Drinks

South of the Border Spirits

Meet the new breed of Mexican agave-based spirits
Swap fruity Bacanora for tequila in this twist on the classic margarita | Photo: Tasting Table
Margarita

First, it was tequila. Then mescal. The drink world's collective obsession with Mexican flavors shows no sign of slowing, so it's perhaps inevitable that cocktail geeks have started seeking out new south-of-the-border spirits for their drinks.

Raicilla, bacanora, sotol, pulque: Mexico-loving bartenders are increasingly pouring lesser-known liquors from our neighbor to the south. Richard Sandoval's La Biblioteca, with locations in Denver and NYC, serves sotol and bacanora. Same goes for Mosto in San Francisco, which also offers raicilla. In Los Angeles, Aqui es Texcoco offers pulque, and Tacoteca serves raicilla.

Not sure which alt-agave is which or which one is for you? Guadalajara native Alex Valencia of La Contenta in New York has some tips and tasting notes on these up-and-coming Mexican spirits.

Sotol
Right behind mescal in terms of production, sotol is easy to drink with fresh, clear flavors; slight herbal notes; and a hint of smoke. It's not agave, but it is derived from a similar plant, desert spoon (sotol in Spanish). In cocktails, Valencia recommends mixing it with ingredients that mimic the spirit's flavor profile: cilantro to enhance the herbs and lime to add acid. For sweetness, he incorporates agave syrup and fresh, seasonal fruit, like pineapple, strawberries or blackberries. Valencia uses Ocho Cientos Sotol Blanco in drinks and Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Plata straight up.

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Bacanora
Rich in vanilla, smoke and earth, bacanora hails from agave grown in Northern Mexico. Because of the arid conditions in the region, it shares some similarities with the fruity citrus notes of highlands tequilas (think Espolón, Milagro and Don Julio), so Valencia likes to use it as a fill-in for its ubiquitous cousin. It's great in palomas and margaritas. Try Cielo Rojo Blanco.

Raicilla
Distilled and cultivated in Jalisco, tequila's home state, raicilla is the wild, indie version of now-corporate tequila. La Venenosa produces several versions, made from different agave varietals grown in different climates. Like wine, each one picks up different flavor profiles based on its terroir and processing method, resulting in a dizzying array of aromas and textures. Because of its gin-like qualities, Valencia likes to substitute La Venenosa Sierra de Jalisco in his Prietoni, an agave-based variation of the classic Negroni.

Pulque
Once upon a time, pulque was the adult beverage of choice for most Mexicans. Then the beer companies went on a smear campaign, relegating the traditional drink into the backdrop. Unlike distilled sotol, bacanora and raicilla, pulque is fermented inside the actual agave pineapple. So it's basically agave beer. Milky and slightly sweet, it works well mixed with equal portions of fruit purées. Valencia loves guava, prickly pear, strawberry and blackberry. A dash of simple syrup and lime juice can balance it out, and for a bit of a kick, feel free to throw in a bit of rum. (Try Del Razo.)

Here's to upping your Cinco de Mayo game.

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