Tequila sales are booming, so now that I’ve got your attention, it is a good time to talk about other agave spirits such as Bacanora and Raicilla. In theory, all agave spirits go under mezcal. The subtle differences are based on location and the types of agaves used.
Tequila is by no means the only agave-based spirit coming from Mexico. Tequila production may be limited to a certain area and one type of agave, but there is much more to the agave spirits category. Mezcal, for example, can be made from around 30 types of agave, each of which will bring its unique notes to the spirit. Due to the large size of the country, the climate can differ a lot between the northern and southern regions. This will have an impact on terroir, which then contributes to the agave plant and from there to the spirit itself.
All agave spirits are best served neat to really appreciate the unique flavour profiles, although each can also be used in cocktails or served with a drop of water to open up the flavours. If you are new to drinking spirits neat, try sipping these with a slice of orange, pineapple or even strawberries.
To learn more about Mezcal, see my previous article A Quick Guide to Mezcal.
Raicilla is an ancient spirit, but it wasn’t until 2008 that it was commercially sold in Mexico. Before then, raicilla was viewed as moonshine and not worth being bottled and sold to a wider market. When the Spanish began taxing mezcal, the local distillers and farmers started calling the spirit raicilla (little root)to confuse the tax man. The tax was mainly for distillates made using the agave hearts and by referring to them as roots, the farmers avoided being taxed.
Raicilla is made in Jalisco, the area better known for tequila production, although raicilla is never made from blue agave but from other smaller varieties such as agave maximilian, agave ineaquidens, and agave rhodacantha. It can be made using clay-oven-cooked agave hearts or pit-cooked agave. The production used to be rushed and the spirit might have been distilled only once, contributing to its moonshine reputation. Today, however, the whole process is done with care whether the distillation is done once or twice.
As with other agave spirits, the location where the agave is harvested has an impact on the flavour profile, whether it is coastal (raicilla de la costa) or mountain (raicilla de la sierra) terroir. These unique flavours of terroir are easily noticeable when the distillation is only done once. There are different classes of raicilla, from unaged to well-matured; however, the vast majority of raicilla falls under Plata (unaged).
The flavour profile of raicilla is earthy and herbaceous with often some fruity and fragrant notes. It is all down to the location where the agave was harvested from, and even the time of year has an impact. Raicilla is less smoky than mezcal. The aroma usually has more character than tequila. In 2019, the spirit received an official Denomination of Origin (DO).
La Venenosa Raicilla Costa de Jalisco, 44.3% ABV (vegetal and fragrant)
Estancia Raicilla, 40% ABV (floral, tropical fruits)
Balam Madurado Raicilla, 45% ABV (peppery, mineral and vegetal)
Bacanora can only be made in the Sonora region from a single variety of agave known as Pacifica, or yaquina. It’s this specific agave that creates a more intense flavour profile compared to other agave spirits. Sonora has a dry climate that contributes to a dry, peppery and earthy spirit. The texture is silkier than other mezcals.
The agave must be at least six years old for it to offer these desired flavours. There are four types of bacanora: Joven (blend of blanco and reposado), Blanco (unaged), Reposado (min. two months in oak) and Añejo (aged for a year).
It wasn’t until 1992 that distillation of bacanora became legal, even if it has been handcrafted for over three decades. In 2000, it was also declared Mexican Denomination of Origin, making Sonora the only state allowed to produce bacanora.
Bacanora Aguamiel, 41% ABV (grassy, subtle smokiness, liquorice)
Santo Cuviso Blanco, 45% ABV (earthy, peppery, anise, smoke)
Sotol is not actually made from agave but from a range of wild plants known as Dasylirion or desert spoon. Visually the plants are very much alike and sotol production is similar to the production of mezcal.
The roots stay intact when harvested, making sotol production more sustainable than agave. Dasylirion flowers and regrows every few years, while agave root needs to be dug up and replanted. The plant needs to grow for around 15 years before it is ready to be harvested for sotol production.
Dasylirion is used the same way as agave, and only the hearts are required. In Mexico, sotol is made in Durango, Chihuahua and Coahuilia. The plant can grow in both desert and forest climates and it can also be found in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
The flavour profile is bright and grassy, although, like with agave spirits, the terroir matters when it comes to the taste. You can find a range of sotol: Plata (unaged), Reposado and Añejo.
Sotomayor Excepcional, 48% ABV (peppery, herbal, grassy)
Hacienda de Chihuahua Reposado Sotol, 38% ABV (6 months in French oak, herbal, citrusy, oaky)
Clande Sotol Yellow, 48.6% ABV (banana, nutty, oak, honey)
Mazot Palmilla, 47% ABV (tropical fruits, fragrant eucalyptus)
Have you tried any of these agave spirits? Any favourite brands you’d like to recommend?
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