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A beginner’s guide to tequila and mezcal

From how it's made to how to drink it, prepare to have your opinion on the spirit changed forever

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A beginner’s guide to tequila and mezcal

While most people associate tequila with lime, salt, and a screwed-up face, there’s so much more to this Mexican spirit than meets the eye.

Once the reserve of nights out at the club, this fiery alcohol with sweet and melon-y undertones is now gaining popularity in trendy bars, with many mixologists choosing it and its sister-spirit, Mezcal, as the base of cutting-edge cocktail menus.

Both tequila and mezcal are made by fermenting sap from the agave plant. As with fine wines, every tequila tastes different, ranging from the fiery and bitter to the smooth and sweet.

In honour of Tequila Day (24 July), we’re answering all your burning tequila questions, from what exactly is tequila, to what are some of the best, most delicious ways to drink it? (We can reveal now, a tequila slammer doesn’t quite make our list…) 

What is tequila?

Tequila is an alcoholic spirit made from the blue agave plant that grows in the rural and suburban areas surrounding the town of Tequila in central west Mexico.

Mexican law means that only spirits made in this vicinity can call themselves tequila, in the same way Champagne can only come from France’s Champagne region.

How's it made?

The spirit is made by slowly baking the trunk of the blue agave plant, which is known as the “piña” and looks a bit like a giant pinecone, to break down the sugars inside. These baked trunks are then mashed and the juice is extracted. This sap is then fermented for several days to produce a relatively low alcohol content, and then distilled until it reaches its average of 38% alcohol content.

Typically, the growing conditions of the blue agave dictates how the final spirit tastes. Agaves grown in the highlands tend to be larger and produce sweeter sap, while agaves from the lowlands tend to produce a more herbal flavour in the final product.

What’s the best way to drink it?

While we’re all used to trying to mask tequila’s flavours behind salt and lime, there are plenty of simple, elegant and delicious cocktails out there to try that celebrate the spirit’s distinctive and complex flavour profile.

For a fresh and fruity tipple that champions tequila’s sweet and fiery nature, why not whip up a couple of Palomas this weekend?

Simply mix together tequila, zingy grapefruit juice, lime and demerara sugar then top up with soda water. Fragrant grapefruit works as a delicious contrast to fiery tequila, resulting in a vibrant, refreshing, perfect pink tipple to sip on all summer.

Or, if sweet is your thing, how about a classic tequila sunrise? Simply mix a measure of tequila (golden or silver) with orange juice and add a measure or grenadine for a blushing, sun-streaked sky in a glass.

If that’s tequila, then what’s mezcal?

Tequila is known for its fiery flavour with sweet undertones, while mezcal has an aged, smoother and smoky flavour which works brilliantly with citrus. Try a measure of mezcal topped up with fresh orange juice and finished with a slice of fresh ginger.

While tequila is always made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant. There’s a common myth that mezcal was discovered when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking its core and releasing its juices. As a result, mezcal is sometimes dubbed “elixir of the gods”. This is just a myth, though, and we imagine the actual discovery probably wasn't anywhere near as other-worldly...

While the piñas roasted to make tequila are often cooked in ovens, mezcal’s piñas are roasted and smoked in a contained fire pit for up to four days, giving mezcal its distinctive, smoky and deeper flavour.

Typically, tequila is made from 100% agave, while mezcal can be made with anything between 80% and 100% agave, with other fermented sugars making up the rest. The precise percentage doesn't matter, as long as it falls in this vicinity and was produced within seven particular Mexican states.

How to drink mezcal?

Mexicans swear by drinking mezcal on its own, from a wide-brimmed glass, to let the smoky spirit really shine. This is typically served with slices of melon or orange sprinkled with salt, chilli powder and dried, roasted worms. The fruity side dish supposedly helps to cleanse your palate between sips, helping you get to the various layers of flavour that lurk within.

But if the thought of straight spirits is too much to bear, have no fear. Smoky mezcal works brilliantly with flavour-packed cranberry juice, too.

Inspired to give tequila another go? Find everything you need to make our tasty Paloma recipe at Asda or pop into your local store.