As tequila tries to recover from a reputation long-built as the spirit of bad choices and blacked-out college years, its sister mezcal has sashayed onto craft cocktail menus, opening the door for lesser-known agave-based spirits. And in addition to a growing spread of mezcal-devoted bars, more bartenders are expanding outside the usual suspects, stocking shelves with hard-to-find agave alternatives like pulque and bacanora. Bartender Alex Valencia of newbie New York Mexican restaurant La Contenta is one of the many, alongside Jeremiah Doherty at Bar Amá in Los Angeles and Rachel DelRocco at Qui in Austin.
But, in reality there's a whole world of agave spirits that rarely make it to the US. Cocuy, which hails from the states of Lara and Falcón in Venezuela, is a clear liquor (first fermented then distilled) that's made from the agave cocui plant. Its aroma and alcohol proof are comparable to tequila and mezcal.
Sikua is/was made only in the state of Michoacán and is essentially mezcal before Michoacán was approved as a Denomination of Origin for mezcal.
Aguamiel (which translates to "honey water"), also known as agave nectar, is the sweet sap from the agave plant that, when cooked and crushed, becomes tequila and mezcal. But ferment aguamiel and the sap transforms into a milky, low alcohol (3 to 5 percent ABV) beverage popular in Central Mexico known a pulque, which can be consumed on its own or mixed into cocktails.
Getting to know agave
What is it: Unlike tequila, which is only distilled from one plant, blue agave, mezcal is a spirit that can be distilled from a slew of agave varietals like Espadin, Tobala and Madre Cuixtle. Mezcal gets its smokiness during production when the heart of the plant, known as the piña, is roasted in stone-lined pits, crushed, and then left to ferment with water in a barrel. Afterward, the liquid is distilled before being bottled or barrel-aged.
Where is it from: Mezcal can be made only in a few states of Mexico such as Tamaulipas, Durango, Guerrero, and Oaxaca Guanajuato y Michoacan. But the spirit is mainly produced in Oaxaca.
Where you can find it in cocktails: Loló in San Francisco, Guelaguetza's Mezcaleria and Tacoteca in Los Angeles, Mayahuel in New York, Masa Azul in Chicago
What it is: Made in a similar way as mezcal: the hearts of wild agave are harvested, fire-roasted, mashed, fermented and distilled. Originating in Jalisco, Raicilla pre-dates the arrival of conquistadors.
Where is it from: Only Jalisco makes Raicilla.
Where you can find it in cocktails: La Contenta and Gramercy Tavern in New York, Tacoteca in Los Angeles
What is it: Bacanora has been made and distilled the same way for hundreds of years. Workers harvest the agave's piña then roast it in volcanic rock-lined pits for two days, mash it up, then place in air-tight cement pits with fresh water to ferment for one to two weeks. Afterward it's distilled in a stainless-steel still several times. Bacanora production was legalized in 1992 and garnered its own Denomination of Origin in 2000.
Where is it from: North of Mexico, Sonora.
Where you can find it in cocktails: Bar Amá in Los Angeles, Hecho in San Francisco, La Puerta in San Diego
What is it: A distilled spirit made from the Sotol plant (also known as Desert Spoon) that grows in the high altitudes of Chihuahua, Mexico, as well as New Mexico and Texas. The plant is actually a relative of the agave but still gets lumped in with other agave spirits.
Where is it from: Harvested from the wilds of Chihuahua, Mexico, and distilled there. It's made in a way similar to mezcal but the plant's piña is baked in a clay oven and then crushed. Its resulting juices are fermented and double-distilled in copper stills.
Where you can find it in cocktails: Bar Amá in Los Angeles, Qui in Austin, La Puerta in San Diego
What is it: Pulque is made from aguamiel, the sweet raw sap that comes directly from the heart of the agave plant. Unlike tequila and mezcal, which result from the distilled mash of the plant, the "honey water" is extracted and then fermented to create a low alcoholic beverage. Its origins are believed to date back over 1,000 years based on appearances in stone carvings from 200 A.D. Pulque is milky in appearance and yeast-like in flavor. It's generally consumed on its own or in a curado, a drink made with fruit or nuts.
Where is it from: Central Mexico. During the Meso-American period, pulque was considered sacred and often consumed during ceremonial events.
Where you can find it in cocktails: Pulqueria and La Contenta in New York