The award-winning bartender explains differences between mezcal and tequila and mixes them in a take on the mai tai.

Have you learned the difference between mezcal and tequila? After much research anticipating the summer, I've determined mezcal is tequila's smoky, delicious cousin, and the two get along very well.

Summer drinks tend to be light and fruity: sangrias, citrus punches or watermelon mixtures seem to make these lists. So how about veering from the tropical to give what's west of the Gulf a chance?

At a tequila-and-mezcal tasting earlier this month, drinking enthusiast and Spirited Sirens women's drinking group creator Jennifer Massolo taught a room full of middle-aged women, mostly, to sip agave liquors neat. She detailed some of the differences between mezcal and tequila. Ready?

Tequila can only be made from blue agave (this plant), while mezcal can be made from others (like this plant). At its most basic, the difference is the preparation of mezcal: Because it's cooked in a sort of underground pit with roasted "pinecones" from the plant, it tastes smoky. So in a way, mezcal is to tequila as scotch is to whiskey.


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Now: How to drink mezcal?

Award-winning bartender Nick Nistico, of Miami Beach's Dolce Italian at the Gale Hotel, says you should drink it neat. That's very good, but let's put it in a cocktail, anyway.

A smoky margarita can be made using Sombra Blanco Mezcal, as did Massolo at her tasting. Substitute your preferred tequila for it, and use agave syrup as sweetener. The result will have a strong, roasted aroma and a bit of spice on the finish.

Until June 30 at Rosa Mexicano, you can order a Mexican mule made with Herradura Silver Tequila and Del Maguey Vida Mezcal (find it here). It's mixed with ginger beer and lime juice, so the flavors are all bold. The tequila's stout citruslike taste is very present, but it's balanced by the robust burn of the mezcal.

And if Nistico is going to use the spirit in a cocktail, he'll do it in his Mexican bowtie. It's a mai-tai with Mexican flare, and he uses mezcal as a floater. Watch him make it in the video above, and hear him explain the difference between these two liquors in more detail.

If you prefer to tough it out with tequila, try one of these cocktails:

The paloma a Mexican classic gaining popularity in South Florida's cocktail renaissance. Massolo prefers 3 Amigos Blanco Tequila, ruby-red grapefruit juice, club soda and a sugar rim to balance the slight bitterness. At Rosa Mexicano, this drink is made with San Pellegrino, lime juice and grapefruit. It's much sweeter than Massolo's sugarless mix.

These days, any good bartener will be able to make one of these for you, but here's a recipe I like from the Kitchn.com. It's simple and the ingredients are easy to find.

But really, give mezcal neat a try sometime.