Seven Common Misconceptions about Tequila and Mezcal

Tequila and mezcal are made from “cactus juice.”

Agave is not a cactus, but rather a member of the botanical order Asparagales, which includes asparagus and narcissus. (Native to the New World, the genus Agave is exceedingly diverse, with well over 100 varieties in Mexico alone.)

A pile of agave cores, ready to be roasted for mezcal.

agave piñas

Mezcal is a type of Tequila.

If you want to get down to brass tacks (and I think you do), Tequila is a variation on mezcal, or distilled agave spirits. Mexican laws about the labeling of tequila and mezcal are strict. Tequila is produced in a specific region (mostly the state of Jalisco) and made out of a specific type of agave (A. tequilana or Weber Blue). According to Mexican law, 100 % agave tequila must be made and bottled in Mexico. As of 1994, the rule same applies to mezcal, but the official mezcal regions (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí , Durango, parts of Tamaulipas, and one municipality in Guanajuato)  are different, as are the acceptable agave (five specific varieties*) that can be used to make the beverage legally labeled “mezcal.” Also, good mezcal is made from pit-roasted agave, a rule that does not apply to tequila, which is typically made from agave baked or steamed in stone ovens or stainless steel autoclaves.

Tequila and mezcal are made from distilled pulque.

A mildly alcoholic beverage of recently fermented agave sap, traditional pulque is tapped directly from the plant (which is of a different variety of agave than those used for either tequila or mezcal). In contrast, mezcal and tequila are made from crushing the fibers of a whole agave core, otherwise known as a cabeza or piña.

Stone wheel for crushing agave.

Stone wheel for crushing agave.

Agaves only bloom every 100 years.

Although agaves are called century plants, they actually bloom after eight to twenty years. (Some species flower once and then die, while other species flower almost every year.)

Mezcal is made out of the same cactus that produces mescaline.

Not even close. This misconception is furthered by the bunk American and European spelling: mescal. As we’ve already established, mezcal is extracted from agave. Mescaline occurs naturally in several varieties of cactus, including peyote and San Pedro.

A shot of tequila should always be served with lime and salt.

Would you suck on lime and salt with a nice single malt scotch? I didn’t think so. Lime and salt are only necessary if you’re drinking Cuervo Gold or some similar abomination. When your tequila is as bright and silky as a Jalisco sunset, there’s no reason to mask the taste with lime and salt. (Speaking of which…Don’t waste good tequila or mezcal by shooting it. Yes, in Mexico tequila and mezcal are often served in large shot glasses. That doesn’t mean you’re actually expected to shoot the precious liquid.)

Margaritas are the Mexican drink of choice.

The history of the margarita is murky. The bottom line is that the drink was invented for gringos, and tourists still order most of the margaritas that are today mixed in Mexico. Margaritas are indeed delicious, but if you’re ordering the drink at a bar, your chances of getting a good one are better in Brooklyn than they are in Mexico. Typically, Mexican margaritas are not good, because most Mexicans don’t drink them. If you want to drink like a Mexican, order a paloma (squirt and tequila–better than it sounds) or a trago of straight tequila or mezcal. Salud!



*Other varieties may also be used, provided they are not designated for use in another beverage under another denomination of origin in the same state.

7 Responses to “Seven Common Misconceptions about Tequila and Mezcal”

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  1. Tina Rosa says:

    Whoever would have thought agave, asparagus and narcissus were all close relatives!

  2. Churpa says:

    I was surprised to discover that as well.

  3. -El Codo- says:

    I am a narcissist, and I love Tequila and Asparagus.

    Oh do I have 30-year old Tequila to kill-for jejejejejejejejejejejeje.

    And I’ll put it up against any sipping liquor on the face of the earth. A few years ago I gave a pint to a 93-year old gentleman on his birthday. He took a sip and yelped “O dios mio!”

    Lime and salt are used to kill the taste. Like Navy coffee where cookie throws in a pinch of salt to help mute the bitterness. Or a handful of white pepper is dumped into a bubbling pot of “Chili Con Carne” to make it (ugh) competition grade at a fair or contest.

    Every repository along the highway in Oaxaca offers a “reserve” Mescal for the discriminating buyer. Some are a lot better than others. It’s fun to sample, but a sampler really needs a designated driver and a bottle of Tylenol.

    A not-quite-ripe mango serves to act like cheese does with wine tasting when sampling Tequila or Mescal. A tiny nip out of the mango should be rolled around the mouth, swallowing is optional.

  4. Churpa says:

    Hmmm….good to know about the mango!

  5. JWS says:

    I only saw 7… Is there an eight?

  6. JWS says:

    8. Sic: Tequila contains a worm in the bottle.
    Never… Regulations prohibit any additives to 100% Agave Tequila (including no worms). There is no such restriction on Mezcals and, accordingly, come Mezcal bottles include a worm.