There are two rules for making real tequila. It must be made using Weber blue agave and it must be produced in Mexico. Mezcal, on the other hand, may be produced using any of the 30 variations of agave.
Having said that, there is a lot of information to divulge on this topic, so let’s get into it!
What is agave?
Agave, a genus of the Asparagaceae family, is a plant that is native to Mexico and the Caribbean. The agave plant is a succulent that is prone to growing in dryer regions. There are an estimated 270 different species of the agave plant, including several natural hybrids. Most of the agave plants have large leaves that look similar to the Aloe Vera plant. The long leaves on the agave plant have spiny tips.
Some of the species in this plant range can grow to 10 feet in height and width. Some species are much smaller while others have soft leaves with no spines. The plant has many uses, but its primary use is as a sweetener. Agave holds many health benefits when consumed. For starters, agave sits low on the glycemic index (GI). In addition, it is great for depression, heart health, and your metabolism.
The key difference between Tequila and Mezcal
To explain the difference between these two spirits, it’s best to start with Mezcal and what it is. Mezcal is defined as any spirit that is made from an agave plant. It is known as a distilled, alcoholic beverage. The word Mezcal originates from Nahuatl mexcalli, which translates to mean, ‘oven-cooked agave’. This agave-based alcoholic drink is easily identified by its savory and smokey flavor. Mezcal obtains its smokey flavors from the underground ovens in which the agave is cooked and is often referred to as Tequila’s smokey cousin.
Tequila is made only from the Weber blue agave plant and is specifically produced in certain regions of Mexico, including Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. If these two requirements are not met, then it can not be called tequila. The flavor profile of tequila can be described as fruity, earthy, and sweet. And, only the heart of the agave plant is used to make tequila.
- Tequila and Mezcal are produced in different regions. Oaxaca is known for making up to 90% of the worlds mezcal supply. Durango is another region in Mexico known for its mezcal production. As previously listed, there are several regions that produce tequila, but Jalisco is the region known for the highest amount of tequila production.
- While mescal is produced by at least one of 40 types of agave plants, sometimes a mixture can be used, similar to when a mixture of grapes is used in the production of certain wines. Tequila, on the other hand, can ONLY be produced using the Weber blue agave plant.
- These two spirits are distilled using different methods. Tequila is cooked in ovens above ground while mescal is produced in underground ovens that are filled with wood and/or charcoal.
The different types of agave
Due to the extensive range of agave plants, we will focus on the five most popular or most widely used agave plants used to make tequila or mezcal.
Weber blue agave plant
This agave plant is the basis of any real tequila. Also known as the agave tequilana. This plant is great for landscaping at high altitudes. These plants can grow quite big and prefer well-drained, rich, sandy soil and can live for decades.
The following are agave plants that make ideal additions to your garden.
This plant is sometimes referred to as the American Century Agave plant or Maguey in Mexico. It features saw-toothed pines with beautiful shades of blue-green leaves.
Agave Victoriae-Reginae (Royal Agave)
This plant goes by another name as well: Queen Victoria Agave. It is a smaller agave plant. And, it has black-tipped leaves that sit up-right. These agave plants make excellent pot plants and can grow to 18 inches tall. Impressively, these plants can live for twenty to thirty years. They grow beautiful reddish/purple or creamy/green colored flowers on long stalks.
This agave plant goes by a different name as well. It is sometimes referred to as the Small Flower Agave. This agave plant is very small and may only grow to about eight inches tall. What makes this agave plant so unique is that it grows small hair filaments around its leaves. The plant produces beautiful cream and yellow colored leaves on a stalk that stands roughly three to even feet tall.
Agave Parryi (Artichoke Agave)
This plant is breathtakingly beautiful with bluish-gray-green leaves with sharp black spears on the tips of its leaves. These agave plants commonly grow on dry, rocky slopes.
The following are the agave plants most popular in the production of mezcals.
This variety of agave accounts for roughly 90% of mescal production. This type of agave breaks down easily during roasting due to the fact that it is less fibrous. It has a high insulin content, which makes alcohol production much easier. This plant takes six to eight years to mature, which makes it ideal for production as this is considered a relatively short period to reach maturity in the agave species. It is also rather easy to cultivate.
