Jesus Oñate Jr, owner of Zapata Tacos & Tequila Bar in Historic Downtown Norcross, gave us the dirt on tequila’s lesser known big brother, Mezcal. As the first person in the southeast to be a certified Master Mezcalier from Mexico, Jesus is an expert in the history, regulation, process, agave types, mixology, food pairing and culture that go along with the agave plant libation.
Tequila and Mezcal: Similarities and Differences
The agave plant is the sole supplier of the liquid courage that is the main ingredient of a margarita. But the reality is that everything distilled from the agave plant is a mezcal. So technically, tequila is a type of mezcal. Although this is a fact, it is not used in a mainstream way when talking about the two distillates.
The main difference between the two is that tequila can only be made from only one species of agave, the Agave Tequilana or Blue Agave. Mezcal has a wider range of agave plant options for distilling. Additionally, tequila and mezcal have different denominations of origin (which means they are each distilled from a specific geographical region of the country), like bourbon and whiskey. In order to be a tequila, the product must be made in the state of Jalisco (or four other states), while Mezcal is made from agave varieties around the city of Oaxaca (and in some areas of a few other states). The most common agave used for mezcal production is Agave Espadín.
The cooking method prior to distilling is another key difference between the two. Mezcal is mostly roasted in underground wood fire pits, giving it a sweet, smoky taste. Tequila, on the other hand, is generally cooked in large brick ovens for a few days.
If you sit down at the bar at Zapata’s as a novice, Jesus always asks his customers if they have a preference between whiskey and scotch. This gives him a better idea of what they like, to ease them into either a tequila (which bears similarities to whiskey) or a mezcal (which more closely aligns with a nice smoky scotch). Then the fun really begins…
Jesus recommends the best way to enjoy mezcal is to sip it neat. “If it’s your first time, then ask the bartender to give you a much lighter, less smoky mezcal so that it doesn’t just overpower and kill your experience,” said Jesus. He suggests always ask your bartender for a few slices of orange with your mezcal; it’s popular in Mexican culture to enjoy mezcal this way. It works really well with fruit.
And speaking of fruit, Zapata’s has an entire tequila- and mezcal-based cocktail menu utilizing fresh fruit or natural fruit pulp as key ingredients. If you happen to drop in on a day they have dragonfruit, you’ll want to be sure to try the mezcal cocktail—it’s absolutely DELICIOUS! Another favorite is the El Spicey, which is made of fresh pineapple, Serrano peppers, a pinch of cilantro, lime and mezcal… Olé!!
FOR THE STAY-AT-HOME BARTENDER: If you want to get your feet wet with a cocktail at home, just pull up a basic margarita recipe and switch the tequila for mezcal, add some fresh orange juice and try to only use simple, fresh ingredients. You’ve got the extra time right now, so step up your game and stay away from mixers and syrups!!