While tequila is Mexico’s most famous spirit, it’s not the only one produced in the central American country. A clutch of others also exist, with the majority also made from agave, just as tequila is. As awareness and appreciation of tequila grows, a ripple effect is occurring across these other spirits categories, with new products making their way beyond Mexico’s borders.
So what are these spirits, and what sets them apart? Let’s explore their similarities first, starting with the agave.
Agave is a genus of plants that boasts about 270 different species. While their characteristics vary widely, it can be said that they all take a number of years to mature, and they all have a piña, or heart of the plant. This is used to ferment and make spirits.
Tequila can only be made from one variety of agave: Agave Tequilana Weber Azul, often known as ‘Blue Agave’ or ‘Blue Weber’. Most other agave spirits may use any number of different varieties.
How agave spirits are made
When it comes to production there is a process that’s more or less the same for all agave spirits: the agave is harvested and its leaves removed, the heart of the piña is cooked, and then milled or shredded. The resulting juice (and sometimes the crushed fibres, too) is fermented and then distilled.
Variations in cooking, pressing and distillation methods will be found everywhere, but there is no real uniformity of approach within the categories themselves – stills might be made from stainless steel, copper, or even have chambers made out of tree trunks. The cooking process can be huge and industrial, or involve brick ovens, or even pits in the ground.
Each producer has hit upon their own personal production approach after many years of experimentation – often, methods have been developed, passed down and tweaked from generation to generation in one family. It is this slightly freewheeling, sometimes madcap approach that makes Mexico’s spirits some of the most exciting for spirits lovers to explore.
The smoky one
Mezcal’s star has slowly been rising in the UK and US for more than a decade now. While tequila is produced in the northern state of Jalisco, and is made only from Blue Weber agave, mezcal is allowed to be produced in nine different states, from a much wider selection of agave varieties. The most commonly used varietal in mezcal production is Espadin, which has sword-like leaves, and produces a clean, pure taste.
While there are some larger, more industrial mezcal brands, the majority of mezcals are made in a more traditional, artisanal way than most tequilas. One of the main differences is the way the agave is cooked in order to prepare it for crushing to extract the sugars.
Most mezcal producers use a brick-lined pit in the ground that is preheated with a wood fire. The pit is filled with the agave, and then covered with agave fibres and earth, which allows the agaves to slowly roast over three days, with the wood fire embers imparting a distinctive smoky flavour.
‘If you’re a whisky drinker you will appreciate the mezcals from different regions, because you are used to peated single malts,’ says Eduardo Gomez, founder of London festival Tequila & Mezcal Fest (now in its fifth year: tequilafest.co.uk) and sales director of specialist food and drink importer Mexgrocer.
The most prolific state in terms of production is Oaxaca in the south of Mexico, with various sources putting the proportion of overall mezcal production anywhere between 70% and 90%. The states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas share the rest.
‘Mezcal is the biggest in territory in terms of having a DO, and the most diverse,’ says Gaby Moncada, agave ambassador at drinks agency Speciality Brands.
‘In Oaxaca, spirits are much more punchy, and they take pride in high abvs and lots of flavours of smoke. In Michoacán the altitude is totally different; there are forests and mountains, it’s very green, [and the resulting spirit has] flavours of eucalyptus, rosemary and earth.
‘In Zacatecas, which is close to Jalisco, the climate is very similar and they use Blue Weber agave, but the smoke flavours get so absorbed that you get barbecue and dried chilli flavours in it.’
Tasting mezcal can be a wild, exhilarating ride – most people don’t forget their first experience of this category.
Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
An entry-level mezcal made from Espadin agave in the village of San Luis del Río, Vida is an all-rounder that’s perfect for sipping or mixing (see also QuiQuiRiQui’s Matatlan for an alternative). Barbecue smoke mingles with sweet spice, lime, stone fruits and banana on the palate. Alcohol 42%
The one that was left behind
Raicilla became a spirits category in its own right due to circumstance. The spirit, which has been made in the state of Jalisco for more than 500 years, was originally classified as mezcal.
The name ‘raicilla’ means ‘little root’, inspired by the baby plants that grow at the bottom of the agave when it reproduces. ‘The historic name for raicilla was actually vino del mezcal raicillero,’ explains Esteban Morales, the founder of La Venenosa, a label that sells various raicilla made by different producers. ‘Mezcal was always the name of what we were drinking, raicilla was the nickname.’
However, when mezcal’s denominación de origen was created and the states in which it could be produced were defined, Jalisco was left off the list. This meant that producers of what was technically mezcal in the state were left high and dry.
‘[Jalisco was excluded] because Jalisco has tequila,’ says Morales. ‘So that pushed some people to ask for a new recognition with the name raicilla.’
A DO was created for raicilla in 2019, which ironically has excluded some producers who were previously labelling their spirit as raicilla. ‘Now it’s even worse because the denomination makes things more complicated,’ declares Morales.
La Venenosa Puntas Raicilla
Made by Don Gerardo Peña for the La Venenosa brand, Puntas is made with 100% Maximiliana agave. A fresh, zesty nose leads onto an initially sweet palate that gives way to intense chilli spice, green agave and then a huge floral hit of violets and quinine. Alc 64%
The spirit of Sonora
Made in the state of Sonora, which sits on the western side of the US border, bacanora production has clung on despite a 77-year-long prohibition in the area. Named after a town in Sonora state, the spirit was awarded a denomination of origin in 2000.
Two key things separate bacanora from other agave spirits: it is made using Pacifica agave, and the terroir of Sonora has a significant impact upon the plants and their resulting flavour.
‘Sonora is in the middle of the country; it’s very hot and arid, not much grows there,’ says Mexgrocer’s Eduardo Gomez. ‘It’s so hot during the day – a summer day in Sonora can reach 47°C, and in the night it can get to -5°C. So there are dramatic changes in temperature, and the soil is really rich. Seven years of the plant living in those conditions causes it to be very stressed and strong, so you get complex earthy, spicy flavours of the agave.’
There are only a handful of producers left thanks to the long-running prohibition in the area, but the spirits that they make have been hitting the right notes with consumers. ‘Guests really like it,’ says Deano Moncrieffe, owner of the Hacha agave spirits bars in London. ‘It’s almost a bridge between mezcal and tequila. I think it’s a bit of a gateway spirit. From a flavour point of view there are greener notes and more pepperminty flavours. It’s less smoky than mezcal, and it has an earthier note to it. I paired one with Polo mints.’
Santo Pecado Bacanora Artesanal
Made by master bacanorero Rumaldo Flores Amarillas, the agave are roasted in underground pits that are fired with mesquite wood. The result is a dry, distinct spirit with aromas of rubber, gherkins, cracked black pepper and lime, and flavours of leather, earth and chewy charcoal smoke, with a hint of cooling peppermint in the background. Alc 45%