by Diana Osuna
Additional reporting by Joel Hansen
Similar in origin but produced using different methods, the subtle flavors of these Mexican spirits speak to a long tradition of distilling alcoholic beverages.
Their common denominator is the maguey or agave plant, whose juices, transformed into mezcal, tequila, raicilla, sotol and bacanora, are synonymous with Mexico, where those plants grow from the deserts in the north to the jungles of the south.
The five spirits are similar but definitely not the same. Their unique aroma, flavor and color depend on the type of maguey they are made from, which in turn depends on the soil and weather conditions in that particular region and the distilling process used, among other factors.
Many roads lead to the fruits of the agave plant. Sometimes it’s best to sample them in the towns where they are produced; other times they’re best accompanied with a traditional dish in a fine Mexican restaurant. It all depends on your mood, curiosity and how much time you have on your hands. But there is no doubt that these spirits will delight even the most discerning of palates.
They say the best mezcals are produced in Oaxaca, where an age-old tradition of distilling the beverage and the type of maguey it is made from have earned the region appellation of origin. Some brands have a maguey worm suspended in the liquid at the bottom of the bottle, which is supposed to go down with the last swig.
Needless to say, Oaxaca is the best place to sample mezcal, although it’s also produced in Guerrero, Durango, San Luis
Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas.
A trip includes numerous attractions.
One option is to book a room at the Azul Oaxaca boutique hotel in the city center and order a shot of the king of mezcals: Casco Legendario. If a trip to Oaxaca is out of the question, there are some great establishments in Puerto Vallarta that can serve you a top-notch mezcal. Head to Solar, the bar side of Barracuda on Playa Cameron. Ask to talk to Puin, the owner. He will act like he doesn’t speak much English but once you start talking mezcal he will open right up. Try the house special cocktails made with Union Mezcal. The one with pineapple, tajin and smoky mezcal will give you the energy you need for an all-nighter. They also have an excellent selection of racilla and tequila.
By far the most popular spirit in Mexico, its appellation of origin demands compliance with strict standards: if it wasn’t produced in Jalisco or certain municipalities of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacán and doesn’t contain at least 51% blue agave, it isn’t tequila.
iIf you really want to get to the roots of this particular spirit, a visit to Casa Cuervo in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, is a must. Here you’ll also find La Capilla, where Javier Delgado converts his visitors into tequila disciples with concoctions like “La Batanga”.
For one of the best selection of Tequilas, Mezcals and Racillas in the region pull up a stool at El Mezcalito in Sayulita. The owner Arturo Gangoiti provides a friendly atmosphere and is passionate about the traditions of Mexico and his love of all things agave. He will walk you through all the great options and as a bonus they have some of the best tamales. But just make sure you are up for it. Many have slipped into this little hole in the wall a few times with the idea of just having one…
There are records going as far back as the 16th Century of raicilla being made by indigenous communities, which equated its consumption with mystical experiences.
The method for distilling raicilla is similar to that used for mezcal and tequila, the only difference being the type of plant and its age. The agave it is made from is known as lechuguilla and must be at least six years old before it is cut.
Lechuguilla is native to Jalisco, which explains why raicilla is produced exclusively in that state.
Raicilla is a popular beverage in Puerto Vallarta, especially among foreign visitors to this tourism destination of breathtaking scenery that lies within the beverage’s appellation of origin.
The best Raicillas are found off the beaten path. You can find some great Raicilla at side of the road distilleries on the way to San Sebastian and El Tuito. But the best Raicilla I have ever had is at the Rinconcito Hotel in Mayto Beach in Cabo Coriententes. Fernando, the owner of the hotel, gets it from a friend who makes it in a small town close to Mayto called Chacala (not the one in Nayarit). It is smoky and smooth with that slightly wild taste that makes Racialla so enjoyable.
Head to Mayto for the day to enjoy the secluded beaches and if you talk sweet enough, Fernando might be willing to sell you a jug from his personal stash.
This spirit is obtained from a maguey known as sereque, a desert variety of the plant that is so fragile it was classed as an endangered species just over a decade ago.
In 2002, the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango were granted appellation of origin, resulting in a considerable increase in its consumption and distribution.
Sotol is an organic beverage and has an alcohol content of between 38 and 45%. Made using traditional methods, it has a strong smoky flavor. There are several brands on the market and its varieties include young, aged and rested sotol. You can also find cured varieties made with damiana, wereke, golden shower tree flowers and green apple.
The perfect accompaniment to fresh foods, its aged version is an excellent digestive, especially after eating red meat.
One of the more traditional, well known brands is El Excéntrico, produced by a distillery located between Coahuila and Durango. Tours of the facilities are available and you get to sample the end product.
Bacanora is produced in North Mexico from the vivipara agave. A colorless spirit, it is similar to mezcal –many consider the two distant cousins.
There is evidence to suggest bacanora was consumed as far back as the 16th Century by the indigenous communities of Sonora, the state that produces the greatest volume of the spirit. Like raicilla and sotol, bacanora was once prohibited and was also associated with otherworldly experiences.
In recent years, bacanora distilleries have sought tighter regulation in an attempt to reach a larger market.
Word has it the best bacanora is found at its source. We recommend you stay at Hacienda Los Magueyes in Bacanora, Sonora.
Here you can visit the nurseries where the vivipara agave is grown, the bottling factory and warehouses.
Containing up to 40% alcohol, bacanora is a spirit for seasoned throats only. The best brands include Puro Chuqui, produced by Hacienda Los Magueyes, and Bacanora Pascola.
Sotol and bacanora aren’t commonly found in restaurants and bars around the bay but they do sell both sotol and bacanora at Le Europa in the Marina so perhaps stick your head in there and see if you can find a bottle to try something new. You can tell your friends you drank the drink that was the tequila of 20 years ago!
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