Tequila had long led the world of agave spirits until mezcal began to make inroads a few years ago; now other traditional Mexican spirits are beginning to gain traction, as well as some new agave distillates from further afield.
The growing interest in mezcal around the world has undoubtedly helped to make drinkers more receptive to these lesser-known categories with their unusual agave varieties – variants such as raicilla have only recently been officially recognised, paving the way for more brands and a focus on export markets.
Mezcal producers have responded to growing interest in the once-overlooked category with a steady stream of new brands and expressions, with some interesting new innovation along the way. Distillers have increasingly experimented with various agave varieties, while some have implemented new techniques. If current trends are to continue, we could see even more new entrants into the agave market:
Raicilla is said to have 400 years of history, with production mostly in Jalisco, the state better known for tequila, but also in the neighbouring state of Nayarit. It is produced from a number of agave varieties. Its name, which translates into “small root”, was initially either used to avoid taxes and fines from the Spanish, or in reference to the use of the “root” of the agave plant to produce this spirit. Raicilla was eventually made illegal by the Spanish, and only in 1997 did work begin to establish a regulatory council for the spirit to bring it back to market.
Like raicilla, bacanora is effectively a type of mezcal, although one that’s specifically produced in the Sonora state in Mexico. Also like raicilla it was once illegal, with the ban being lifted in 1992, followed by a denomination of origin in 2000, and its own regulations (NOM) in 2005. Part of these regulations state that bacanora can only be made from Angustifolia Haw agave.
Sotol isn’t technically produced from an agave plant, but rather from different varieties of the Dasylirion plant, commonly known as “sereque” or “desert spoon”. Unlike agave plants, these succulents flower multiple times. Sotol is produced in the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila in Mexico, and now also in Texas. The spirit was awarded Designation of Origin status in 2002.
While there are restrictions regarding where both tequila and mezcal can be produced (in addition to other agave spirits), agave doesn’t only grow in Mexico, and there’s nothing stopping a distiller producing an agave spirit elsewhere. One such country is South Africa, where agave is said to have grown since the mid-19th Century, and where a number of brands have emerged recently with a view to expand internationally in the near future.
Tequila and mezcal may dominate, but there are a number of other traditional Mexican agave spirits starting to emerge.
While many of these are yet to be exported, the number making their way outside of Mexico is growing.
Some distillers, both within Mexico and without, are releasing agave spirits that are either uncertified as mezcal or another agave spirit category, or that don’t fit within any of the established definitions.
There are growing numbers of these brands from South Africa and the US, among others.
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