memorizing.

Illustrations by Nini Tuan

Although invented in Tijuana, the cocktail became popular courtesy of The Rolling Stones. After visiting The Trident bar in Sausalito, Mick Jagger adopted the name (and made it the unofficial drink) for the band's famously debaucherous 1972 tour.

Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine

Mimosas, step aside: brighten up brunch with this sunrise-orange cooler mixed with fresh-pressed carrot juice, tequila, and spicy ginger ale.

Photo: Stephen DeVries; Prop Styling: Lindsey Ellis Beatty and Rachael Burrow; Food Styling: Erin Merhar

Even more popular in Mexico than the margarita, the bitingly refreshing paloma tastes its best with Topo Chico sparkling mineral water sourced and bottled in Monterrey, Mexico.

Our Favorite Mezcal Recipes

Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Mary Clayton Carl

Ease into the world of mezcal with a familiar margarita. A salt rim with a touch of crushed red pepper adds a touch of heat alongside mezcal’s natural smokiness.

Photo: Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey  

The boulevardier—traditionally made with whiskey—takes a turn for the smoky with our mezcal swap. Add the Italian aperitif duo of Aperol and Campari for a sophisticated porch sipper.

Photographer: Greg Dupree, Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton, Prop Styling: Kathleen Varner

The combination of earthy turmeric, smoky mezcal, and chile heat makes this one of chef Preeti Mistry’s favorite cocktails from her Juhu Beach Club Cookbook.