Tequila doesn’t circumscribe the entire range of Mexican spirits. Paralleling the growth of tequilas is the resurgence of artisanal mezcal, bacanora and sotol. As the points of distinction between the multitudes of tequila brands diminish, consumers are discovering the profound nuances in flavor and levels of complexity in these traditional agave spirits engaging.
“I think the ongoing renaissance of mezcals to be directly related to the phenomenal success of tequila,” says Barbara Sweetman, vice president of ultra-premium Scorpion Mezcal. “Certification has greatly helped to advance the reputation of mezcal by requiring that it be made from 100% agave and produced under strict quality guidelines. Mezcal is also protected under Denomination of Origin status. The spirit now can be consumed with confidence and complete enjoyment.”
Sotol is distilled from the desert spoon plant, a variety of agave native to Chihuahua. It, too, is the direct beneficiary of tequila’s surging popularity. “Most people outside of northern Mexico do not know what sotol is. But once they try it they find its tremendous depth of flavor intriguing,” contends Charles Simmons, importer of award-winning Ocho Cientos Sotol. “I think consumers today are looking for spirits that are made in small distilleries because it connects them to that small town in Mexico where it was produced. Sotol and mezcal are only produced by small companies. That adds another dimension to the artisanal concept.”
So what’s the consensus outlook for tequila? Dori Bryant is the event director with the International Wine and Spirits Competition, sponsors of the San Diego Spirits of Mexico Festival. She contends these are the best of times for the category. Interest in handcrafted tequilas, mezcals, bacanoras and sotols has been nothing short of phenomenal and propelled the category to continue growing at a double-digit pace.
“Agave spirits possess every quality consumers are looking for—textured bodies, enticing aromatics, layers upon layers of sensational flavors and unlimited drink applications. Vodka simply can’t offer people the same enticements.”
So we say viva la difference! In case you missed the fanfare over their initial release, here are our candidates for the best new spirits of Mexico…sans tequila.
Ancho Reyes — Ancho Reyes is a vibrant, traditional Mexican menjurje, a homemade concoction created from a blend of native ingredients and local spirits. It is based on a 1927 recipe that originated in the Mexican town of Puebla, which is renowned for its ancho chiles. The smoky, spicy warm spirit, 80 proof, is made from a roasted chile infusion. It is ideal for use in crafting cocktails.
Bosscal Mezcal Joven — New to the U.S. market, Bosscal Mezcal Joven is an artisanal 100% agave mezcal bottled unaged directly from the still. It is handcrafted at El Rey de Los Destilados in the town of Nombre de Dios in Durango, Mexico from 100% organic agaves. After harvesting, the agaves are slowly roasted over a mesquite fire for several days. The agaves are then crushed and the collected juice is fermented and distilled. Bosscal was awarded a gold medal at the 2014 Spirits of Mexico Competition.
Cielo Rojo Bacanora — Cielo Rojo is crafted on the estate of master distiller Roberto Contreras in the State of Sonora. The wild maguey agaves are slowly roasted in a clay and rock-lined oven sunk into the ground. The roasted agaves are then double-distilled in a small copper pot still and rendered to 84 proof with the estate’s spring-fed water. The blanco has a generous floral and herbaceous nose and a semisweet vanilla, cocoa, spice, anise and red plum palate.
Del Maguey Arroqueño — Brainchild of spirits icon Ron Cooper, the Del Maguey range of handmade mezcals is by far the most respected and sought after in all of Oaxaca. The mezcal is made in the pueblo of Santa Caterina Minas and distilled from the Arroqueño agave, which when cultivated is more like a rich and complex version of Espadin agave. The agaves are harvested at an average age of 12-15 years.a