The short answer
Tequila and mezcal are both distilled spirits made from the agave plant, but there are some key differences between them. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, which is native to the Mexican state of Jalisco, while mezcal is made from any type of agave plant, including the blue agave. Tequila is typically made in a more industrialized process, while mezcal is made in a more traditional, artisanal way. Tequila is usually clear and has a smoother taste, while mezcal is smokier and has a more complex flavor.
The long answer
Strictly speaking, tequila is a kind of mezcal. Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from different agave plants, native to Mexico. The history of mezcal dates back to the 16th century when the Aztecs first began to distill the agave plant. The Aztecs used the agave plant to make a fermented beverage called pulque. The Spanish conquistadors brought the distillation process to Mexico in the 16th century, and mezcal was born.
Mezcal was originally made in small batches by local families in rural areas of Mexico. It was made from wild agave plants, and the production process was labor-intensive and time-consuming. The agave plants were harvested, cooked, mashed, fermented, and then distilled. The resulting mezcal was often flavored with herbs and spices.
In the 19th century, mezcal production began to expand and commercialize. The agave plant was cultivated and the production process was industrialized. This allowed for larger-scale production and the development of different styles of mezcal.
Tequila originally was called simply mezcal de Tequila (mezcal from Tequila) as Tequila is a city in Mexico where the drink is produced. Modern techniques and the primary use of agave azul gave it a different taste from the mezcales produced in other regions of Mexico and that catapulted its popularity, so much so that people started to believe it was a different drink entirely.
Later on, given the specific popularity of the mezcal from Tequila. In the 1930s, the producer and the Mexican government established the Denomination of Origin for Tequila, which regulated the production and labeling of tequila, giving birth to the spirit we all know and love today.
Tequila nowadays can be produced only in the areas near the city of Tequila itself, mostly in the state of Jalisco, while mezcal is produced in the southern states of Mexico, mostly Oaxaca.
Today, tequila is one of the most popular spirits in the world, with over 2 billion liters sold every year.
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