It is commonly found in southern Mexico but it is a rare variety at the same time. It cannot reproduce asexually. This agave plant takes roughly ten to fifteen years to reach maturity. It produces earthy and fruity mezcals.
These plants take up to 25 years to reach maturity. And, when they do, they produce strikingly beautiful yellow flowers. These agave plants are more commonly found in southern Mexico and are known to produce mezcals that are very spicy and intense in flavor.
These agave plants are most typically found in Oaxaca, and are the most popular species of agave used in Durango. They grow at very high altitudes in cold, dry conditions. Various mzscals are produced using this variety and the flavor profiles of the various mezcals produced vary quite substantially.
This agave plant is both exquisite and rare at the same time. Mezcals produced by this agave plant are fruity and floral with green notes. In addition, these plants can grow as big as ten feet wide.
Growing and harvesting agave
There’s some bad news here. Did you know that the agave plant has to grow for approximately seven years before it is ready to be harvested? If you have patience, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Agave seeds are typically planted in late spring or early fall. The slow-growing succulent may take several years or even decades to reach maturity. You may notice a tall flower stalk growing out of the center of the plant when it reaches maturity. The flowers are a range of yellow, white, and green. In addition, they are bell-shaped. Many of the different agave plant species will die after their flowers produce berry seed pods. An important factor to point out is that the sap from the agave plant is toxic to both animals and humans.
The plants grow best in sandy, well drained soil with a neutral to acidic PH balance. Agave plants are typically perennial, which means that they last for a very long time.
Many people grow agave plants in their gardens due to their dramatic foliage. Agave plants make a superb focal point in your garden. The thing about these plants is that they require very little if any maintenance, as long as they have the minimum requirements to grow, such as plenty of sunlight and well-drained soil. Ideally, these plants require roughly six hours of direct sunlight a day. As previously mentioned, these plants enjoy well-drained soil. If not, the roots of the plant will rot and the plant will die.
These plants are drought-tolerant but during the first phase of growth, they may require water every four to five days.
In order to grow an agave plant from seed, simply take a container with drainage holes with soil. Place the agave seeds on top of the soil. The seeds may require light and moisture to germinate. If they do not germinate after a few days, do not cover them with soil, simply water the seeds and place them under direct sunlight. You should have seedlings in a few weeks.
Extracting the agave nectar
Agave nectar is also known as agave syrup or agave extract. It is derived from the heart of the agave plant. Various agave plants are used for their sweet agave nectar, but the Weber blue agave plant is the most popular as it has the sweetest nectar.
Remove the pina from the agave plant using a special knife known as a coa de jima. Cut the pina into eighths or quarter pieces. Start by rinsing the pieces before you place them on a roasting pan. Preheat the oven to 140 °F.
The pinas should be cooked for 40 to 72 hours. You will notice a deep orange hue similar to the shade of rust starting to form. This is when you know your pinas are ready. The cooking time and heat allow the juices to flow out of the pina.
The cooking time will vary according to the amount of heat and the size of the pina. After three hours of continuous baking, remove the baking sheet and discard the first amount of juices that have been extracted. Then place the baking tray back in the oven and continue to cook.
Once the pinas have completed the cooking process and achieved the desired color, remove them from the oven and place them in a bowl to cool down while pouring the nectar into a separate bowl. Then rinse the pina pieces under cold water.
Proceed to mash the pina with a potato masher to remove any excess nectar and pour the nectar into the bowl with the other nectar. Then process the pina in a processor until no more liquid can be extracted. Now it is time to filter the nectar. Place a paper filter in a funnel and pour the nectar through the funnel. Keep repeating this process until you are left with clarified liquid.
How much sugar is in agave nectar?
Agave syrup is also known as maguey syrup.
The syrup from the Weber blue agave plant contains 56% fructose. Alternatively, you may find 68 grams of sugar in 100 grams of agave nectar. The sugar in agave syrup is comprised of 80% fructose and 20% glucose.
What’s interesting about this is that agave is much sweeter than regular, refined white sugar but has a lower effect on your blood sugar levels.
Can I use store-bought agave nectar to make tequila and mezcal?
Yes, you absolutely can. Keep in mind though that in order to make real tequila you will need to use nectar from the Weber blue agave plant. It won’t be necessary to harvest and make your own nectar in order to produce the wash for your tequila or mezcal.
