Tequila and mescal can be easily confused, but these two Mexican spirits vary in flavor and their legal definitions. According to Mexican appellations of origin, tequila is a distillate made from blue agave and must be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Mescal can be made from any of the 30 distillable types of agave and anywhere in Mexico. In other words, tequila is a type of mescal, but a mescal is not always a tequila.
The other major difference comes down to production. Both tequila and mescal start off the same way: Mature agave plants are harvested, their leaves removed, and the remaining heart (the piña) is cut in half and cooked so the sugars break down before fermentation.
Tequila piñas are cooked for 12 to 40 hours in a large brick or stainless steel oven. The piñas are then crushed mechanically or by a horse-drawn tahona (a massive stone wheel) to separate the agave juice from the agave fiber. The juice is then fermented, distilled twice and sent to bottling or into barrels for aging. The different categories of tequila indicate how long it has been aged; plata (silver) is unaged, reposado (rested) is aged in oak barrels for two to 12 months and añejo (old) is aged in oak barrels for one to three years.
Mescal piñas, on the other hand, are cooked in a 10-foot wide conical pit lined with volcanic rock. A fire is built at the bottom of the pit; the pit is loaded with trimmed piñas, topped with agave leaves and earth, and left to slowly cook for several days. The roast agaves are crushed by the tahona, fermented and distilled, producing a smoky, earthy spirit that ranges in flavor from sweet and bright to spicy and savory. The different types of mescal are defined by these characteristics: the type of agave plant used, such as espadín or tobolá; the town where the mescal is produced; or the natural ingredients (for instance, chicken is used to make pechuga mescal) that are added to the metal or clay still (the apparatus used to distill alcohol) during the distillation process, giving the mescal a unique, savory flavor.
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