Mezcal / Tequila Guide

Here are some terms you’ll commonly see used to describe tequila and mezcal.

Blanco - unaged tequila or mezcal

Joven - translates to ‘young’ and is used to identify agave spirits, especially mezcal, that have not been aged more than two months

Reposado - tequila or mezcal that has been aged in wood barrels for at least two months

Añejo - tequila or mezcal that has been aged in wood barrels for at least one year

Extra Añejo - tequila or mezcal that has been aged in wood barrels for at least three years

100% Agave - an agave spirit made from all agave and no other spirits. Term is often used to distinguish 100% agave tequilas versus mixto. Separately, mezcal must be 100% agave in order to be certified as mezcal

Mixto - tequilas that are at least 51% agave and contain other neutral spirits and sugars. You don't want to be drinking this stuff.


Top Mezcal recommendations

Alipus San Luis Mezcal -  One of the more complex of the Alipus range. Salt and citrus with sweet agave. Delicious stuff.

 Los Danzantes Reposado Mezcal -  Possibly the most well balanced reposado mezcal around. Perfect for people who like to sip on good mezcal, as that is most certainly what this is.

Ilegal Mezcal - Anejo – There aren’t a lot of anejo mezcals around as it’s mostly drank without aging, but the Ilegal anejo mezcal is a great example of what aging in oak casks will do to mezcal.


Top Tequila recommendations

ArteNOM Seleccion de 1579 Blanco Tequila – One of the best expressions of blanco tequila, from one of Mexico’s most well respected distilleries. If you want to know what good tequila is all about, start here.

Ocho Anejo Tequila – Ground-breaking Ocho single estate tequila with a focus on terroir. Every batch is different, with the main similarity being that they are all consistently good. One of the world’s top selling tequilas known for exceptional quality and affordable prices. 


Mezcal & Tequila – What’s it all about?

If you’re interested in reading on, here are another few terms which will help you make sense of what’s to come:

Jimadores - the agave farmers who harvest the piñas. These guys spend all day in the burning Mexican sun hacking off thorny leaves from 2 meter tall agave - in other words, hard as nails.

Maestro de mezcalero - a traditional craft distiller of mezcal. Generally mezcal recipes have been passed down through the generations and the maestro de mezcalero is the keeper of his family’s mezcal recipe.

Palenque - a mezcal distillery

Piña - the heart of the agave. Varying in size, some have been known to weigh as much as 500kg. As the plant ages, the piña accumulates sugar and starch. Steamed, roasted or smoked, the piña is the key ingredient of agave spirits

Pulque - made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, pulque is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for millennia. It has the color of milk, a somewhat viscous consistency and a sour, yeast-like taste

Tahona - a large stone wheel for crushing agave in a pit- one of the oldest, most labor-intensive ways to make tequila or any agave spirit

Tinas – Vertical wooden vats for fermenting mezcal


Forget your first tequila experience!

For most people, their first experience of tequila is pretty nasty. Generally it goes something like this: A friend got some shots which nobody wanted except for him/her. Turns out it’s some cheap and nasty tequila, so now you’re licking salt off your hand and trying not to vomit as you suck down some lemon in a vain hope that the taste of tequila disappears as quickly as possible.  

We need you to take that horrible memory and just bin it. Put it in the trash and never think about it again. Over the next few pages, we’re going to show you why what you think you know about tequila is probably wrong and why you seriously need to give it another go, and try some mezcal too - tequila’s artisanal cousin.


The story of tequila and mezcal

The story goes that when the Spanish invaded the Aztecs, they brought stores of brandy and wine. Handily, they also brought a copper alembic pot still with them so when the brandy and wine ran out, they started distilling the local beverage called pulque, which was made from fermented agave.

Both tequila and mezcal are descendants of the drinks made by the 16th-century conquistadores but whereas the tequila has been big business for a while and uses the most modern production techniques for consistency (and profits), mezcal is still produced in much the same way, using the same equipment and techniques as it was 400 years ago. Each Palenque will have its own maestro de mezcalero who will often be using the same recipe and same techniques passed down for generations. And that really is the big difference between tequila and mezcal, one is big business and the other is often a passion project kept going by local communities and which is now starting to get the recognition it deserves. To be clear, one is not better than the other and there are both wonderful and terrible examples of both tequila and mezcal, but knowledge of the differences can hopefully help you to make a better informed decision on picking something you’ll love.

To give you an idea of the differences, we’ve made a helpful guide to illustrate the differences. Tequila production on the left and mezcal on the right. (If you're reading on your mobile, you might want to flip it to landscape for easier left to right scrolling through the comparison)


Everything starts with Agave

Tequila must be made from Blue Weber Agave which takes around 7 years to reach maturity.

