Illustration of agave plants, a hand pouring tequila into a glass, and various bottles of tequila and mezcal
Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

The Expansive World of Tequila, Mezcal, and Agave-Based Drinks

This humble plant, which is the base of some of the world's most popular spirits, has deep roots.

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The rate at which tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits have come to dominate the liquor industry can’t be overstated. While drinks culture is known for constant evolution, cocktails of the moment, and nonstop trends, larger shifts in which a single category of spirit skyrockets at such a frenzied pace are few and far between.

In 2022, tequila and mezcal overtook whiskey as the second-highest selling spirit by value in the United States, trailing only vodka, according to DISCUS (the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.). And within these numbers is a portrait of growing momentum, with tequila and mezcal growing by 11.5% in total volume, more than double whiskey’s 5.2% increase, and far above an annual decline of 1.5% for vodka.

But behind sales numbers and spreadsheets is a story of a category of spirit steeped in culture and tradition that’s rightfully being given its due, as well as a nebulous future in which artisan producers face the perils of skyrocketing fame and industrialization that threaten all the things that make agave spirits so unique. / Laura Sant.

All About Agave

Spirits educator Misty Kalkofen spoke with agave experts David Suro Piñera and Gary Nabhan, authors of Agave Spirits: The Past, Present and Future of Mezcals, about the seismic shifts happening in the tequila and mezcal industry, and the danger mass production poses to a product so dependent on the unique microbiomes of its natural setting. Their conversation takes an important look at the sustainability of tequila and mezcal through the holistic lens of environmental science, labor, and business practices of this billion-dollar industry.

And while tequila and mezcal are inarguably the most visible representations of agave-based spirits, other drinks made from the slow-aging succulent have long been woven into the culture of Central America. Associate editor Audrey Morgan offers an overview of these other categories of agave beverages, while writer Bryant Orozco takes a deeper dive into the production and culture of pulque, an ancestral wild-fermented beverage native to Mexico with a history deeper than many of its more well-known descendants.

Though the growing interconnectedness of the global economy has expanded the cultural reach of agave spirits, their history goes deeper and extends further than many realize. Native Mexicans cultivated agave for centuries before the era of Spanish conquest, but the area’s history of distillation owes itself to another part of the world entirely. As far back as the 1500s, the Galleon trade route across the Pacific Ocean transported goods from Asia to the Americas, bringing with them goods and an exchange of ideas. Writer Caroline Hatchett explores this history, detailing the story of Filipino sailors who settled in Western Mexico during this era and contributed some of the continent’s earliest distillation techniques and equipment. Many of these methods are still in use for traditional agave spirits like tuxca, and have been woven into Mexican distilling culture in the centuries since. / Laura Sant

All About the Basics

For those new to tequila, mezcal, and other agave-based drinks, first steps into the category can be intimidating. Unlike other regional spirits, like Scotch whisky, which have been highly regulated for decades (if not centuries), agave spirits cover a staggeringly broad array of styles. It can help to begin your journey with a primer on the different classifications of tequila to better understand the differences between blanco, reposado, and añejo offerings, as well as recent categories like extra-añejo and cristalino.

Once you’re ready to dive into the even broader world of mezcal, the 40+ varieties of agave that can be used to create the spirit can be even harder to make sense of. Here you can find a breakdown of the most common types of agave used in mezcal, as well as regional differentiations and production techniques.

Mezcal regions map / Laura Sant

All About Cocktails

As the tequila and mezcal boom continues to spread globally, cocktail programs in bars and restaurants have innovated to adapt to this changing landscape. Despite the deep canon of old-school cocktails in other categories like whiskey and vodka, relatively few classic tequila cocktail recipes exist beyond long-time standard bearers like the Margarita and Paloma.

Senior Editor Prairie Rose explores the history of one of these nearly forgotten cocktails, the Café Royal Matador, a Martini-like classic tequila cocktail first created in the 1930s. The recipe was supplanted in the following decades by a pineapple-based offshoot that bears little resemblance to the original, but the Café Royal version remains a must for tequila lovers and fans of spirit-forward cocktails. / Laura Sant

And as bartenders look for ways to utilize these agave spirits, they’re creating a wealth of new drinks showcase these spirits versatility. Tequila and mezcal have particularly demonstrated themselves adept at fitting into an array of cocktail profiles, and modified versions of well-known classics have come to utilize the spirits. The Tequila Manhattan (a.k.a. the Distrito Federal) has aged reposado tequila taking the place of whiskey, contributing its own unique oak profile. Others like the Mezcal Negroni showcase how changing one simple ingredient can create new dimensions of flavor, like providing an unseen level of depth to a classic gin-based, botanical-forward Negroni.

Other leading bartenders have taken things further, mixing and matching classic cocktail profiles and incorporating new ingredients and techniques to create a new generation of tequila and mezcal cocktails. After its debut at New York City’s Pegu Club in the mid-2000s, bartender Katie Stipe’s famously popular Siesta cocktail reignited the idea of an untapped world of tequila cocktails. Similarly, Joaquín Simó’s Naked & Famous cocktail immediately became a modern classic and brought mezcal to new audiences after its creation at Death & Co over a decade ago, showcasing the spirit’s ability to stand in for what’s essentially a mashup of the Last Word and Paper Plane cocktails.

Tequila and mezcal are only continuing to grow, and while there always remains uncertainty in the sustainability of any category experiencing such a rapid rise, a new generation is finally being turned on to the wonders of this fascinating category of agave-based drinks. We hope you’ll have the chance to navigate through our coverage of one of the most expressive areas of drinks, learn a bit more, and of course, find your next favorite drink.