Mezcal is smoky and tequila isn’t, end of story, right? Not exactly. Tequila and mezcal aren’t sister spirits; rather, tequila is an offshoot of mezcal, much like Cognac is a specific kind of French grape brandy. Though their modern production methods differ, all tequilas are technically mezcals, that is, a spirit distilled from fermented agave in one of the nine Mexican states legally allowed to describe their liquor as mezcal.
Historically, tequila was made just like any other mezcal: with agave hearts roasted in earthen ovens called hornos, then crushed, fermented, and distilled. This roast is what lends many mezcals their smoky flavor, and as demand for tequila skyrocketed, distillers ditched the inefficient pits for faster steam-pressure ovens that impart no extra flavor to the agave. However, some tequilas are still made the traditional way, horno and all. On the flipside, if you’ve avoided mezcal so far because you don’t care for smoke, keep in mind that certain mezcals bear little to no smoky flavors at all. It all comes down to how the distiller manages their oven.