Margarita Monday is a somewhat regular occurrence amongst my friends. Hey, who wouldn't take advantage of the local Mexican spot's discounted drinks? However, last Margarita Monday presented us with a mystery of sorts. We saw a "Mezcal Margarita" on the menu, but none of us had any idea how this was different than a regular marg with tequila. 

Chances are, if you've been to a Mexican restaurant or a craft cocktail bar in the past year, you've seen mezcal listed on the menu. This Mexican spirit has risen in popularity over the past few years. But what are the differences between mezcal vs tequila? Are they the same thing?

The short answer is no. They are not the same at all.

The Plant Behind Both

Agave azul tequilana weber

sergioniebla on Flickr

The most essential similarity between these two liquors is that they both come from agave. Agave is a spiky plant native to the southern US and Mexico, and mezcal can be made from over thirty kinds of agave. Tequila, on the other hand, legally has to be made with Tequiliana Weber or Blue Weber agave in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Guanajuato.

Since mezcal can be made with Blue Weber agave too, this means that all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas. Confused? Think about how in elementary school you learned that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. Hopefully that makes thinking about mezcal vs tequila easier.

How Are They Made?

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Renee Chiu

Not only do mezcal and tequila come from different agave varieties, but they are also distilled differently. Tequila is usually produced by steaming the inside of the agave in large industrial ovens and then being distilled two or three times in copper pots.

Mezcal, however, is produced by cooking the agave in big pits in the ground and then crushing it and fermenting it with water. This is what gives it that signature smoky flavor.

In short, tequila is steamed, while mezcal is roasted.

When to Use Each

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Alexandra Redmond

Mezcal has a smoky, earthy flavor that sets it apart from tequila. It's also sometimes slightly more bitter, whereas tequila normally has hints of sweetness. This sweetness comes from cane sugar, which in cheaper tequilas can make up up to 49% of the the liquor. If a tequila is made of 100% agave, it's considered "premium" and legally must be bottled in Mexico. On the other hand, all mezcal is bottled in Mexico and it legally must have at least 80% agave sugars.

If you keep these differences in mind, it's perfectly fine to swap out mezcal for tequila or vice versa. For example, these easy cocktails are made with mezcal, but if you're in a pinch you can definitely use tequila instead. The drink just won't be as smoky and flavorful. You can also use mezcal instead of tequila in classic tequila cocktails like this watermelon margarita. 

What are the differences between mezcal vs tequila? Turns out, there are quite a few. From the plant used, to the production process, to the actual taste, these two liquors are each pretty unique. Next time I'm at Margarita Monday, I'll definitely be able the explain all the differences between mezcal vs tequila.