Forget George Clooney or Kendall Jenner’s tequila, move on from mescal and try lesser known agave spirits bacanora, raicilla and sotol.
Victoria Chow
Victoria Chow

Forget Kendall Jenner’s tequila and try sotol, raicilla or bacanora – 3 lesser known agave spirits

  • Tequila is famous, mescal is pretty well known, but there are other varieties of Mexican agave spirit out there
  • From bacanora, with green apple and grass flavours, to sotol and ‘funky’ raicilla, we eye up tequila’s relatives as the US marks July 24, National Tequila Day

There’s a wide world of agave spirits out there.

Sticking to tequila is like only drinking cabernet sauvignon: a perfectly delicious decision, but you’ll be missing out on an array of options.

And you won’t have anything intriguing to bring to the conversation next time you’re having dinner with one-time tequila-makers George Clooney or Kendall Jenner.

Our first lesser-known category is bacanora, the closest relative to mescal on this list. While mescal is a broad category that can be made using any of more than 30 designated agave species, bacanora can be made only with yaquina, or Agave angustifolia, which is native to the Mexican state of Sonora.

Hot desert days and cold nights play a key role in bacanora’s flavour profile, bringing notes of green apple and herbaceous grass. Yes, terroir – the soil, climate and “sense of place” that impacts the taste of wine – is a thing in agave, too.

This makes perfect sense given that grapes attain this from developing over the span of a year, whereas agave generally takes from six to a whopping 35 years to reach maturity, giving it much more time to be affected by what it draws from the land. Bacanora is a wonderful exploration of this.

Workers harvest Agave lechuguilla to make tequila and raicilla. Photo: Shutterstock

Next up is my personal favourite: raicilla. This is Mexico’s equivalent of American moonshine. Its name translates as “little root” because, in the 18th century, the colonial Spanish authorities charged farmers an alcohol tax for producing agave spirits, traditionally made with the core of the plant, called the piña.

To avoid this taxation, they claimed their alcohol was distilled from the agave “root” – although there was no such thing.

The best way to describe much of the raicilla I’ve tried is “funky”. Prolonged fermentation brings about strong aromatics ranging from cheese to rubber tyres. For the adventurous, raicilla feels like the Wild West of palate discovery.

Alcohol causes cancer? Calm down bureaucrats. What about being a wine hub?

Lastly, we have sotol. It’s an odd one. In the same way strawberry wine is a “wine”, sotol is not made with a true agave. The raw ingredient is Dasylirion wheeleri, or the desert spoon.

Depending on whether it is grown in the forests of Durango or the deserts of Chihuahua, it has notes of eucalyptus and pine or cacao and cinnamon, respectively. American states with similar climates – Texas, New Mexico and Arizona – have begun producing their own iterations of sotol, and have been mighty successful.

The ever-increasing popularity of tequila and mescal has growers from Australia to Peru experimenting with agave. California is a hot bed for experimentation, and is even developing a new bill to set labelling requirements and quality standards for California-produced agave spirits.

Desert spoon, from which the Mexicans make the spirit sotol, a relative of tequila, grows in Cuatro Ciénegas, Coahuila, Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

I, for one, cannot wait for the agave equivalent of the Judgement of Paris. While I remain a firm believer that the newcomers should develop their own characteristics to sit alongside the classics rather than replace them, wouldn’t that be something to write about on National Tequila Day 2023?