by Callum Fitzpatrick
For many of us, the word ‘tequila’ brings back some deeply repressed memories: those sloppy life choices at a house party, that grimacing feeling after you chew on another lime, or that morning you spent drooling in the fetal position on the bathroom floor.
But in Mexico, tequila and mezcal are viewed in an entirely different light. Sure, you can drink enough to make some questionable decisions – it’s not exactly a green smoothie – but when you hunt down the good stuff, it’s meant to be sipped slowly, like a fine scotch.
Tequila vs. Mezcal
So what’s the difference between tequila and mezcal? Well, when it comes to taste, mezcal is typically smokier and sweeter than its counterpart. Technically tequila is a type of mezcal, however mezcal can’t be labeled a tequila. That’s because mezcal can be produced from around 30 different plants, where as tequila can only be derived from a single agave (tequilana, or blue agave), and can only be produced in a select group of locations. One of which is the aptly-named…
The state of Jalisco is where the tequila tale began – way back in the 16th century. These days, Jalisco’s famous Tequila Trail homes more than 146 registered distilleries that produce 50 million gallons of the liquor a year. And the town of Tequila won’t disappoint. This place is built for tasting: distilleries, cantinas, museums, even tequila-flavoured snacks. But if for some strange reason you still can’t scratch that itch, don’t fret, Jalisco’s a big place and there’s a lot of tequila to be had. Burrow to a further corner of the state and you’ll surely be able satisfy your discerning tastes…
The rugged landscape of Amatitan sits proudly in the Jalisco ‘Lowlands’ (Actually 3,870 feet above sea level!). Stop off here for a sip and you’ll probably notice an earthy taste to your spirit. That’s because of the Lowlands’ rich, volcanic soil, which gives off a spicier, almost cinnamon-like taste. The region also has a better water source which is favoured by many distillers. Grab a bottle of your favourite from the daytime’s tastings and sip slowly as you admire the hazy sunset across the valley. You might find you stay for longer than you expected.
Los Altos, Jalisco
Climb up to the highlands, or ‘Los Altos’ as its known by the locals, and you’ll notice that by day it’s comparable to its ‘lower’ brother, but the shift in elevation beckons some nippy nighttimes – especially if you touch down in winter. The reposado here is often much more more floral and fruity. Perfect to pair with some fresh fruit picked from the bustling markets.
Oaxaca de Juarez
Holy mole sauce, Oaxaca is serious about its favourite tipple. Driving along the dusty, desert roads into the state’s capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, you’ll be greeted by hundreds of tiny mezcal distilleries, or ‘palenques’, lining the side of the highway. If you can’t hold out until you visit a tasting room in town, make sure to knock on palenque door and request a tasting. If you time it right, you might catch some of the ancient production methods: the sweet, smokey piñas being cooked underground, or a horse dragging a stone wheel to mash up the ingredients.
And if you were overwhelmed by the subtle differences in taste of tequila, you’ll be positively dumbfounded by mezcal. The sheer amount of distilleries, variations in agave, and aging process makes for one complex, yet superbly scrumptious drink.
So if you’re planning a trip to Mexico soon, make sure to factor in some drinking (ok, so there’s a pretty good chance you already were), but hold off on the lime and salt – you might be surprised at what you taste…and what you remember.
All photos in this article have been taken by Callum Fitzpatrick.