I have been getting a lot of questions about the differentiation’s between Mezcal and Tequila. So let me sit down and give you some insights on the truth behind the juice…..
Are they the same?
Is it the worm?
Let me unravel the mystery for you……..No, Agave, isn’t agave. There are a number of varietals of the agave plant, similar to that of grapes for wine. AS a matter of fact, roughly 208 species. Succulents in class, characterized by a large rosette of thick, fleshy leaves that can grow up to 12 feet and tend to have sharp pointed ends. They are not Cacti, as some have queried. Additional characteristics of the species includes the single life cycle of the plant, meaning it will not regenerate as other plants will once it has peaked its maturity though it will produce “suckers” at the base of the stem, producing an entirely new plant. The varietal used for Tequila is 100% pure Blue Agave, while Mezcal is produced from any number of Agave variables,, though most commonly the Americana (Maguey), Green, and strain of a Blue Agave (not 100% blue) are used.
Agave Tequilana, Blue Agave (Agave Azul) is the species used for Tequila specifically, a product exclusively from Jalisco,Mexico. As this particular Agave is THE the base ingredient of Tequila. It is the concentrated sugars of the “Pina” or the core of the plant that is distilled for making Tequila. The plant is native is Jalisco, grows in rich soil of the region, amassing large succulents, with spiky fleshy leaves, that can reach over 7ft in height. but average 12 feet when harvested, a growth that takes 5-7 years to mature for preparation of Tequila. It is customary to remove the shoots when the plant reaches its first year of maturation to allow the plant to grow larger. Replanting the shoots generates new plants ensuring the purity of the species of Blue Agave for the specification of distilling authentic Tequila.
The Agave Americana, or “Maguey” grows in many parts of Mexico, however most Mezcal associated plants are grown in Oaxaca, Mexico. The truth is, Mezcal is a distillable, fermented “mash”. A much different production approach than that of the Tequila.
Mezcal is produced by harvesting the plants, extracting the piña, or heart, by cutting off the plant’s leaves and roots, cooking the pina’s for about three days, in pit ovens,(giving mezcal it’s intense and distinctive smoky flavor) the piñas are then crushed and mashed (traditionally by a stone wheel turned by a horse) and left to ferment in large vats or barrels with water added the process for Tequila is slightly different. Old recipes call for two chicken or one turkey breast to be placed in the mash during fermentation for flavor. Modern variations flavor the mash with cinnamon, pineapple slices, red bananas and sugar, each infusing a particular character to the mezcal. The mash is allowed to ferment, the resulting liquid collected and distilled in either clay or copper pots which will further modify the flavor of the final product. The distilled product is left to age in barrels for between one month and four years. Not smooth like Tequila, by most standards, Mezcal is varied, depending on the species of agave used, the elements added during fermentation and the distillation process engaged.
In the process of creating Tequila, the piñas are transported to ovens where they are slowly baked in order to break down their complex starches into simple sugars. The baked piñas are either shredded or mashed under a large stone wheel called a tahona [ta’ona]. The pulp fiber left behind is often reused as compost or animal feed, however some producers like to add a small amount of this back into their fermentation tanks for a stronger agave flavor in the final product. The extracted agave juice is then poured into either large wood or stainless steel vats for several days to ferment, resulting in a juice with low alcohol content .This is distilled once to produce what is called “ordinario,”,and then a second time to produce clear “silver tequila.” At this point the tequila is either bottled as “silver tequila”, or it is pumped into wooden barrels to age, where it develops a mellower flavor and amber color for 9 months for Reposado “rested” or 24 plus months for Anejo “aged” blends. It is in this resting period that the additional notes are matured through the barrels in which they are aging, adding hints of cognac properties for example.
There are two types of mezcal, those made of 100% maguey and those mixed with other ingredients, with at least 60% maguey. Both types have four categories. White mezcal is clear and hardly aged. Dorado (golden) is not aged but a coloring agent is added. This is more often done with a mixed mezcal. Reposado or añejado (aged) is placed in wood barrels from two to nine months. This can be done with 100% agave or mixed mezcals. Añejo is aged in barrels for a minimum of twelve months. The best of this type are generally aged from eighteen months to three years. If the añejo is of 100% agave, it is usually aged for about four years.
While presumably there are similarities in the processing and ingredients used, these products are as distinctly different as the regions of Mexico from where they originate.
So, what about that Worm? The “Gusano”? The truth is, worms in Tequila is a concept from the 40’s in which the consumption of the worm created a psychedellic affect, to be coupled with the alcoholic intake of the consumer. A marketing endeavor to engage the courage of the consumer. The “gusano” is more commonly found in Mezcal, and sold “con gusano” (“with worm”). The worm is not really a worm, rather it is the larval form of the moth “Hypopta agavis”, which, evidenced by it’s name, exists on the agave plant and is sometimes caught up in the process unwittingly. Commonly now are the Mezcal products marketed “con Sal de Gusano” (With the salt of the worm) to provide a seemingly “authentic experience.
If you are a growing Tequila fan and beginning to venture into the Mezcal’s you should notice distinctions in the notes and the end result of the associated products. While many Mezcal’s are now being distilled with a sweetened chemistry to mimic that of Tequila or come close, to the connoisseur’s palate the distinctions are as different as Vodka is to Rum. Mezcal’s are not historically as smooth or “sip worthy” as most Tequila’s due to the flavor differences of the Agave’s used.