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A Glossary of Agave Spirits, and Where to Drink Them

How to tell your mezcal from your pulque from your raicilla from your tequila from your sotol

It truly is an exciting time for spirit aficionados and newbies alike to drink all things mezcal here in Mexico's capital, where bartenders are scouring the republic in search of artisanal productions made by legendary master mezcaleros. Mezcal bars keep popping up all over the city serving rare mezcales that celebrate tradition — and it comes with a side of rebellion, aimed at Mexico's nefarious tequila and mezcal industry overlords, who constantly threaten productions that fall outside the NOM (the Norma Official Mexicana, laws that limits what can legally be called mezcal), like the awful NOM 199, which seeks to strip distillates of the right to use the words "mezcal" and "maguey."


What matters isn't whether something falls in or out of the NOMs, what matters is traditional mezcal that tastes great, produced by master mezcaleros, at 45 percent alcohol or above. If the best mezcal I had in the last two years is from Puebla (a non-D.O. mezcal), then I don't need permission from greedy pendejos to call it mezcal. This is mezcal culture in DF — whether it be a bacanora, tequila, sotol (not an agave but related), raicilla, or any other agave-based spirit produced in a mezcal tradition, we raise our jícaras in a rebel salúd!

MEZCAL

There are plenty of bars and restaurant serving classic mezcales, both with fancy labels and in jugs sourced from the best master mezcaleros in Mexico. There are even bars like La Botica (the best day drinking in DF is at their Mercado Roma stand) that buy small productions and use their own label, but the most exciting thing in mezcal are the up to 40 agaves used in production (The D.O. recognizes just over 30, but screw the D.O.), which you'll find served at jam-packed bars like Condesa's La Clandestina and the trendy downtown watering hole, El Bósforo, where an exploration of varietals of ancestral spirits fades as the night and mezcal high reaches nirvana.
El Bósforo, Luis Moya 31, Centro
La Clandestina, Av. Álvaro Obregón 298, Condesa

Bacanora

Bacanora is a version of mezcal from the state of Sonora, produced by cowboys in the Rio Sonoa from wild pacifica or yaquiana agave, using homemade stills fashioned with barrels and truck parts set up in people's backyards. The agaves are cooked in a pit, the mezcal practice that lends its smoky flavor, and served un-aged in dime-store water glasses to fortunate visitors to the small towns where outlaw mezcaleros dwell. In Mexico City you can find bacanoras at Colonia Roma's La Nacional. The restaurant stocks plenty of commercial mezcals, most of which are traditional, and you can usually find an odd bacanora in the mix.
La Nacional, Orizaba 161, Roma

PULQUE

Pulque is not a mezcal, or a distilled beverage; it's a fermented drink made from the maguey plant, most notably in the states of Tlaxcala and Hidalgo, where this short-lived brew (it's best consumed about 24 hours after making it) is fresh and clean. In D.F., curados (cured pulques with additives) with oatmeal, pistachio, nuts, fruit or a number of flavors help preserve this fragile drink that dates to pre-Hispanic times, although, these come with a slimy texture do to aging. The best stuff is in Tepito, if you can find it: Street vendors source pulque from Tlaxcala, the freshest in town. But you'll do just as well at pulquerias like the conveniently located Las Duelistas, with a pitcher of pulque shared with friends, surrounded by Mexican hipsters, or a La Pirata, a pulqueria that's been in the Escandón neighborhood for over 70 years, a hallowed temple to the preservation of pulque.
Las Duelistas, Aranda 28, Centro Histórico
La Pirata, Calle 13 de Septiembre, Escandón

RAICILLA

In the Jaliscan cities of Tuito and La Mascota, mezcaleros crush pit-roasted agaves — whether they be maximiliana, valenciana, pata de mula or inaequidens, among others –— with wooden mallets. There are a small number of commercial productions of raicilla; in La Mascota and Tuito, you can seek out local productions with no labels, hand-painted labels, or with unofficial labels, but in Mexico City your best bet is at La Clandestina, ordering off their flipcard menu of the day. While most chilangos in the bar will be smoking cigarettes and drinking foreign-owned Mexican beer, look closely at the menu for the one raicilla on offer.
La Clandestina, Av. Álvaro Obregón 298, Condesa

SOTOL

The plant Dasylirion wheeleri, or desert spoon, which is in the same family as the agave but a different sub-family and genus (for all you taxonomy geeks), is the source of sotol, a spirit made in the same manner as a mezcal. Sotol's D.O. counts Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila in its official region, but I can tell you, finding sotol even in those states is a pain. Better to head to the Mercado Roma branch of La Botica, a stand next to the wall garden and dining area in this upscale market, where they have a nice sotol with a pleasing chemical taste.
La Botica, Mercado Roma, Roma Norte (and various branches)

TEQUILA

There isn't a dedicated tequila bar in DF, unless you want to count the drink-sing-and-puke cantinas in the Jaliscan-themed Plaza Garibaldi. Visit one of those places, especially El Salón Tenampa for goat birria and shots of industrial tequila owned by U.S and European corporations, which mostly what's on offer at bars in Mexico. After you've come to your senses, head back out to one of the mezcal bars, perhaps — El Palenquito — and look for the occasional semi-artisanal tequila dripped from a spigot, and taste the spirit the way it used to be made.
El Salón Tenampa, Plaza Garibaldi, Centro
El Palenquito, Álvaro Obregón 39, Roma

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