Tequila vs. mezcal: what's the difference?

Tequila and mezcal aren’t just for shooting. Owen Walker, owner of El Rey Mezcal Bar, distills us with his love for the agave-based Mexican spirits.

Once synonymous with plastic shooter cups and bad decisions, tequila has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Mezcal, its smoky relative, has followed along. In 2022, the LCBO reported tequila sales skyrocketed 28 per cent. Globally, the industry swelled to a value of about CAD $12.6 billion. As more people begin to understand and appreciate these versatile spirits, they’ve graduated from party purchases to bar cart staples.

Tequila vs mezcal | Owen Walker, mezcal expert and the owner of El Rey

Today, mezcal seems to be on the cocktail menu at all of Toronto's coolest drinking dens. Tequila bars have popped up all over the city with impressive lists of the silver and gold stuff. Despite their newfound popularity, tequila and mezcal are still often confused with one another. But each one has its own deep connection to different regions of Mexico.

To clear up questions around the spirits, we ask Owen Walker, mezcal expert and the owner of El Rey, an agave-focused cocktail bar in Kensington, to distill it for us.

What are tequila and mezcal?

“Tequila and mezcal are distilled alcohol beverages, each made from the heart of the Mexican agave plant, the piña.”

What’s the difference between them?

Both spirits start as the agave plant, but their similarities largely end there. “All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila,” clarifies Walker. “There are well over 140 recognized agave varietals, but in tequila, blue weber is the only one that gets used.” Mezcal, on the other hand, has a distinct smoky flavour and can be produced from any number of agave sources. The most common varietal used to make mezcal is espadin.

Tequila and mezcal | A bottle of mezcal on a table with cucumbers and rimming salt

How are tequila and mezcal made?

Production begins once an agave plant reaches maturity and attempts to flower for the first and only time in its life. “For blue weber and espadin agave, that can take about six to eight years,” explains Walker, though the time can be different for every agave varietal. “When the plant goes to flower, it grows a stem called a quiote, and there’s a big production of complex carbohydrate stores in the form of inulin.” Agave farmers cut off the quiote to preserve that sugar, then chop away at the plant to harvest the piña.

“For tequila, they’ll roast these agave hearts, usually in a brick oven or steam environment,” continues Walker. “To make mezcal, they dig a hole, start a fire and heat up volcanic rock to create an earth oven, which is used to roast the agave hearts.” This is where mezcal often acquires its smoky flavour. After it’s roasted or steamed, “the piña is then milled and pressed until you have a sugary liquid, which is fermented and distilled. What you're left with is either tequila or mezcal.”

Tequila vs mezcal | Farmers harvesting the pina of the agave plant in order to make tequila and mezcal

Where are they made?

Tequila can only be made in one of five authorized Mexican states, and the majority is produced in Jalisco. Most mezcal hails from Oaxaca and must be created in one of nine Mexican states.

Where is the most tequila and mezcal consumed?

“The vast majority of mezcal is actually consumed in Mexico, in the villages where they’re produced. They often aren't made for the explicit purpose of selling to anywhere outside of that village or the state, so they’re hard to find. Don't get me wrong, there are tons of products that are bottled and sold in North America, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's actually out there.”

Is the process sustainable?

While they’re hardy desert plants, agave shortages do happen, Walker laments. “There's quite a bit of monocrop when it comes to tequila and mezcal. You start to see issues with blight; the plants become less resistant to natural predators.” Explosive North American demand for the spirits is an issue, too.

“Agave is not as abundant as, say, grain. The very nature of the plant and the time it takes to mature means there will inevitably be cyclical shortages.” Lack of supply has also resulted in higher shelf prices or “mixed doses,” which are 51 per cent agave and 49 per cent beets or another sugar source.

Tequila vs mezcal | A margarita at El Rey Mezcal Bar

What are the different types?


“The vast majority of mezcal is unaged. That’s the classic style, but also has to do with Oaxaca being one of the poorest states in Mexico,” Walker explains. Barrel-aging is unaffordable for many mezcal producers. “It’s not being produced in what you would think of as a traditional industrial distillery — instead, in open-air paluenques, as they're called, which are next to a river for a cold water source. They’re usually very humble, and might be an extension of a farm, an extension of what really is a way of life.”

To Walker, the lack of aging is what makes the drink special. “In my opinion, the most exciting part of mezcal is its close relationship to the plant it comes from. That gets diminished a little bit when you rest in a barrel.”

Tequila and mezcal | A glass of mezcal with cucumbers and rimming salt


Blanco tequilas are aged in oak barrels for up to two months, or not at all and are bottled immediately after the last distillation. “They’ll go into a used barrel for the spirit to relax, and for some of the volatiles to chill out. But you're not going to see a lot of impact of flavour from that barrel.”


Aged between two and 12 months, reposado tequila will pick up some of the tannins and a golden colour from the barrel.


Ready after one to three years of barrel aging, añejo is a darker gold and often has mellower, smoother tasting notes.

Extra añejo

Taking into account the time needed for the agave plant to grow, in addition to more than three years of oak barrel aging, extra añejo often takes 10 years to produce.

Tequila and mezcal | Owen Walker preparing a drink at El Rey Mezcal bar

How should you shop for tequila and mezcal?

“On every bottle of tequila or mezcal, there will be a number on the back label that says NOM, then usually a four-digit code. That four-digit code corresponds to a distillery. Then, you can find out the production method.

In the case of mezcal, if you see the word ancestral, that’s a good sign that it’s been produced completely by hand, with very little mechanization. A clay pot still was likely used, which is super rudimentary and yields a lot of flavour. The method will speak to the level of care put into the product.”

For tequila, it’s all about the percentage, asserts Walker. Look for a 100 per cent agave designation on your next trip to the LCBO for the highest-quality stuff.

Tequila vs mezcal | Open Windows cocktail at El Rey Mezcal Bar

What separates tequila and mezcal from other spirits?

“They come from very special plants,” gushes Walker, who takes trips to Mexico every year to sample small-batch, wild-harvested mezcal. “You can’t propagate most agave, so it's something that has to grow wildly. Some aren’t conducive to farming; they don't grow in a row. There’s also a huge swath of different times in which these plants take to come to maturity. It might be six, eight years; something like a tepeztate might take as long as 50 years and might only yield about seven bottles. The idea of consuming something like that needs to be celebrated and not taken lightly.”