What's the difference between mezcal and tequila?
There are several differences, though the most conspicuous from a flavour perspective is mezcal's smokiness.
Both spirits come from Mexico and are distilled from agave, a plant that looks like a giant pineapple. Whereas mezcal can be made from any of several dozen species, tequila relies on just one, the blue agave, accounting for some of the flavour peculiarities. That particular species happens to grow well in the soils around the city of Tequila in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, and that's the heart of tequila country. Production of mezcal, on the other hand, while widespread, is strongly associated with Oaxaca in the south.
They tend to do things a bit more rustically down Oaxaca way, too. While tequila producers tend to bake or steam-cook the agave plant's core, or piña, prior to fermenting the juice, for mezcal the agaves are roasted in the ground in fire pits fuelled with wood. That's where the smokiness comes from. But there are other flavour differences. Mezcal also tends to be earthier, while I find tequila to lean more toward the vegetal-herbaceous side of the spectrum. Generally speaking, mezcal production also is a smaller-scale affair, so the drink, which has become trendy in North America in recent years, enjoys more of the cachet associated with craft spirits or microbrewed beer.
Mezcal finally also is shedding its reputation outside Mexico as little more than tequila's brutish backwoods half-brother, an image mainly fuelled by the worm. As a marketing ploy, producers in the past took to bottling their mezcal with a tiny souvenir, the larva of a moth known to feed off the agave plant. If you see one in a bottle today, rare though the sight has become, leave it on the store shelf; the local frat boys will need it at their next party. The best mezcals are vegan-friendly.