The best agave nectar to make tequila
While only Weber blue agave nectar should be used to produce pure tequila, here are three options that may be used in the production of tequila.
1. Organic Blue Agave by Wholesome Sweetners
There are a few reasons that this brand agave blue nectar has made it to the number one spot, including the fact that it is a 100% pure agave. It is one of the highest rated blue agave brands on Amazon by its users. In addition, this specific brand is GMO free, gluten free, USDA organic certified, naturally vegan, and fair trade certified. The fact that it has been certified as organic is a clear indication that the producer of this product incorporates sustainable sourcing methods by employing organic agriculture and harvesting methods. Furthermore, this specific brand comes in two, 44 ounce bottles.
- ORGANIC BLUE AGAVE SYRUP - Natural, low glycemic, multipurpose sweetener harvested from the core of the Blue Agave plant
2. Organic Blue Agave by Wholesome Sweeteners
While this specific brand did not have quite as many reviews as the previous one, it still has a high rating from Amazon users. One of the first things you will notice on this bottle of blue agave nectar, is that it clearly states ‘100% pure’ on the front of the bottle. This is an important factor when looking for pure blue agave. This brand is climate-pledge friendly, USDA certified, fair trade certified, and gluten free. The bottle in which the product is sold is made up of up to 30% plant-based resin. So, not only are they producing a great product, but they are environmentally conscious as well. That’s a double win!
- ORGANIC BLUE AGAVE SYRUP - Natural, low glycemic, multipurpose sweetener harvested from the core of the Blue Agave plant
3. Organic blue agave by Kirkland Signature
This is one of the highest rated blue agave brands on Amazon at the moment. In addition, they seem to have a lot of supporters. The majority of the reviews focus on the product’s quality; some do, however, point out the low quality of the packaging. The bottle does not explicitly state that it is 100% pure agave blue nectar, but the ingredients list does state that only blue agave is used in the manufacturing of this product. It has made it to the number three spot on our list simply due to the consistently high ratings it has achieved and the fact that it is pure agave blue.
- Kirkland Signature Organic blue Agave
4. Pure 100% agave blue nectar by Madhava
We have one more pure agave blue nectar that has made it onto the list. This brand features a plethora of health benefits in addition to the fact that the bottle clearly states that it is 100% pure agave blue. It has been independently tested for 130 toxins and contaminants. It’s USDA organic certified, vegan, non-GMO certified, PBA free, and climate-pledge friendly. Apart from these great features, this brand has also scored very high in terms of quality, based on its Amazon rating.
- ORGANIC AGAVE NECTAR—TASTE THE DIFFERENCE: Pour a drop of our delicious organic blue agave nectar with this pack of 2, 46-ounce bottles of MADHAVA Organic Light Agave
The best agave nectar to make mezcal
When it comes to mezcal, there are certain agave plants that produce superior quality mezcal, including Espadín, tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate and arroqueño.
1. Agave in the Raw by The Raw Store
This is a great agave nectar for making mezcal. Simply because of the fact that it is a pure agave made from blue agave. It is the required ingredient when making tequila but works just as well for making mezcal. There are a myriad of factors that put this agave at the top of the list, including the fact that it is non-GMO, USDA certified, all natural, plant based, certified vegan, and has a low glycemic index. When making tequila or mezcal, you ideally want to use a 100% pure agave syrup or nectar. This brand has also received a plethora of outstanding reviews for its quality.
- All-Natural 100% Raw Blue Agave Sweetener. No Added Flavors or erythritol.
2. Tres Agaves by Tres Agaves Store
We’ve added this agave nectar to our list because it has appeared on multiple searches for top agave to use when making mezcal. It is a high quality product that is 100% pure agave. We have searched for agave nectar made specifically by one of the agave plants listed above but could not find any bottles that explicitly state the name of the agave species. This brand comes highly recommended for making cocktails and is one of the reasons we have put it on our list.
- Ridiculously delicious, low calorie sweetener that's ready to use in margarita mixers
3. Madhava Organic Agave Five by Madhave
This brand agave nectar made it to the blue agave list as well. They are known for producing superior agave nectar products. It’s 100% pure agave and thus would produce a superior mezcal.
- LOW CALORIE SWEETENER: Only 5 calories per serving in this pack of (1) 16 oz. squeeze bottle of organic liquid agave sweetener