What’s the Difference Between Mezcal & Tequila?

If you love tequila, then it's time to meet mezcal! Learn what mezcal is along with a tasty beverage to try it out.

Whether it’s to use in a margarita, Paloma or a Bloody Maria, tequila is my go-to spirit. It’s a versatile liquor that mixes well with whichever sparkling water flavor is hiding in the back of my fridge or can be whipped up into a quick fresh lime margarita. But tequila may have met its match with a bold up-and-coming liquor.

Psst: These are the best brands of tequila for margaritas!

While on a recent visit to a local tequilería my bartender introduced me to tequila’s smoky cousin, mezcal. With my first sip, I was immediately hit with a strong smoky flavor that reminded me of delicious barbecued meat. As I kept sipping, the smokiness mellowed out and I was left with a rich, earthy, almost savory finish that was beyond smooth. Needless to say, I was in love. When I got home from the tequilería, I knew I had to find out everything I could about mezcal. Here’s what I found:

What is mezcal?

Mezcal is a distilled alcohol that is made from any type of agave plant from nine states in Mexico. According to The New York Times, the heart of an agave, or piña, is harvested from the plant and roasted in underground ovens over hot rocks. Roasting the heart in this manner gives the liquor that deep, smoky flavor that makes mezcal so distinctive (and delicious). After roasting, the hearts are mashed, added to a barrel with water and left to ferment. The mixture is then distilled twice, bottled and sold around the world.

Mezcal is regulated in Mexico by the Norma Official Mexicana (NOM) which legally certifies brands’ mezcal genuine. Some of the restrictions include:

  • Using agave from one of nine Mexican states
  • Having an alcohol volume between 35-55%
  • Manufactured in a way specific to one of three mezcal types

Only mezcals that meet the standards put forth by the Norma Official Mexicana can call themselves mezcal.

In the United States, mezcal is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) which states that mezcal has to be “made in Mexico, in compliance with the laws and regulations of Mexico governing the manufacture of Mezcal for consumption in that country,” be at least 40% alcohol volume and have no added flavorings or color. Any mezcals that don’t meet these requirements would be called agave liquor or spirit.

So, how is mezcal different from tequila?

While mezcal is smoky, tequila is smoke-free. Genuine tequila is made with blue agave in Tequila, Mexico or the Jaliscan Highlands. The blue agave hearts are then fermented in a similar method as mezcal, however, they are not baked in underground ovens. This results in a very different flavor profile from mezcal in that tequila is brighter and a bit sweeter.

Does mezcal always have a worm in it?

Definitely not. While worms do live in agave leaves, adding one to a bottle of mezcal is not standard practice, according to a 2015 article from Maxim. In the article, Fausto Zapata, a co-founder of El Silencio mezcal, explains that adding a worm was just a marketing tactic to get more people to try, or be dared to try, mezcal. Most brands of mezcal do not include a little larva in their bottle—so there’s no need to fear!

What do I drink mezcal with?

The traditional way to drink mezcal is to sip it chilled. If you’re new to mezcal, though, the strong, earthy flavor might be a bit overpowering. Try it instead in for your favorite tequila drinks. Check out our favorite tequila drink recipes for inspiration. My favorite way to drink mezcal is in a bloody mary. Here’s my go-to Bloody Maria recipe, which comes from our Test Kitchen at Taste of Home:

How to Make a Bloody Maria with Mezcal

What you’ll need:

  • 4 cups tomato juice, chilled
  • 8 ounces mezcal
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 4 to 8 teaspoons juice from pickled jalapeno slices
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 to 4 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish, optional
  • Pickled jalapeno slices
  • Pepper jack cheese, cubed
  • Lime wedges

Yield: 6 servings

Editor Note: Our favorite brand of mezcal at Taste of Home is Mezcal Union’s Joven mezcal. It has a deeply smoky flavor that we love and has the smooth texture of fine scotch. You can pick up a bottle at Drizly online or find a brick-and-motor store on Mezcal Union’s website.

  1. Mix the first eight ingredients together in a 2-quart pitcher. Stir in the horseradish, if you want to include it.
  2. Divide the drink between 6 pint glasses filled with ice and top with the pickled jalapeno, jack cheese and lime wedges.
  3. Serve and enjoy responsibly.

If you’re still a fan of tequila over mezcal, learn about what to mix with tequila for an interesting twist.

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Caroline Stanko
As an Associate Digital Editor, Caroline writes and edits all things food-related and helps produce videos for Taste of Home. When she’s not at her desk, you can probably find Caroline cooking up a feast, planning her next trip abroad or daydreaming about her golden retriever, Mac.