What is the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

Are these two liquors interchangable in drinks?

Tequila Shot
Krit of Studio OMG/Getty Images

When it comes to naming food sometimes location makes a big difference. Anyone who's compared a New York bagel to a West Coast bagel would agree. Sometimes the location really just changes the name. Sparkling wine, for example, can only be called "Champagne" when it comes from Champagne, France. This kind of naming has led some to believe that Tequila and Mezcal are the same but they're actually two separate though similar drinks.

It's true that Tequila is a mezcal liquor but there are several differences that make Tequila a distinct drink.   

What is the difference between tequila and mezcal?

Tequila is subject to more rigid standards than mezcal. Tequila was originally distilled from the sap (called aquamiel, meaning honey water) and the heart (also called the pineapple) of the blue agave plant. The blue agave plant was turned into a brandy known in old Mexico as vino mezcal. Other agave plants can also be used to produce brandy but they are what's known as mezcal. 

Which Agave Plant?

Today, mezcal and tequila are two completely different liquors. Tequila may only be made from the blue agave in government-specified areas of Jalisco, Mexico, while mezcal may be made from any variety of agave. The original fermentation is 104 to 106 proof but is reduced to 80 to 86 proof for shipment to the United States.

Mexican standards require the standard cocktail mixing liquor to be at least 51 percent derived from agave sap sugar to be labeled Tequila, with the remaining 49 percent generally being corn or cane sugar.

Tequila made of 100 percent agave is much more expensive and is reserved as a sipping liquor due to its high quality.

Are Tequila and Mezcal Interchangeable?

For most drinking purposes you can easily substitute tequila for a mezcal without really changing the taste. But as in all things, when it comes to this brand you get what you pay for.

A cheap tequila or mezcal goes great in a margarita or two but for most pallets it's not something you'd want to sip. A true 100 percent agave Tequila, however, is something you'll want to savor. Many people find it to be a wonderful desert liquor because of it's sweet taste. 

Tequila Worm? More Like Mezcal Worm!

It's a common urban legend that Tequila comes with a worm in the bottle. This "worm" is actually a larva of a moth referred to as a gusano. In the 40's a distiller named Jacobo Lozano Páez found that leaving the worms in his mezcal changed the flavor. People began to believe that finding one of these "tequila worms" was a sign of luck. Others believe that the larva is a sign of the potency of the drink. While most of these are simply urban legends many brands of mezcal have used them for marketing purposes. 

More About Tequila