From left, La Nina del Mezcal Bacanora D.O., La Venenosa Raicilla Costa de Jalsco, and Sotol por Siempre

Beyond Tequila

It's time you tried these other age-old Mexican spirits

BY LANEE LEE | Photography by R. J. Hinkle

You've stocked your home bar with fine tequila and, for good measure, even a few bottles of mezcal. Liquor from our southern brothers? Check. But wait a minute, not so fast.

There's a new breed of Mexican spirits heading north, though the term "new" is somewhat of a misnomer. Our neighbors to the south have produced these spirits - bacanora, raicilla, sotol - for hundreds of years, but only recently have we Americans stumbled upon them. Artisanal bars and restaurants here in the U.S. now feature them as star spirits in cocktails. For example, order a bacanora, scotch, and amaro cocktail at Counter Intuitive in Scottsdale, Ariz.; try a raicilla negroni at New York's La Contenta; and sip a sotol grapefruit spritzer at the Treasury in San Francisco.

"People want to try new categories and it has a lot to do with the desire to go back to traditional ways, like how LPs or film cameras are hot now." says agave spirits expert Aaron Melendrez, bar director at LA's Verlaine, the soon-to-open first stateside restaurant from acclaimed chef Diego Hernandez.

So, if you have a thirst for authenticity and the out of the ordinary, these three spirits will captivate you.

BACANORA
For more than 300 years, bacanora has been distilled exclusively in the Mexican state of Sonora. Not always legally, either: In 1915, the Sonoran governor banned this agave spirit, believing that drinking was immoral. Only moonshiners then produced it until 1992, when Mexico's federal government recognized it as a regional spirit and lifted the ban. "The qualities of the arid desert region where the agave grows makes it sweet and expressive," says Cecilia Rios Murrieta, founder of La Niña Del Mezcal.

One to try: La Niña del Mezcal Bacanora D.O.
La Niña Del Mezcal branched out with a bacanora release in 2015. According to Murrieta, crushed red pepper, tobacco, and leather notes dominate the nose with ripe agave flavors on the palate for a smooth finish. Try it in a margarita or paloma. $75/750 mL; laninadelmezcal.com


RAICILLA
Distillers produce raicilla (rye-SEE-ya) in the same state as tequila, Jalisco, but from several agave varietals beyond blue agave, such as Maximiliana and Rhodacantha. Imbibers often describe it as mezcal's mellower cousin, given its slight smoky quality.

One to try: La Venenosa
Created by Chef Esteban Morales, La Venenosa has five styles - each distilled from different agave varietals from distinct regions of Jalisco, and with distinctive flavor profiles. Taste ancient raicilla-making methods in practice with La Venenosa's Costa de Jalisco, made using a hollow tree-trunk still. Not surprisingly, cedar and pine flavors dominate. Sip it neat and straight. $89/750 mL


SOTOL
Made from the succulent sotol in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango, sotol (SO-tall) appeared on the scene more than 800 years ago. "It's like a walk through a desert garden after an electrical storm - wet earth, green vegetation, wood smoke, and flowers, with just a spark of lightning," explains Jackie Brenner of Seattle-based importer Back Bar Projects.

One to try: Sotol por Siempre
Compania Elaboradora de Sotol, a sixth-generation distillery, makes sotol that's twice distilled in an alembic copper pot. At 90-proof, it works well as a potent substitute in a mojito or Moscow mule. $38/750 mL; sotolporsiempre.com

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