Mezcal vs. Tequila: A Guide to Agave-based Spirits

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Maguey plants, essential in mezcal production, grow in front of the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman in the historic city center of Oaxaca, Mexico. Gabriel Perez / Getty Images

Tequila and mezcal are two of the most famous agave-based spirits from Mexico, and bartenders sometimes use them interchangeably in mixed drinks. Mezcal cocktails will often have a smokier flavor than ones made with tequila, but what are the other differences?

Here's everything you need to know about mezcal vs. tequila.


What Is Mezcal?

Traditionally, the word "mezcal," which comes from the Nahuatl words "metl" (agave plant) and "ixcalli" (roasted), was used to describe all agave spirits, including tequila. Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila"?

That all changed in 1995, when mezcal received its denominación de origen (DO).


Mezcal Requirements

In order to be called mezcal, a beverage must meet the following requirements:

  • Made from fermented 100% maguey or agave juice. According to the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, about 20 to 40 of the almost 300 different species of agave plants (genus Agavaceae) are used to make mezcal.
  • 35 to 55 percent alcohol by volume
  • Produced in one of 10 Mexican states: Zacatecas, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Puebla, Sinaloa or Oaxaca

Defining mezcal can be tricky — since there are so many varieties — and for so long, "mezcal" served as a sort of catchall term.

Where Is Mezcal Made?

As of this writing, 10 Mexican states can legally produce mezcal: Zacatecas, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Puebla, Sinaloa and Oaxaca. The Mexican government regularly adds new states to the list, with the most recent addition being Sinaloa in 2021.

However, it's likely the mezcal you're sipping comes from Oaxaca. According to the Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, Oaxaca produces 90 percent of the world's mezcal.

Mezcal Production

The Norma Obligatoria Mexicana (NOM) recognizes three types of mezcal: mezcal, mezcal artisanal and mezcal ancestral, defined by their cooking, grinding, fermentation and distillation processes.

  • Cooking method: In ancestral mezcal, the agave hearts, also known as agave piñas, are cooked in traditional pit ovens. The traditional roasting process is why mezcal tastes smoky. Artisanal mezcal may be cooked in masonry ovens, and regular mezcal can be cooked in pressurized ovens.
  • Shredded method: To qualify as ancestral mezcal, the cooked agave must be shredded by hand with a mallet or using simple mill such as a tahona (a stone wheel traditionally drawn by a donkey). Mezcal artisanal can be ground in a trapiche (mill with a wooden wheel) or desgarradora (mechanical shredder). Regular mezcal can be ground in a tren de molinos (industrial mechanical crusher) or difusor, which uses hot water to break down the agave.
  • Fermentation vessel: Ancestral and artisanal mezcal should be fermented in open-top natural vessels made from stone, wood or animal skins. Regular mezcal may be fermented in stainless steel tanks.
  • Distillation process: Mezcal ancestral is distilled over fire in a clay or wood pot. Mezcal artisanal is can be distilled in copper stills or over fire in a copper pot. Regular mezcal can be distilled in continuous or column stills.

Mezcal Aging and Infusions

Aging is more common with tequila than mezcal, but you can find some aged mezcal on the market.

  • Mezcal joven ("young") or blanco ("white") is translucent, un-aged mezcal. Most mezcal is joven.
  • Mezcal madurado en vidrio ("matured in glass") has been aged in its bottle for at least one year. It must be kept underground or in a light- and humidity-stabilized room to preserve the flavor.
  • Mezcal reposado ("rested") has been aged between two and 12 months in wooden containers. This mezcal starts to take on a light amber color. Some mezcal purists believe aging mezcal in wood obscures its flavor.
  • Mezcal añejo ("aged") has aged in barricas (wooden barrels) for at least one year and has a deep caramel color.
  • Flavored mezcal may be labeled "abocado con," which means flavorings (like honey, lemon or maguey worm) have been added to the finished mezcal, or "distillado con," meaning the mezcal was distilled with ingredients like raw chicken breast or mole.


What Is Tequila?

Tequila, short for "mezcal de tequila," is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the blue Weber agave plant.

Tequila was the first product to receive a denomination of origin from the Norma Obligatoria Mexicana (NOM), in 1972. According to the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, the requirements for this blue agave spirit are:


  • Alcohol content of 35 to 55 percent by volume
  • Produced in designated areas of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit or Tamaulipas
  • Made from 100 percent blue Weber agave or, in the case of tequila mixto, at least 51 percent agave and up to 49 percent other sugars (such as sugarcane)

Where Is Tequila Made?

Originally, tequila only came from Jalisco (where the town of Tequila is located).

Today, five Mexican states produce tequila: Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Types of Tequila

Like whiskey, tequila is often aged in wooden barrels, and the longer the tequila has aged, the more expensive it typically is.

  • Tequila blanco or silver tequila is transparent and may be aged up to two months. Blanco tequila is what you'll typically find in tequila cocktails.
  • Tequila joven ("young") or tequila oro ("gold") can be made by either mixing tequila blanco with an aged tequila or by adding other ingredients like caramel coloring or syrup, oak extract and glycerin (called "mellowing").
  • Tequila reposado ("rested") is aged for at least two months in oak barrels. It may be blended with tequila añejo or mellowed for deeper flavor profiles.
  • Tequila añejo is aged in oak barrels for at least one year. To enhance the flavor, producers may blend it with tequila extra añejo or add mellowing ingredients.
  • Tequila extra añejo is the oldest type of tequila, aged in oak for at least three years. Mellowing is also acceptable.


Similarities and Differences Between Mezcal and Tequila

Here's a quick overview of what sets mezcal and tequila apart.


  • Alcohol content: Both tequila and mezcal can be 35 to 55% alcohol by volume.
  • Production: Both mezcal and tequila are made from fermented hearts of agave.


  • Agave species: Tequila comes from one species, the blue Weber agave plant (Agave tequilana). Mezcal is not required to come from a specific species of Agavaceae, but must be 100 percent agave. The most common species used in mezcal production is espadin (Agave angustifolia). Tequila can be 100 percent agave or mixto (at least 51 percent agave and 49 percent other carbohydrates).
  • Cooking method: There are several different ways to cook agave hearts, each of which can produce both tequila and mezcal. However, mezcal is typically cooked in traditional pit ovens, which impart a characteristic smoky flavor, while tequila is usually steamed, giving it a cleaner flavor.
  • Aging: Aging is much more common with tequila than mezcal. Mezcal purists believe that aging in oak barrels, a common practice in the world of tequila, can overpower the savory flavor that comes from the traditional roasting process.