Agave Alternatives: Spirits Beyond Tequila

4/5/2018

Mexico is home to nearly a dozen endemic spirits, the crown jewel of which is the king of Blue Agave: Tequila. The country’s indigenous agave-based spirits go far beyond just Tequila however, and include a ranch of tippable drinks including Bacanora, Pulque, Raicilla, Sotol and of course, mezcal.

Here’s a fun, albeit confusing fact about mezcal: All distilled agave spirits fall under the “mezcal” category. Tequila, Sotol, and the rest of the agave spirits are simply sub-categories for that classification. Interested in learning more? Then grab your copita (little ceramic bowl used for drinking mezcal) and continue on below.

Mezcal

So all distilled spirits from the agave plant are mezcal? Yes.

But wait, is mezcal a sub-category of itself. Yes. Kind of. Let’s look a little closer.

Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the agave plant, which means Tequila, Sotol and Bacanora are all mezcals. Mezcal actually has an internationally recognized Denomination of Origin (granted in 1995), which means that mezcal can only be made in eight designated regions of Mexico. This is similar to how Cognac and Champagne can only officially be produced and classified in designated regions.

Mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant and right now there are over 30 different varieties of agave that are grown in Mexico that can be used. What sets mezcal apart from the other spirits, at least in terms of how we in the U.S. recognize it, is how the agave is prepared. In traditional mezcal production, the agaves’ piñas, the juice filled heart of the plants, are baked in earthen pits, which gives the spirit a comp, smoky, almost peaty character. To most consumers in the U.S., it is that smoky flavor that distinguishes what they consider to be mezcal from the rest of the agave aisle.

Sotol

Distilled primarily in the region of Chihuahua, Mexico, Sotol is a northern relative of both tequila and mezcal. The spirit is made from the wild-growing Desert Spoon plant, known in Spanish as “Sotol,” the spirit’s namesake. These plants grow wild throughout the region, taking anywhere from 12-15 years to reach maturity.  Unlike mezcal, these wild agave plants are baked above ground in large ovens and then distilled in a column still. The resulting flavor is bright, herbaceous, grassy, floral and slightly fruity.

Sotol has quietly been building a good bit of buzz in in the U.S., with publications as diverse as The New York Times, Outside, Serious Eats and PUNCH all dedicating ink and pixels to the trendy spirit.

How to Drink Mezcal and Sotol

Just like Tequila, both mezcal and Sotol can be enjoyed neat or mixed into a cocktail. Some mezcal producers are beginning to rest their spirits in barrels, giving rise to Reposado and Anejo versions of the smoky spirit that can be enjoyed similar to other barrel aged spirits. Try substituting either Sotol or mezcal in any recipe that would normally call for Tequila and experiment with the different vegetal and smoky flavors these unique, alternative spirits provide.

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