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Tequila & Mezcal: What’s the Difference, and Why They’re So Popular

March 18, 2020

Tequila and Mezcal are the national spirits of Mexico. They are similar in some ways, different in others.

Tequila, the first distilled spirit on the North American continent, is the concentrated expression of one ingredient: blue Weber agave. The heart of the plant is steam-cooked or baked for many hours and then crushed to produce a juice or juice-pulp mixture, which is then fermented and distilled. If the tequila is to be a blanco (white) version, it is immediately bottled. Blanco tequila is generally used to make the margarita, the best-known and arguably the most in-demand cocktail in the world. (In Los Cabos, it’s the No. 1 choice of imbibers).

Reposado (rested) tequila “reposes” in oak barrels for two to 12 months and acquires a mellow roundness as well as light straw color from its time in wood. An anejo (aged) version, typically caramel-colored, spends more time in the barrel (up to three years) to infuse the spirit with sweet barrel flavors. A good anejo tequila, served in a snifter, compares favorably to a fine cognac.

While most aficionados are familiar with these three types of tequila, a newer version gaining in popularity and prestige is cristalino, which leading tequila brands promote as a super-premium spirit.

Cristalino is essentially anejo tequila that’s been filtered (often through charcoal) to remove the color it picks up while slumbering in the barrel. The result is a very smooth tequila that has the character and complexity of an anejo coupled with the crisp, bright notes of a blanco.

Mezcal, produced using centuries-old techniques, is an artisanal product that represents the soul of Mexico. While tequila is made solely from blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from 26 different varieties of agave. Mezcal made by one palenquero will differ noticeably from that of another village distillery. The flavor of mezcal is dependent on rainfall, heat, altitude and soil composition where the agave is grown. In more than 1,200 tiny mountain villages in the state of Oaxaca and beyond, the hearts of maguey espadin plants are roasted in the earth, crushed by mule-drawn millstones and fermented in palenques, small stills of 150 liters. Because the maguey roasts over a wood fire for up to five days, mezcal acquires a distinctive smoky aroma. Each one has its own character and flavor profile. In the past few years, mezcal has become the preferred spirit among trendy millennials and connoisseurs who favor its complex, smoky essence.

Antonio Palacios, the man in charge of all wines, distillates and infusions at Pueblo Bonito Resorts, is a master of tequila and mezcal. He lived in Jalisco near the state’s tequila-producing region to learn how blue Weber agave is cultivated, harvested and distilled. He is also passionate about mezcal.

Flights of tequila and mezcal, selected by Antonio or one of his expert bartenders, are available in the Lobby Bar at Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach. It’s a good place to compare and contrast Mexico’s two great distilled spirits.

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