Over 40 varieties of Agave are known to be used for mezcal production. The most common is Espadin.

Harvesting Agave

Jimadores havest agave for both tequila and mezcal by hand. All the leaves must be removed to leave only the Piña which will be used for tequila and mezcal.

Roasting the Agave

Agave for tequila is roasted in an industrial oven or steamed in an autoclave for a few hours.

Agave for mezcal is roasted in a stone pit set in the ground and covered with soil or volcanic rock for more than 3 days.

Crushing the Agave to release the juices

Following roasting agave is crushed using a mechanical mill or a diffuser to extract the agave sugars.

Following roasting agave is crushed using a tahona pulled by a donkey or cow.


Fermentation of agave juices takes place in stainless steel or wooden vats. Yeast is generally added to ensure consistency but the open vats will also allow for some natural fermentation by wild yeast. Fermentation usually takes around 5 to 7 days.

Fermentation of agave fibers and juices takes place in tinas, which can be made of various woods: oak, cypress, pine. The type of wood used will slightly influence the flavor of the mezcal. Fermentation is typically done with wild yeast, but yeast from good batches is often saved and used again. Fermentation can last up to 14 days.


The concept behind distillation of both tequila and mezcal is exactly the same and both are distilled twice in copper pots. Some mezcal is distilled using clay stills, but it’s more of an exception rather than the rule. The real difference lies in the method of heating, where Tequila will be steam heated with the temperature exactly controlled for optimum results, and mezcal will be heated using direct flame.


The five official classifications of mezcal and tequila are basically the same and are determined by the time the tequila / mezcal spends aging in barrels. Blanco is un-aged spirit that is bottled shortly after distillation, although it can be kept in stainless steel tanks for a few weeks before bottling. Joven is blanco spirit that is either blended with a little bit of aged tequila or aged for just a few weeks before bottling. Reposado is aged for between 60 and 364 days (less than one year). Anejo is aged for at least one year, but less than three years. And extra anejo, the most recently added classification, is aged for at least three years.


After aging is completed, the tequila or mezcal will be removed from the barrel and bottled. At this point water is sometimes added to bring the abv down to the desired level. Bottling for tequila generally takes place at a large bottling plant, but mezcal must be bottled in the palenque it was made in.


Technical Stuff

Now that you should have a fair idea of what the differences are, it’s time to hit you with some technical stuff.

Tequila is carefully protected by a Denomination of Origin or DO which allows for the production of Tequila to occur in only a select few states of Mexico: Jalisco, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, Nayarit and Guanajuato.

The terrain or terroir in which the agaves grow plays a huge role in the flavour of the end product. A Blue Weber Agave growing in the highlands of Jalisco is going to have a different profile than the same species growing in the lowlands of the same area. Hot/cool, dry/wet, near river or not, all of these determine the end result, along with many other factors. Registration of all agave grown for Tequila production must be authenticated by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and carry a NOM number (Norma Oficial Mexicana) on each bottle’s label identifying the distillery. An important rule is the categories which refer to the content of agave in each bottle. To be classed as Tequila this has to be a minimum of 51%, meaning the other 49% can be additives, sugars etc and may be sold in bulk to then be bottled outside of Mexico – These commonly known as ‘Mixto Tequla’. The way to spot these are if they don’t state ‘100% agave’ on the label and can usually be found on supermarket shelves wearing little sombreros!

The other category of ‘100% agave Tequila’ are premium Tequilas that are exclusively bottled in Mexico and strictly monitored by the CRT. These are the ones you should be looking for! All tequilas are required to be aged for at least 14-21 days, it must be made from 100% natural ingredients and be a minimum of 38% alcohol.

Like with Tequila there are many rules that regulate the production of mezcal. The first laws for Mezcal were only put into place in 1994 in article NOM-070-SCFI-1994 which exist to protect the integrity of this traditional spirit. Mezcal is also protected by a denomination of origin or DOM and can only be produced in the following states of Mexico:  Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Michoacan, Guerrero, Durango, Tamaulipas, Puebla, Zacatecas and Guanajuato.

In Tequila production you may use only one particular species of agave, however for Mezcal you can use any. This gives a maestro de mezcalero incredible diversity and choice in his/her selection. Another rule is that to be called Mezcal of any category, the bottling can only occur at the palenque at which it is made, to ensure the quality of the end product. Also, the ABV has to be between 36% and 55%. Last but not least Mezcal can only be made from 100% agave with no additives or other products, whereas the different Tequila categories determine not the production process but the quantity of agave: Tequila (”Mixto”) and 100% agave Tequila.