Get to know mezcal, tequila's smoky cousin

By James Atkinson, May 2 2019
Get to know mezcal, tequila's smoky cousin

After years in the shadows of its famous relative tequila, mezcal is finally having its day in the sun.

You only need to look at the movements of the distilling giants to confirm the trend. Both Bacardi and Pernod Ricard made moves into the category in 2017, respectively buying stakes in Ilegal Mezcal and Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal.

And Casamigos, the tequila brand co-founded by none other than actor George Clooney, before being sold to distilling giant Diageo, last year announced the addition of a mezcal to its range.

Clearly mezcal is hot and it's not hard to see why, given the spirit's unique and authentic heritage, complex and unusual flavour profile, and often charmingly rustic branding.

But how does mezcal differ to tequila? Both are made from the agave plant and both are recognised Denominations of Origin, meaning they can only be produced in certain areas within Mexico in accordance with certain rules (similar to champagne or cognac).

From there, the two spirits diverge in several key ways. Mezcal must be made from 100 per cent agave, while tequila can be produced using only 51 per cent agave; the addition of additives and non-agave sugars is commonplace in the production of commercial brands.

Tequila may only be produced using the cultivated blue agave variety, in five Mexican states.

Mezcal on the other hand can be made using many different agave varieties, some of them wild or foraged, and it is produced in nine different states that together encompass a geographical area  many times larger than that of tequila.

Tequila is mostly produced in large scale, industrial facilities, while mezcal production is much more fragmented, with many farm-based producers making comparatively minuscule batches in a very hands-on fashion, using some pretty unsophisticated equipment.

All of these differences explain why tequila is much better known outside of Mexico than mezcal.

But they also explain why agave enthusiasts gravitate towards mezcal as offering more complex and contrasting flavour experiences that are expressive of terroir, ingredients and microclimate.

Mezcal is produced from the heart of the agave plant, which is roasted underground prior to fermentation and distillation.

This gives it a distinctive smoky flavour that should appeal to fans of single malt Scotch whisky who are interested in broadening their horizons. Here are some Australian venues where you can begin your mezcal journey. 

Cantina OK!, Sydney: The Tio's founders have taken their passion for mezcal to the next level with this new CBD cocktail bar specialising in rare Mexican spirits. With only 20 seats, you'll have to get there early to secure your spot at the bar. 

Tio's Cerveceria, Sydney: Since 2011, Tio's has been slinging tequila and mezcal at this popular Mexican-themed dive bar in Surry Hills. Look out for their fifth annual mezcal minifest in March 2020.  

Mezcalito Agave Bar, Melbourne: This CBD venue has signature cocktails showcasing a multitude of agave-based spirits from all corners of Mexico. Build your own margarita and enjoy it with your choice of five different 'tiny tacos'.

Bodega Underground, Melbourne: Also in the CBD, Bodega Underground has a range of more than 70 mezcals available to sample in tasting flights, with a 3am closing time to boot.

James Atkinson

James is a journalist whose career took a turn for the better when he began specialising in what he enjoys most: Travel, food and drink. Whether at home in Sydney or on the road, he's especially diligent at roadtesting bars and restaurants and hunting down some special bottles to bring home.

27 Nov 2016

Total posts 23

Tamarind Mezcal Margaritas - the absolute best!!!

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Get to know mezcal, tequila's smoky cousin