Contrary to popular belief, tequila is not cactus juice. The spirit is distilled from blue Weber agave. (And for the record, it should never come with a worm in the bottle.)
Just like Champagne or cognac, tequila can only be made in a specific region: the Mexican state of Jalisco and some surrounding areas. The area’s volcanic soil is perfect for growing agave. The forbidding plant, which has sharp thorns and long, thick leaves, takes between eight and 12 years to reach maturity before it can be harvested.
The heart of the plant, which can weigh well over 100 pounds, is peeled, roasted and crushed, and its sweet juice is then fermented and distilled. (While premium tequila is made from pure agave, cheaper tequila called mixto is distilled from both agave and other sugars.) Tequila is usually distilled twice.
There are four main tequila categories: Blanco (also called silver, plata or platinum) is aged for less than two months and is clear; reposado is aged between two and 12 months and is golden-colored; añejo is aged between one and three years and is a whisky-like brown; and extra-añejo, a new category introduced by the Tequila Regulatory Council in 2006, is aged more than three years. Tequila, like most Scotches, is typically aged in used bourbon casks.
There are few spirits as misunderstood as mezcal. For one, you should never buy a bottle of the liquor if it contains a worm—those mezcals are for tourists and contain cheap alcohol. But fortunately, there’s now a growing selection of fine mezcals available in America from a range of producers. Mezcal, like its cousin tequila, is made from agave, which, contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus but is actually part of the asparagales botanical order, making it a relative of the yucca plant and Joshua tree. While tequila can only be made in the Tequila region and from just blue Weber agave, mezcal is usually produced in Oaxaca (it can legally come from anywhere in Mexico) and can be made from many types of agave, some of which only grow wild. Historically, producers used whatever agave they found locally.
The other big difference between the two types of Mexican liquor is that mezcal distillers traditionally slow-roast the agave by burying it in pits with hot rocks, which infuses the final product with its signature smokiness. (Tequila’s agave is generally baked in stone ovens or autoclaves.)
HOW TO DRINK MEZCAL:
Many of the truly artisanal small-batch mezcals should be sipped neat like an aged tequila or Islay Scotch. You can also use the spirit in a range of complex cocktails.