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Whisky & tequila: what’s the lowdown?

people enjoying ballantines

Whisky and tequila are both traditional spirits with a rich cultural significance.

Originating approximately 5000 miles away from each other – with whisky’s birthplace being rich, historic Scotland, and Tequila’s vibrant Mexico – it’s no wonder that these two bar cart favourites are beloved by all for their unique in flavour and appearance. 

Though they do share some interesting qualities, they are very different.

Here we look at the two in our guide to whisky and tequila.

The differences between tequila and whisky

What’s the lowdown? Well, here are the main differences between whisky and tequila:

  • Whisky is made from fermented grains such as barley, whereas tequila is made from the fermented juice of the blue agave plant.
  • Whisky can and is made all over the world (with the exception of scotch, which has to be made in Scotland). Whereas for a spirit to be classed as tequila, it must be produced from one of five authorised Mexican states. “Tequila” made outside of these states is called mezcal or agave spirit).
  • Tequila doesn’t have to be aged, with the blanco variety not aged at all, whereas whisky is usually aged for a minimum of three years.
  • Whisky and tequila are different in flavour, yet they both appeal to a diverse range of palates. Everyone has a different opinion on what tequila and whisky taste like, but we think it’s fair to say that tequila is lighter and more peppery than scotch, which is deeper with a malty flavour.
  • Tequila is commonly used in summery cocktails such as the classic Margarita and Tequila Sunrise, whereas whisky is used in a huge range of whisky cocktails, such as the Whisky Sour, Hot Toddy and simple mixed drinks such as whisky and lemonade.

The history of tequila and whisky 

Both tequila and whisky have a fascinating history with deep cultural roots. 

The Aztecs made a fermented drink from the agave plant all the way back in approx 200AD, but most tequila enthusiasts believe that Spaniards are responsible for coming up with mezcal when they were looking for a replacement for their beloved brandy.

The Marquis of Altamira built the first big distillery in what is now the town of Tequila, in the early 1600s. Later on, the iconic Cuervo family began to distil tequila commercially in 1758… and the rest is history.

Whisky’s history can be traced back to travelling monks who brought the practise of distilling spirits over to Scotland. The earliest document referring to whisky distillation in Scotland is from 1495, but it’s likely that scotch was being made and enjoyed far before then.

Like tequila, scotch is a huge part of Scottish identity and culture, with Scots considering whisky to be the very water of life. Read more about the origins of whisky.

Difference in process

Let’s run through the basics of how tequila is made:


  • First, the agave is harvested – it takes about seven years for each plant to reach ideal maturity
  • The central bulb of the plant, known as the piña, is baked until the starch is turned into sugar, and the juice is then extracted
  • This sugary juice is fermented for up to twelve days and distilled at least two times
  • Finally, the liquor can either be bottled straight away or aged in barrels, hence the five main categories of tequila: blanco (silver), joven (young), reposado (aged), añejo (extra aged), and extra añejo (ultra aged)


Whereas whisky is made through the following process:


  • Grain (in our case, barley), is soaked in water so it germinates and malts, before being dried and ground down into a coarse powder
  • Hot water is added to the powder to get to the perfect level of sugary liquid
  • Next it’s time for fermentation and distillation, which turns the fermented wash into a higher-proof spirit
  • The final step is maturation, which is done in wooden casks, usually oak

So there are some crossovers in how whisky and tequila are made, which is understandable as both are a traditional spirit.

Difference in taste

But what about the all-important taste? It really is down to personal taste and your individual palette.

To us, tequila tastes of sweet agave, with a strong kick of alcohol. Aged tequila can have a fruity, earthy taste, depending on the length of the maturation and the type of barrels used.

Whisky arguably has a deeper, richer flavour, seeing as all whisky goes through a maturation process. But it too has notes of fruit and an earthy woody, sometimes smokey flavour.

Both whisky and tequila have a powerful “finish” or a burn at the back of the throat, hence why many like to chase a shot of tequila with zesty lime, and water down scotch down slightly with a few ice cubes.

Drinking tequila or whisky

There’s no rules when it comes to drinking tequila or whisky, you’re free to experiment and enjoy however you like, but there are some common ways that both spirits are consumed.

Tequila is often enjoyed neat as a shot with salt and lime. It’s also the key ingredient in a quintessential Margarita and Paloma cocktails. Tequila can also be mixed with soft drinks such as lemonade or soda, although this is less common.

Whisky is also enjoyed both neat and within cocktails. The are a wide range of drinks that you can make with whisky, why not check out our whisky drinks to try out your next serve. There’s dessert whisky cocktails such as the Boozy Chocolate Milkshake, classics such as an Old Fashioned, and modern recipes like our Parmesan Espresso Martini – trust us, it different but it works. Whisky can also be mixed with soft drinks, with whisky and cola being an all time favourite.

There’s also spins on classic tequila cocktails like our Whisky Paloma which adds a new warming smoky spin to the lip-smacking tang of grapefruit. We prefer it to the original, so have a try and see what you think. 

Ballantine’s x RZA: Whisky Paloma

In homage to RZA’s Park Hill roots. The Paloma marries the sweet smoke of our Finest whisky with the lip-smacking tang of grapefruit.


Can you sip tequila like whisky?

The Mexican speciality is often seen as a party drink, but we highly encourage you to slow down, swap the shot for a sip and really taste tequila, like how you would taste whisky. 

Next time you’re pouring a measure, why not try using a traditional tulip whisky glass to experience the aromas and notes in tequila before you sip? You may be surprised at what you find.

Is tequila stronger than whisky?

You’ll be interested to know that both tequila and whisky are usually around 40% ABV. So alcohol content is one thing these two have in common.

We reckon we’ve given you a pretty comprehensive look at tequila vs whisky, and plenty of facts to share at your next cocktail night.

Distant cousins are how we like to view these two traditional spirits: very different, but with some uncanny similarities when you look just below the surface. What do you think?

Don’t forget to check out our whisky drinks recipes for lots more inspo as well as our guide to whisky vs vodka.

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You already know we’ve nailed the Finest Whisky to ever grace a glass. But that’s just a little drop of what we’re about. Scroll on for the latest news and features from across the world of Ballantine’s whisky, True Music and much, much more.