With over 300 different characteristics, tequila possesses a depth of flavors and aromas that rival any good spirit. Depending on the unique conditions in which its agave was grown, as well as the techniques utilized in its production, this delightful spirit can range from light and fruity to deep and smokey – and everything in between. Here’s 5 things you didn’t know about tequila, brought to you by our friends at Moonshine University.

1. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

If you’re from Kentucky, then you probably know that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Similarly, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

Like bourbon, tequila has a “denomination of origin,” meaning that it must be produced in a specific place in order to be called tequila. In this case, tequila comes from what is known as the Tequila region of Mexico, which includes the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Nayarit.

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be produced almost anywhere in Mexico, but it most commonly comes from its central and southern states, especially Oaxaca.

2. Tequila must be made with at least 51% blue Weber agave.

In order to be called a tequila, the spirit must contain at least 51% blue Weber agave or “agave tequilana,” which is a type of desert succulent.

The higher the percentage of blue agave in the tequila, the finer the spirit. This makes sense, because these sweet plants take a whopping 8 to 12 years to mature and can only be harvested once. Lower quality tequilas (those with a lesser percentage of blue agave) may be filled out with a neutral spirit made from cane sugar juice, making them cheaper to produce and generally inexpensive for consumers.

Mezcal has a little more freedom. There are over 30 strains of agave (or maguey) that can be used in mezcal production, so long as they are native to the approved regions and contain the appropriate sugar levels.

Currently, agave espadin is used for about 90% of mezcal production: it’s easy to cultivate, wildly grown and commonly domesticated, and has the similar tropical and floral notes enjoyed in blue agave. However, it still takes years to mature, and if you want a more complex flavor and aroma in your mezcal, you can count on paying a higher price for plants left to mature for an additional decade.

3. Mezcal is typically smokier in flavor than tequila.

Tequila is made by steaming the heart of the agave (called the piña) in above-ground ovens, crushing it, and fermenting the extracted sap, before distilling in copper pots. Meanwhile, mezcal production involves charring the piña prior to distillation. Before the agave can be cooked, underground pits are lined with hot rocks that burn for at least a day. This process is what gives mezcal it’s signature smokiness.

There are a variety of age distinctions for tequila and mezcal products that also impact the final aroma and flavor:

  • Blanco or Silver: A tequila that is bottled immediately after distillation or aged for fewer than 2 months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels.
  • Joven: A mezcal that is bottled immediately after distillation or aged for fewer than 2 months.
  • Reposado: A tequila or mezcal that’s been “rested” in oak for a minimum of 2 months, but spent less than 1 year in oak barrels.
  • Añejo: A tequila or mezcal that’s been “aged” for 1-3 years in oak barrels.
  • Extra Añejo: Meaning “extra aged,” this is a tequila or mezcal that’s been aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels.

4. Some mezcal bottles contain a worm, but tequila doesn’t.

No one knows exactly where the practice originated, but it’s not unheard of today to find a worm at the bottom of your mezcal (but not tequila, that’s a common misconception).

The most circulated origin story credits an art school student turned distiller named Jacobo Lozano Páez who, in the 1940s, found that the larvae changed the taste of the agave, so he began adding it to alter the flavor of his spirits.

Some believe that swallowing the worm brings you luck if it ends up in your glass; or that it serves as an aphrodisiac or hallucinogenic, though neither claim has been proven true. Others believe it provides evidence of a mezcal’s quality, because in order to safely “pickle” the worm, a spirit must contain a higher alcohol potency.

Overall, most would call it a marketing ploy.

5. Oh, and the worm at the bottom of your bottle isn’t a worm at all.

The worm found in some mezcals is actually a kind of edible caterpillar known as “gusano de maguey,” named after the plant it feeds on. These “worms” are also consumed by themselves as popular delicacies in Mexico.

There are two types of gusano, identified by their color: red or white. The red gusano feeds on the heart of the maguey – the same part of the plant used to craft mezcal; that’s why the red gusano is considered to be of higher quality for consumption than its white-colored cousin which only eats the leaves of the maguey.

If allowed to live, both these larvae would transform into moths: a hypopta agavis moth (red) or tequila giant skipper (white). But don’t worry, if you do find the courage to swallow the worm, you won’t end up with a butterfly in your stomach, but you may be left feeling giddy. Bottoms up!

To learn more about tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits, check out Moonshine University’s two-day Agave Spirits Workshop, taught by Kobe Desmet, author of Tequila & Mezcal: The Complete Guide.

Written on July 24, 2019.