11 Oct 2016
Tequila Vs Mescal: What’s The Difference And Why Should You Care?
An evil spirit turns good
Up until about two decades ago, tequila was a drink you drank to get drunk. A spirit deemed ‘evil’ for its headache inducing hangovers and only made palatable by masking it with lime and salt. Let’s be honest, no one in their right mind anywhere right up until the early naughties would have considered drinking tequila for its flavour profile. The quality of the spirit found outside of Mexico, and particularly in the US, was well below the standard bottle you see on the shelves in any bar you walk into anywhere today. The difference in the quality of most tequilas today lies in 2 main factors:
1 The process
2 The type sugars used for the fermentation process to make alcohol
Tequila comes in 2 varieties: 100% blue agave or ‘mixto’.
‘Mixto’ means the contents are 51% agave-derived sugars and 49% ‘other’ added in sugars, such as cane or corn sugar. Blue agave tequilas are always labelled as ‘100% blue agave’, whilst a ‘mixto’ does not advertise its compromised quality. Any seasoned tequila drinker will immediately identify the vastly different flavour profile to a pure tequila.
In the 1930’s almost all tequila exported to the US was ‘mixto’. It is much cheaper to produce than a pure tequila, and back then was considered more palatable to US taste buds. Bottling plants opened inside the US, importing the tequila and then adding one of a number of these ingredients to produce ‘mixto’ tequilas: Caramel colouring, natural oak or Encino oak extract (holm or holm oak extract), glycerin, sugar-based syrup. (Source www.ianchadwick.com)
In 2003 Mexico proposed to bottle all tequila in Mexico before exporting it to ensure high quality and save its reputation. Whilst this proposal violated trade agreements with the US, an agreement was finally made in 2006, to give a monitored amount of plants based in the US the right to bottle Tequila imported from Mexico. For the first year ever in 2014, according to fortune.com, Americans drank more 100% agave tequila than the mix alternative.
The rise and rise of tequila and mescal
Because mescal has always been the littler known sibling of Tequila, it has less of reputation to defend. Tequila’s image as the cause of monstrous hangovers worldwide is fading. Within the last 10-15 years, it is emerging as a more premium product proven by the variety and superior quality products now occupying shelves in bars and restaurants worldwide.
Mescal, on the other hand, has long been a dark horse no one paid attention to until recent years, and due to it’s smaller and artisanal production methods is fast gaining credit as a popular premium product. In just three short years from 2011 to 2014, mescal exports nearly doubled from 647,989 litres to almost 1.2 million litres. Sales in 2015 amounted to US$88 million showing a growth of 22% from the previous year.
Tequila, in comparison, made it’s producers US$1.2 billion in 2005. Just a decade later in 2015, showing a 63% growth to US$2.3 billion. (source: Distilled Spirits council of the United States)
Americans today drink two times as much tequila as Mexico does.
Production: Tequila vs Mescal
Whilst the production methods for tequila and mescal are similar, there are some distinguishing differences. Mescal is still made by traditional handcrafted methods, whereas the skyrocketing international demand for tequila requires producers to utilise industrial machinery and time-saving processes.
Here’s a breakdown of the main differences in one easy overview:
Want to get a visual on all the technicalities? The below short video series provides a succinct and very insightful overview of the entire process of tequila and mescal from harvesting right through to the ageing process.
Produced by the team at How To Make Everything.
2.Harvesting the agave plant (at the Herradura distillery)
3.Fermentation and distillation
How to avoid hangovers
Sure you can still give yourself a nasty hangover, even with today’s superior quality products. The best way to avoid them is to make sure you don’t buy anything ‘mixto’ and stick to the 100% agave versions. Both tequila and mescals are generally around 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) but can range from 30-60%. So, if you decide to drink an entire bottle of even the best tequila there is, the alcohol content alone will guarantee you a solid hangover you were clearly aiming for.
How to drink it?
In Mexico, a good tequila or mescal is served with a side “sangrita”. Similar to a bloody Mary in flavour but without the vodka, it comes in a small glass equal in size to the accompanying tequila. There are different interpretations of this but generally, it’s a mix of tomato juice, orange juice, tabasco and Maggi seasoning, perfect to offset the tequila.
For tequila, take a squeeze of fresh lime juice direct on your palate to open your taste buds. Follow up with a sip of tequila. Close the taste buds with a sip of sangrita.
For mescals, the tradition is to dip a slice of orange into the dubious sounding worm salt. It’s a mix of chilli, salt and crushed up moth larva that lives in the agave. YUM! Have a bite, sip the mescal and to close the palate, a sip of sangrita.
And there you have it. A delightful way to enjoy this traditional spirit that will not leave you hung over if you treat it with the respect it deserves.
Fire pit for mescal
Agave plants ready for roasting
Have you got a favourite tequila? How do you like to drink it?