You’ve heard of tequila and mezcal. But Mexico’s agave plant yields much more than these usual suspects. Much of it comes down to location: Mexican regulations have defined what can be called mezcal and what can be called tequila. The lesson here? You can’t stop someone from pit-roasting and fermenting agave hearts. They’ll just call it something else. Next time you’re south of the border, try some of the lesser-known stars.
Where it’s made: Sonora, just over the border from Arizona
What it tastes like: Earthy herbs, with a little smoke. Why? As with mezcal, distillers pit-roast the hearts of agave pacifica, a spiky plant that takes five years to mature.
One to try: Cielo Rojo Bacanora
Where it’s made: Southwestern Jalisco near Puerto Vallarta
What it tastes like: Flowers. Raicilla is surprisingly light considering that it’s made, like mezcal, from the hearts of the agave plant. Locals called it raicilla, or little root, and described it as a medicinal drink so as to dodge taxes from the Spaniards in the colonial era. It was considered moonshine for a long time, but has recently been revived as a way to brand the local mezcal.
One to try: Raicilla La Venenosa
Where it’s made: Throughout central Mexico, especially in the highlands around Mexico City and Puebla.
What it tastes like: An alcoholic milk shake. Some are even flavored with fruit. Found nearly exclusively in Mexico, it gets its foamy thickness from fermented agave sap.
One to try: Any at the traditional pulque bars in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi
BONUS NON-AGAVE MEXICAN BOOZE: SOTOL
This one’s an outlier, because it’s made from a plant called the sotol, or desert spoon, which is related to the yucca plant. It’s not made from agave.
Where it’s made: The northern states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango
What it tastes like: Grassy and earthy, without the smokiness of mezcal, because the plant isn’t pit-roasted.
One to try: Hacienda de Chihuahua
>>Next: The Rise of Mezcal: Great for Cocktails, Better for Oaxaca