Is Mezcal Tequila?

Living in Oaxaca, I was introduced to mezcal and I immediately fell in love with the stuff. The locals raved about it, mezcal was a staple within their culture. Mezcal has an expansive flavor profile much more varied than that of tequila. The producers of mezcal are small; many farmers and families that live in the countryside of Oaxaca make their own personal supply.

“Mezcal, that’s some type of tequila, right?”

That is often how guests will approach mezcal at the bar upon reading it from my cocktail list. So, is Mezcal some type of tequila? No, technically it’s not, however it’s a thin line to walk. Allow me to explain.

What is Mezcal?

Mezcal can be thought of as tequilas cousin. Mezcal is made from the hearts (piñas) of the agave plant; as is tequila. However, there are many different species of Agave plant, almost 200. In the production of tequila, you are legally required to use the majority of blue agave (agave azul) and many top producers will make their product from 100% agave azul. See our article on tequila for more on that subject.

Mezcal, can be produced from any of the other agave species. Over 30 different varieties are being used to produce mezcal. There are no mezcals being made from agave azul, all of that is left to tequila producers. Different agaves have different flavors to them, much like using different grain to produce different flavored vodkas, or different mash bills used when making whiskey.

Mezcal is renowned for its smoky flavor profile which comes from its unique cooking method. The traditional and most common method is to cook the piñas in large stone-lined pits. Fire is then lit in the pit, topped with stones once the stones are quite literally red hot the agave hearts are quartered, thrown in and covered with fibrous mats, sacks, and agave leaves. This is left to cook for three to five days. After the soft sweetened hearts are pulled out to be crushed using a stone wheel pulled by a donkey. Once that is completed the agave juice is collected, fermented, and distilled twice to produce mezcal.

Mezcal is typically un-aged but there are some producers who age their product, in casks and glasses. As the popularity of mezcal grows expect to see more of these aged mezcal products arriving on the market.

Mezcal regulations began in 1994 with a recognized Appellation De Origin (AO, DO) for the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas. Products like mezcal are made in other states but cannot legally carry the name mezcal.

Types and Classifications

Mezcal became defined by new laws in 2015. These laws added a few states to the approved list (above) and required that mezcal be made from 100% agave. Mezcal is seldom a blend of different types of agave, as a result, the name of the agave used is included on the label.

There are three classifications of mezcal production:

1. Mezcal

Most industrially produced mezcals fall into this category. It defines an agave spirit cooked in ground pits or above ground ovens, fermented in wood, stone or stainless steel, and distilled in a pot still or continuous column still.

2. Artisanal Mezcal

More defined methods of production result in “artisanal mezcal.” Piñas are cooked in pits or masonry wells and can be milled with modern shredders. But, in the name of tradition hand-shredding, stone or wooden milling is emphasized. Fermentation must take place in hollows of stone, soil or trunk, wood or clay containers, or animal skins and can include maguey fibers. Artisinal Mexcal must be distilled with a direct fire under copper or earthenware stills with wooden, copper, or clay still tops.

3. Ancestral

The most traditional method. Piñas are cooked in pit ovens, and hand crushed in wooden or stone mills. Agave juices are fermented in wood, earthen or stone vats, or in animal hide; with maguey fibers present. The blend must be distilled in a clay-still with a direct fire underneath and a wooden or clay top.

Inside these three classifications of production there are six “finishes” of mezcat:

  1. Blanco (White) – Unaged spirit
  2. Reposado (Rested) – 2-12 months in barrels, made of either oak or Mexican woods.
  3. Añejo (Aged) – 12 months or more in a barrel
  4. Madurado (Glass Matured) – Ancestral mezcal matured in glass bottles
  5. Distilado con (Distilled with) – Spirit redistilled with grains, fruit, or raw meat (commonly turkey or chicken breast, producing pechuga style mezcal)
  6. Abocado con (Flavored with) – Macerated or flavored with essences. Mezcal with a worm added to the bottle fall into this category also.


In its home of Mexico mezcal is only served neat, often with an orange slice on the side dressed with a spicy salt for dipping the orange into. Mezcal’s exceptionally recent introduction into Western cocktail culture means there are not many cocktails specifying mezcal as the main ingredient. Instead, mezcal is finding itself substituted into tweaked classics and modern classics, in order to find its expression. Here’re some of those cocktails for you to try out. It’s important to remember that you may want to change the ratio of ingredients depending on the style and finish of mezcal you’re using.

Oaxacan Mule
1.5oz Mezcal
0.5oz Grapefruit Juice
4oz Ginger Beer

Glass: Copper Mug
Garnish: Orange Slice
Method: Fill glass with ice, then add ingredients and garnish.

Mezcal Margarita

2oz Mezcal
1oz Lime Juice
0.5oz Orange Liqueur
0.5oz Agave Nectar

Glass: Collins Glass
Garnish: Lime Wedge, Salt Rim
Method: Shake and strain over ice

Note: Swap agave out for an ounce of pineapple juice for a more fruity flavor profile.

Mexican Smoked Negroni
1oz Mezcal
1oz Campari
1oz Sweet Vermouth

Glass: Rocks Glass
Garnish: Orange Wedge
Method: Stir and strain over fresh ice into rocks glass.


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Benjamin Michael Beddow

Food and Beverage Professional

As a food and beverage professional for over ten years, Ben has spent most of his time behind the bar, giving him a broad and in-depth knowledge of all things drinkable and drink related. Now, as a traveling freelance writer exploring the gastronomy, drinks, and food service industry of the world, Ben has taken his knowledge and experiences to the world wide web to share with others. The love for the trade never dies and Ben can still be found running around restaurants and slinging drinks in ski resorts in the USA during the winter season.

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