You Can Go Beyond Tequila: The Wide, Wild World Of Agave Spirits

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Welcome to Craft Beer & Spirits Week, when we take a look at some of the passionate producers, bars and people helping make our world a more spirited place.

In my book, How the Gringos Stole Tequila, I address just how tequila managed to become Mexico's most iconic liquid export. Think about it: Tequila is just one of many spirits — more specifically, one of many agave spirits — native to Mexico. So how did a drink from one region, made from a single local plant, come to represent the entire country? It's a question few people think to ask...that is, until they start discovering Mexico's other spirits.

The first revelation for many is mezcal. This is the mother of tequila: a spirit distilled from the agave plant, a perennial succulent that looks like oversized aloe and grows in semi-arid climates. More than 200 types of agave exist, and most of them are native to Mexico. Considered sacred since pre-Hispanic times, the plant has been used for everything from food to shelter, its leaves dried to make clothes, floor mats and thatch roofs. Once early Mexicans learned to distill, they applied the technology to agave. The practice spread throughout the country, and today 26 of Mexico's 31 states make mezcal. Unfortunately, much of this will never make its way to a bar near you. Only eight states are officially sanctioned to market and export mezcal. For the rest, selling their product beyond the local community is a challenge.

Tequila, from the state of Jalisco, was once just another regional mezcal. Over time, it earned a reputation for excellence and became wildly popular on both sides of the border. As the tequila industry grew into the global multibillion-dollar business it is today, it eclipsed other Mexican spirits. Now, many of these dark horses are stepping out from tequila's shadow.

While tequila is made from one type of agave — blue Weber — the country's many mezcals can be made from dozens of agave varieties. Other differences between tequila and mezcal? For tequila, the agave is steamed in ovens; for mezcal, it's roasted in underground pits, which is what imparts a smokiness to the spirit. For tequila, the agave is cultivated like grapes in vineyards; for mezcal, it can be harvested from the wild. The vast majority of mezcals available in the U.S. are from Oaxaca. Very few hail from the other seven states officially recognized as mezcal-producing regions. But just about every region in Mexico is associated with its own distillate. A handful of brands are bringing these native spirits to the U.S. market:

Mezcales de Leyenda

This is one of the few brands to offer mezcal from outside Oaxaca. Mezcal bar owners in Mexico City started the company, later joined by New York chef Danny Mena. The line includes a bottling from Guerrero, made from the papalote variety (briny and herbaceous), and one from Durango, made from cenizo (fruity and lush). Each reflects the local landscape and climate the agaves were grown in — another cool thing about mezcal. Astor Wines, $70.

Wahaka's Vino de Mezcal Series

This extremely limited-edition line features mezcal from states like Michoacán, Puebla and even Nuevo León, which isn't included in the spirit's official appellation. Some producers are so small that they can send over only a few cases, others just a few bottles. The next shipment should hit U.S. soil in three months. The best way to find these bottles is to head to a serious mezcal bar near you.

La Venenosa Raicilla

In the 1780s, the Spanish crown sought to restrict mezcal production. Producers in western Jalisco survived by convincing authorities that, rather than mezcal, they were making a root-based tonic: raicilla. La Venenosa is the first raicilla available in the U.S. It includes four expressions from four regions around Puerto Vallarta, each made with a different local agave variety. The flavors include tropical fruit, chocolate and cheese. DrinkUpNY, $82-$122.

La Niña del Mezcal Bacanora

Cecilia Rios Murrieta started out with a line of Oaxacan mezcals. She's about to release a bacanora, an agave spirit from Sonora, which is where her family is from. Made from the local espadín, which grows sweeter than Oaxaca's, the bacanora is earthy and peppery, clocking in at a deceivingly sippable 96 proof. Look for it this May for $90.

Por Siempre Sotol

Sotol is made not from agave but from its own eponymous, wild-harvested plant in Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. Unlike agave, harvesting sotol doesn't kill it, so the plant can be used over multiple seasons. The newest sotol to hit the market is Por Siempre (available in the coming weeks). Made by a sixth-generation producer, it's rich and savory, with a refreshingly minty finish. K&L Wines, $35.

Read these mezcal stories on Food Republic:

  • Get To Know 5 Types Of Mezcal
  • A Mezcal Grows In Brooklyn. Sort Of.
  • This Mezcal Made With Jamón Ibérico Could Make You Squeal