More greetings from sunny Mexico.
I can't talk about Mexico without talking about its national spirits.
I won't go into too much detail about the differences between the two, but I did want to give a few pointers that will hopefully help you make an informed decision when ordering a cocktail or buying a bottle:
- All tequilas are technically mezcals, as mezcal originally just referred to the process of distilling the agave plant. I think this is a bit confusing today as the process of making the two is different enough to drastically change the flavors.
- Tequila, which must be made in the state of Jalisco to be called a tequila, is made with the Blue Weber agave plant. The agave is steamed before distillation making it easier to taste than in mezcal.
- Mezcal on the other hand, is roasted in clay ovens before distillation giving it a smoky, intense flavor. It's also predominantly made in the state of Oaxaca from up to 28 different types of agave.
- Both spirits are made from the center fruit, or peña (named for its pineapple likeness), of the agave fruit. The worm that you will sometimes see in the bottom of the mezcal bottle lives in this fruit.
- A blanco tequila is bottled with no aging, a reposado is "rested" in oak barrels for at least 60 days and an anejo is aged for at least a year. The longer the aging the more smooth and potentially sweet. Blancos will have the most peppery taste.
- Always look for 100% agave on the bottle as anything else will be made up of sugars, other liquors or worse, chemicals.
In my humble opinion:
- A couple of good, entry-level tequila choices are Jose Cuervo Traditional Reposado and Cazadores Blanco.
- Any of the Del Maguey offerings are a good choice in mezcals, but they tend to be pretty expensive. For a cheap and delicious taste of mezcal, head to Big Star in Chicago... honestly my favorite margarita in the city.
Stayed tuned for a delicious vodka and mezcal cocktail for those still easing into mezcal's smokiness.