A staple at our Chattanooga Happy Hour – or any Mexican bar or restaurant, really -- is some variation of cocktail with Tequila as the main ingredient (margarita, Bloody Mary, Tequila Sunrise, etc.). We celebrate this great spirit as we near National Tequila Day on July 24th.
Another choice gaining ground in America bars and restaurants, perhaps confused with Tequila, is Mezcal.
Both drinks are made from the harvested core of the agave plant, otherwise known as the “piña”, but the two spirits are characterized by more differences than similarities. Think of it the same way in which bourbon and scotch share the category as whiskey, yet you may love one and hate the other because of variations in taste.
Geography also matters. Just as Bourbon is a whiskey associated with Kentucky (where 95 percent of it is made) and Scotch whiskey was originally made in Scotland, tequila and mezcal come from different regions of Mexico. There’s a town in Jalisco named Tequila. Spirits Writer John McEvoy explained to Food & Wine magazine that tequila is mass produced in 5 places, while mezcal is a product made in nine parts of the country.
Another spirits writer, Chris Tunstall, said the most common agave used for mezcal are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño and espadín.
The differences don’t stop there. The two drinks are distilled differently.
Industrial ovens steam the agave before distillation in copper pots to create tequila. Lava rock pits dug into the ground and filled with wood and charcoal typically cook the agave to create mezcal with distilling in clay pots to produce a characteristic smokiness.
After distillation, both drinks end up in oak barrels for varying periods of aging, the labels as different varieties based on the length of aging. Tequila, for example, comes in three varieties: blanco (silver or plato/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (1-3 years). Mezcal is also grouped as joven (blanco or abacado/0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months) and anejo (at least one year).
We don’t expect anyone to come up to the bar and order an “abacado mezcal”, but hey, at least you can now that you know what it is and say it if you want to impress your date.
Fun fact: The term mezcal used to refer to any spirit distilled from fermented agave, but then the government got involved and changed the phrase from a category of spirits to something more specific.
“Tequila was originally called vino de mezcal de tequila — or the wine of the mezcal from the community of Tequila (in Jalisco),” explained Lou Bank of SACRED Agave, a nonprofit that promotes the rural Mexican communities where mezcal is made. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl and ixcalli, which taken together mean "oven cooked agave."
Another fun fact about Mezcal: Some producers avoid the variation of the word spelled “mescal” to avoid being mistaken for some derivative of mescaline.
Some of the more commonly available brands of mezcal available in the US include Del Maguey Chichicapa, El Jolgorio Tepeztate, Rey Campero Tepextate, Ilegal Mezcal Reposado, Mezcal Vago Olla De Barro Tobala, Montelobos Mezcal Joven.
If you’re now torn between ordering tequila or mezcal in your margarita, we suggesting ordering one of both. Then more. You know, to be sure you can tell a difference!
Besides, who’s counting when you can get 2 for 1 Margaritas during happy hour in Chattanooga? Call your favorite Amigos location for specific times & prices.