Mescal and mezcal are both distilled alcoholic beverages made from the agave plant. However, there are some key differences between the two that this article will explore in depth.
– Mescal can only be made from one species of agave, Agave americana, which is commonly known as maguey. Mezcal can be made from multiple species of agave.
– Mescal is always produced in the Mexican states of Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. Mezcal has a wider approved production region, including Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Guanajuato.
– Mescal can be unaged and bottled right after distillation or aged in oak barrels for months or years. Most mezcal is aged in oak barrels for at least two months, but can be aged for over a year.
– Mescal can be 100% agave or mixed with up to 20% other sugars. Mezcal must be 100% agave with no additives.
– Mescal can be clear or with the agave worm added. Mezcal is almost always clear, without added worms.
Mescal is a distilled alcoholic beverage that is produced from the cooked and fermented hearts, called piñas, of the Agave americana plant. This agave is commonly known as maguey and can only be used to produce mescal. The piñas are roasted in underground oven pits, mashed by a tahona stone wheel or mechanical crusher, fermented in wooden tanks or stone pits, and then distilled in copper alembics or continuous stills.
Mescal has been produced in Mexico since the colonial era and its protected designation of origin stipulates it must be made in the states of Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. It can be bottled right after distillation as a clear spirit or aged in oak barrels. While most mescal is aged from two months up to a year, some can be aged for many years, taking on a golden-brown color.
By law, mescal must be made from a minimum of 80% agave sugars from Agave americana. Up to 20% other sugars, usually cane sugar, can be added. The addition of agave worm salt (containing the larvae of Hypopta agavis moths) is optional. Most traditional mescal producers do not add worms to the bottles, using them only during the distillation process to activate fermentation.
Key Facts About Mescal
– Made exclusively from Agave americana (maguey) piñas
– Produced only in certain regions – Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas
– Can be unaged (clear) or aged in oak barrels for months or years
– Must contain a minimum of 80% agave sugars
– May contain up to 20% other sugars like cane sugar
– Worm salt with larvae is optional
Mezcal is also a distilled alcoholic drink made from the cooked and fermented hearts of agave plants. However, mezcal can be made from multiple Agave species, unlike mescal which uses only Agave americana. There are over 30 varieties of agave that can be used to produce mezcal. The most common varieties are Espadín, Tobalá, Tepeztate and Tobaziche.
For a spirit to qualify as mezcal, it must be produced in a specific region with Denomination of Origin status defined by Mexican law. The approved states are Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Guanajuato. Within these states, the mezcal must be made in certain municipalities and villages to use the denomination of origin.
The piñas are roasted underground, crushed, fermented with water, and then distilled at least twice. Most mezcal is double distilled, but some producers use a triple distillation process. The spirit can be bottled right after distillation as a joven (young) mezcal or aged in oak barrels for two months to over a year. Aged mezcal reposado and añejo versions take on a golden-brown color.
By law, all mezcal must be 100% agave sugars with no additional sugars or additives allowed. The agave worms are rarely added to the final bottles, used primarily in the fermentation process. Many producers however follow the customs of adding one worm in select special bottles.
Key Facts About Mezcal
– Made from multiple agave species, including Espadín, Tobalá, Tepeztate, Tobaziche
– Produced in specific regions – Oaxaca, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, etc.
– Can be unaged (joven) or aged (reposado, añejo)
– Must be 100% agave sugars, no additives
– Most do not contain agave worms
Comparing Mescal vs. Mezcal
While mescal and mezcal share similarities and are often confused, they have some distinct differences that are important to understand. Here is a comparison chart highlighting the key differences:
Mescal vs Mezcal Comparison
|Agave Species Used
|Agave americana only
|Multiple agave species
|Approved Production Regions
|Durango, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas
|Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Guanajuato
|Unaged or aged in oak barrels for months or years
|Unaged (joven) or aged (reposado, añejo)
|Agave Sugar Content
|Up to 20% other sugars
|No additives allowed
|Agave Worms Added
As shown in the table, the approved agave species, production regions, aging processes, and additives allowed clearly differentiate these two Mexican spirits. Mescal has more flexibility in production methods while mezcal has stricter regulations.
Mescal Production Process
Let’s take a closer look at the traditional production steps used to make mescal:
1. Harvest agave – The heart of the Agave americana plant, called piña, is harvested once it reaches maturity at 6-8 years.
2. Roast piñas – The piñas are roasted in underground stone pits, imparting sweet smoked flavors.
3. Crush cooked piñas – After roasting, the piñas are crushed using a stone wheel or mechanical crusher.
4. Ferment sugary juice – The crushed agave is allowed to ferment in wood tanks or stone pits for 1-2 weeks.
5. Distill twice – The fermented juice is distilled in copper pots to concentrate the alcohol. Some distill a third time.
6. Bottle or age – The mescal can be bottled right after distillation or aged in barrels.
7. Add worm (optional) – Worm salt with larvae can be added to the finished bottles for flavor.
This traditional process brings out the rich cooked agave flavors and sugars that give mescal its unique taste. By law, mescal must follow these production guidelines.
