Agave, tequila, mezcal: What’s the difference?

More stories

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Let’s clear up some confusion that persists in Mexico’s world of spirits. 

Agaves have been cultivated by humans in Mexico for thousands of years. They are primarily known for their use in the production of distilled spirits, such as tequila and mezcal, and a wide variety of lesser-known beverages. 

The town of Tequila, Jalisco, is home to several of the most famous brands of tequila and several small-scale distilleries. Even better, you can hop a ride on the Tequila Express to get there from Guadalajara. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Agave is a type of succulent plant native to arid regions of Mexico and the southwestern United States. They have thick, spiny, fleshy leaves and a sugar-producing core known as a piña (“pineapple” in Spanish). 

In Mesoamerican myth, the goddess Mayahuel is said to have traveled to Earth on the orders of Quetzalcoatl to bring the agave to mankind. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracth / Yucatán Magazine

It is this core that is cultivated for the production of spirits, including tequila and mezcal, but also other alcoholic beverages such as sotol (from Chihuahua) and bacanora (from Sonora). 

The piña on an agave usually starts producing sugar in its fifth year but usually takes eight years to develop fully. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

So if all of these spirits come from the same plant, what makes them different? Well, for starters, they don’t all come from the same species of agave. For example, Tequila is distilled from the piña of the species known as agave tequilana or Agave Azul, which has several varieties, including the zingüin and moraleño. On the other hand, spirits like mezcal can be produced from various agave species, including papalote, arroqueño, and cimarron.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is often paired with roasted chapulines (grasshoppers) in chili powder and/or garlic. Though this may sound gross to the uninitiated, they are actually delightful. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Tequila tends to have a milder, sweeter, and more citrusy flavor profile than mezcal. With its smoky and robust flavor, Mezcal often exhibits earthy, herbal, and sometimes even fruity notes, depending on the agave species used. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is also the question of the spirit’s place of origin and production, which, just like Champagne, is extremely strict. For example, spirits labeled “tequila” can only originate from the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Michocán, and of course, Jalisco, where the vast majority of this elixir is made. That said, producers in other states, including Yucatán and Quintana Roo, produce a very similar product, using the exact same process but are forced to label their product differently, often with a wink wink, nudge nudge. 

Field of an Agave Azul distillery in Yucatán on the outskirts of the city of Valladolid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Mezcal can be produced in several states, including Sonora, Morelos, and Puebla. However, most of this spirit is produced in Oaxaca, where it is arguably the best. 

What to look for when purchasing a bottle of tequila or mezcal

For starters, always ensure the bottle says “Hecho con 100% agave.” If the label does not say this, it is most likely that your spirit will contain only 51% agave and 49% of added sweeteners from sugar or corn syrup. This applies to all agave spirits.

No 100% agave label? No thank you. Photo: Courtesy

Artisanal vs. mass-produced

Artisanal spirits have a certain cache and are usually your best bet. That said, several mass-produced agave spirits on the market are quite good. Of course, the dividing line between what makes something artisanal can be rather dubious, but still. If you find yourself in an agave-producing region (which by now is almost all of Mexico) — but especially Oaxaca or Jalisco — you are likely to come across very small-scale producers, some of which make only a couple hundred bottles a year, just as the ancients did. 

The workers in charge of cutting off the agave leaves and extracting the piña are known as jimadores. It’s extremely difficult work but essential to the process that it is done manually. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Now, it’s true that many of these artisanal distilleries are unregulated and often even lack a label. So make sure to ask for a free sample before buying. More often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised. 

What about the worm?

Called gusanos de maguey (Spanish for “agave worms”), these “worms” are actually a species of larva that grows on the agave itself. But if you look forward to gulping down this gusano for an extra kick, we are sad to inform you that this is simply not the case. The larvae were added to some bottles of mezcal, mostly for export, as a marketing strategy.

If you ever see a “worm” in a bottle of tequila, this is almost a surefire sign that it’s a Chinese knockoff or brand intentionally marketed to folks who don’t know any better. Sorry to disappoint. Photo: Courtesy

Shots! Shots! Shots!

In Mexico, the idea of “shooting” a fine tequila or mezcal is borderline blasphemous. These spirits are meant to be savored slowly, as you would with fine brandy. If you plan to prepare an agave-based cocktail like a Tequila Sunrise, you may as well pick up the cheapest bottle you can find, as wasting good spirits like this is a major faux pas. 

These artisanal tequila producers would certainly not approve of your chugging their product. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is much more to talk about regarding agaves, especially their production process and differences between young and aged spirits, but we will save that for another time. 

A tahona or agave mill is used in the traditional production of several types of agave. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Ultimately how you decide to enjoy agave spirits is up to you. Just remember not to overdo it because the myth that only cheap agaves give you a hangover is exactly that, a myth. 

- Advertisement -spot_img

Love Yucatán? There's A Free Newsletter Just For You.

The Yucatán Magazine Roundup sends headlines to your inbox every week. Unsubscribe at any time.