The Agave Spirits of Mexico
by Greg Rutkowski
Agave spirits are alcoholic products of agave plants of Mexican origin and some parts of Southwestern USA. Although there are some agave plants outside Mexico, the spirits majorly come from agave in Mexico. They include; Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol, Bacanora, and Pulque.
While the agave plant grows across the southwestern USA, these spirits are usually made from agave grown in Mexico. However, the continuing craft distillery boom means that American agave spirits may become more common in upcoming years. In addition, agave spirits have been made in other countries, including India and South Africa.
There are several distilleries in the USA producing blue agave spirits, and they have attempted to come up with new styles of beverages. However, most of the bottlings still stand to be of Mexican production to date. Around 2015-2017, the Mexican government tried branding the name Komil (an intoxicating drink) for the spirits produced outside the permitted regions. However, they failed to achieve its implementation.
Sotol comes from the dasylirion wheeleri plant, which was considered part of the agaves until the 1990s when the DNA tests proved that it is a species of the asparagus family.
Agave spirits production Process
The production process varies depending on the number of distillations involved, the agave varietals used, and the aging methods. The production process below is general for agave spirits, and it begins by harvesting the ripe agave. The harvesting involves chopping off the fibrous and heavy leaves and returning the heart of the agave (pina) to the distilleries for cooking. In the modern production processes, the team uses brick or steel ovens to cook the pinas quickly and evenly by injecting steam.
After cooking the pinas, the team crushes them to drain the juices that undergo fermentation, followed by double distillation. Traditional cooking methods like the use of earthen fire pits are the reason behind the smokiness in the spirits.
Some producers use clay ovens to produce less earthy or smoky flavors, and instead, they highlight the agave flavors. Apart from tequilas, the other agave spirits do not use cultivated yeast to ferment, significantly affecting the flavors. The flavors vary from ripe green fruits to funky cheese, depending on the region where the fermentation takes place.
Types Of Agave Spirits
Tequila is under the protection of an appellation of origin. Its production only takes place in Jalisco and other municipalities in Nayarit, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato. The volcanic soils in Jalisco yield very sweet agaves, while the ones in the lowlands feature more herbal flavors and aromas.
Tequila started as Vino de Mezcal de Tequila, and Tequila town lies in the middle of Jalisco. The producers of tequila were very confident in their spirit that they named it after the city. Although there are four other states producing tequila, its center of production lies in the entire state of Jalisco. Jalisco homes approximately 99% of all tequilas.
Tequila is a highly regulated spirit globally, but some undereducated drinkers still have a problem finding a quality product. Any drink with the label 'tequila' should inform you that it constitutes not less than 51% of blue agave spirit from blue weber. The other percentage can compose any other spirits, especially sugarcane-based. If you want to drink pure tequila, you should look for a bottle with the label indicating 100% agave.
Like the case of tequila, mezcal also originates from specific Mexican regions. The production of mezcal takes place in Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango, Puebla, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Guerrero and Guanajuato. Among these regions, Oaxaca is the most recognized to be producing the most mezcal. Unlike tequila, mezcal production involves using any agave species that embrace the terroir of the climate of the areas they grow. This terroir is responsible for either the mezcals' floral, spicy, citrus, or herbal flavors.
Technically, around 252 agaves produce mezcal, but only 50 of them are utilized. The most common agave is Espadin, making about 85% of the Mexican mezcal. Moreover, regardless of the agave used, mezcal production involves only 1005 agave with no sugars.
Raicilla production only takes place in Jalisco and one town in Nayarit. Raicilla is a product of wild agave varieties such as maximilana, rhodacante, and agar. It has a fruit-forward and sweet flavor. It undergoes distillation once or twice and is commonly known for its herbal and green notes. Currently, it is a regional favorite and is yet to be as popular and tequila and mezcal. The production of raicilla has always been unregulated, although in 2019 it achieved official recognition.
Bacanora is a product of agave pacifica, found in Sonora Mountain ranges in the Northern part of Mexico. Sonora is a dry region experiencing hot days and cold nights, and the climate is patent in the complex, peppery and dry bacanora spirit. The almonds or pine nuts present in the distillation stage enhance the earthy finish.
History has a significant role in producing the bacanora spirit, and sometimes it is referred to as a version of moonshine in Mexico. During the early 1900s, The Sonora governor, who was a Christian, regarded alcohol as evil. He forbade the production and consumption of the spirit, and the producers had to carry out their activities underground.
After he died, the people reversed the restrictions. However, the law forgot to include the production part, and it remained through to the 1990s. Even after lifting the rules, the producers found it difficult to adopt any changes in their production techniques. They had already adapted to the illicit status, and they carried on with underground production.
Up to date, only a few brands commercialize bacanora, and even fewer have an export license. Bacanora continues to flourish as a spirit best bought and drank on site.
Sotol is a product of a dessert spoon, dasylirion wheeleri, commonly known as sotol. The agave plant is prevalent in New Mexico, northern Mexico, Texas Hill Country, and West Texas, and it is a state drink in Durango, Coahuila, and Chihuahua. Its production is similar to the artisanal mezcal, although it is technically not an agave spirit. The Desert Spoon belongs to the asparagus family and does not fall under agave, although it falls under agave spirits. The spirit is also in the process of gaining popularity, just like the other agave spirits.
Pulque is a product of fermented sap from agave plants, and it is a tradition in the central parts of Mexico. The maguey plant grows in the cold and dry climates of the central highlands in the east and north of Mexico. During the early 20th century, there were many pulquerias in Mexico City alone, and their consumption is increasing with time.
Historically, the maguey plant has several uses, including making fabric or ropes and the thorns as punches or needles. Pulque has the color of milk, a sour and yeast-like taste, and viscous consistency.
The one limitation that pulque producers face is the problem of storing the spirit for long or shipping it. The reason is that the flavor of pulque changes if it stays in contact with the cans for some time. However, the producers are already importing the spirit to the US. There are reports that the product is playing an essential role as a health food.