Mezcal Production Process
Mezcal is made through a similar production process, but with some variations since multiple agave species are used. Here are the typical mezcal production steps:
1. Harvest agave – Different agave varieties are harvested depending on the mezcal style. Could be Espadín, Tobalá, Tepeztate.
2. Roast piñas – Underground roasting caramelizes the piñas and brings out aromas. Duration varies by producer.
3. Crush cooked piñas – Wheel or mechanically crushed. More water added than mescal production.
4. Ferment sugary juice – Allowed to ferment with water in wood tanks or pits for 4-6 days on average.
5. Distill twice – Distilled in copper stills, sometimes three times for finer distinctions.
6. Bottle or age – Either bottled right away or aged in barrels up to a year.
7. Bottle final product – Bottled at 40-55% ABV. Worms rarely added.
Mezcal methods emphasize the unique qualities of different agave varieties in the finished spirit. By law, only 100% agave sugars can be used.
Taste Profiles: Mescal vs. Mezcal
Since they are made from different agave species using distinct processes, mescal and mezcal offer unique tasting experiences. Here’s a taste comparison:
– Savory, rich agave flavor
– Lightly smoky
– Slightly herbal
– Vanilla, caramel notes when aged
– 40-55% ABV
Mescal highlights the cooked agave flavored from its core ingredient – Agave americana. It has a bold agave taste with subtle smoky notes from roasting and herbal hints. Aging adds sweetness and depth.
– Varies by agave variety
– Fruity, floral, herbal, earthy tones
– Can be smoky but usually less than mescal
– Smooth, complex flavors
– 40-55% ABV
Since mezcal uses so many different agaves, the flavors are diverse based on the variety. Common tasting notes include citrus, pineapple, cocoa, spices, and minerals. The flavors tend to be fruity, herbal, and complex.
While both pack an agave punch, mezcal offers more variety and subtle smokiness compared to mescal’s robust cooked agave notes. Of course, taste preferences come down to individual opinion.
Popular Brands and Prices
Mescal and mezcal both offer a range of brands at various price points. Here are some of the most popular brands and average prices:
Popular Mescal Brands & Prices
– Ilegal – $65
– Alipus – $40-60
– Koch – $70
– Cinco Sentidos – $60
– Rey Campero – $60-200
Popular Mezcal Brands & Prices
– Del Maguey – $60-500+
– El Silencio – $50-300
– Mezcal Vago – $100-150
– Bozal – $50-70
– Alipus – $40-100
– Banhez – $55-120
As you go up in price, you’ll generally get more aged and artisanal versions of mezcal and mescal in premium bottles. But at standard prices, both offer an authentic agave experience.
Which One Should I Try?
So with all these comparisons between mescal vs. mezcal, which one should you try first? Here are some recommendations based on taste preferences:
Try mescal first if you want:
– An intro to agave spirits
– Bold cooked agave flavor
– Subtle smokiness
– Savory herbal notes
– A classic Mexican spirit
Try mezcal first if you prefer:
– Fruity, floral, or herbal flavors
– Exploring agave varieties
– Minimally smoky spirits
– Complex aromas and tastes
– An artisanal craft spirit
If you are brand new to agave spirits, mescal is a great introduction to the classic flavors. For those who know they like herbaceous and complex botanical spirits, mezcal offers an amazing range to explore.
Of course, there’s no need to limit yourself to just one. Both mescal and mezcal provide unique experiences to tease your tastes. You may start with one and soon find yourself trying various expressions of both to fully appreciate Mexico’s iconic agave spirits.
Still have questions about how these two agave spirits compare? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
Is mescal the same as tequila?
No, mescal is different than tequila. Tequila is also made from agave, but is a specific spirit only produced in certain regions of Jalisco. Mescal can only be made in 5 states of Mexico using Agave americana, while tequila uses Agave tequilana (blue agave).
Is mezcal always smoky?
No, not all mezcal has a strong smoky flavor. It will depend on the specific production methods used. Some mezcal producers use less roasting time so the agave hearts have less smoke exposure. Other brands emphasize the smoky notes with longer roasting. So mezcal can range from lightly smoky to very robust.
Is mezcal safe to drink with the worm?
Yes, mezcal bottled with the worm larvae is safe to drink. The worms are added for flavor and as proof of high alcohol content. They are not harmful if ingested. However, today most mezcal producers no longer add worms to the final bottles.
Should mescal be sipped or taken as a shot?
Mescal is traditionally sipped neat or on the rocks to appreciate its complex flavors. It can be taken as a shot, but will not highlight the cooked agave notes and subtleties as well. Sipping mescal allows the aromas and heat to develop on the palate.
Is mezcal gluten-free?
Yes, mezcal contains no gluten since it is distilled from 100% agave plants. People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can safely drink mezcal and mescal in moderate amounts. As distilled spirits, they contain no gluten proteins.
While mescal and mezcal share the same ancestral origins and distillation processes, they have distinct production methods and flavor profiles today. Both offer an amazing experience for agave spirit lovers, but mescal highlights the unadulterated flavors of Agave americana while mezcal explores the range of Mexico’s agave biodiversity. So raise a glass to these iconic Mexican spirits and salud!