Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

A Guide to the Lesser-Known Agave Spirits—And Where Sotol Fits In

Tequila and mezcal are just the beginning.

Different types of agave spirits

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

Although agave is most often associated with tequila, the plant has been used to make alcoholic drinks in Mexico for thousands of years.

Agave, also known as maguey, was considered sacred by many Mesoamerican civilizations. Pulque, a milky beverage made from the fermented sap of the plant, dates to at least 2000 BC, and in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors likely introduced distillation methods for turning agave into mezcal. Tequila, a type of mezcal derived from blue Weber agave, was first commercially distilled by the famous Cuervo family in 1758 and received an official denomination of origin (DO) in 1974, but blue Weber is just one of hundreds of species of agave.

It’s important to note that many consider the drinks in this guide to be types of mezcal—not “other” agave spirits. Although the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM) has limited the production of bottles labeled mezcal to just nine Mexican states, spirits including bacanora and raicilla use mezcal-making methods that have been around for centuries in Mexico. Pulque, meanwhile, might get overshadowed by its agave relatives stateside, but the milky fermented beverage is as ubiquitous as the others in its home country. Here are three names every agave-spirit fan should know—plus outlier sotol.


This mezcal variety is most distinguished by its rich history in the Mexican state of Sonora, where it has been made for hundreds of years with the agave pacifica plant. As is the case with most mezcal, the hearts of the plant are roasted and cut into pieces, then cooked in underground ovens and crushed to extract the juices, which then ferment naturally in vats. Bacanora is typically distilled twice, but sometimes once, in copper stills.

Bacanora production wasn’t legalized until 1992, and it received a denomination of origin in 2000. David Hernandez, an agave expert and the director of bars at Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal, describes the flavor as mild and herbaceous, with notes of grass and green apple. 

Bacanora Fast Facts

  • Denomination of origin limits production to Mexican state of Sonora
  • Made with agave pacifica plant
  • Mild and herbaceous flavor profile


This fizzy fermented beverage predates mezcal by thousands of years, with records dating to the Otomi civilization in 2000 BC, and its history is indeed the stuff of legends, many revolving around the goddess of agave, Mayahuel. Hernandez cites a favorite piece of Aztec lore: The agave plant was hit by lightning, causing the liquid to leak, and people developed a taste for the nectar, which made them “happy and brave.”

Although pulque was reserved for priests and emperors during Aztec times, Spanish conquistadors erased its sacred associations during the Inquisition, turning it into a drink of the masses.

Modern-day pulque is made in much the same way it has been for millennia. Aguamiel, or sap, is collected from the heart of a mature agave plant, then naturally fermented in a barrel. The resulting liquid is milky, yeasty, and slightly sweet, with roughly the ABV of a regular beer. Today, pulquerías dot Mexico where locals can enjoy pulque with casual snacks like chicharrónes, says Hernandez. It is difficult if not impossible to find pulque stateside, as the perishable beverage doesn’t lend itself to mass production. 

Pulque Fast Facts

  • Milky and yeasty, low-alcohol beverage made from the fermented sap of mature agave plants
  • Predates mezcal and was once considered sacred by ancient civilizations
  • Pulquerías are popular in Mexico, where pulque is served alongside casual snacks


“Funky” is the word often used to describe Mexico’s answer to moonshine. Although it was first legally imported into the U.S. in 2014, this mezcal variety has been made for centuries in the western part of Jalisco (and one Nayarit municipality), where it received a denomination of origin in 2019.

Coastal raicilla is made mostly from angustifolia and rhodacantha wild agave varieties, while mountain raicilla is most often produced with maximilana and inaequidens. Raicillas are made with juice extracted from roasted agave hearts, although the process will also vary based on geography. Coastal raicillas usually employ earthenware pits and traditional wood-fired stills for roasting and distillation, while mountain raicillas typically use above-ground ovens and copper stills. 

Many of the rules governing raicilla are still being drafted, meaning expressions of bottles labeled as such can vary widely. Generally speaking, raicilla is more aromatic than tequila, but it doesn’t have the characteristic smokiness of many mezcals. Hernandez says you’ll sense flavors of wet earth, peppers, tropical fruits, citrus, and minerals. It’s often served chilled due to Jalisco’s tropical climate, but as with most spirits, Hernandez suggests sipping it at room temperature so the flavors can express themselves. 

Raicilla Fast Facts

  • Denomination of origin limits production to Mexican state of Jalisco and one Nayarit municipality
  • Agave varieties and production methods can vary geographically
  • Generally more aromatic than tequila, without the characteristic smokiness of mezcals


First things first: Sotol is not an agave spirit. It is distilled from the desert spoon shrub, known formally as Dasilyron wheeleri, which was incorrectly lumped in with the agavacae family until the 1990s. However, Hernandez and many other experts consider sotol to culturally be a mezcal due to the traditional processes with which it is made. The desert spoon plant, which takes six to nine years to mature, is roasted in above-ground (and sometimes underground) ovens in a process that is nearly identical to that for making traditional mezcal. Juices from the crushed plant are then fermented in open-air vats and distilled in column or pot stills. 

True to its name, the desert spoon plant flourishes in desert climates that extend as far south as the Mexican state of Oaxaca and as far northward as the U.S. states of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. The drastic daily temperature changes of the desert affect the plant, says Hernandez, producing an earthy and mineral-like spirit. The liquid is also often aged in oak after distillation, imparting flavors of burned wood, chocolate, and vanilla to reposado, añejo, and extra añejo expressions (unaged expressions are labeled plata). 

Sotol received a denomination of origin limiting its production to the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango in 2004. However, the DO does not apply to sotol beyond the confines of Mexico, meaning U.S. producers like Texas’s Desert Door can technically label their products sotol. 

Sotol Fast Facts

  • Distilled from the desert spoon shrub, which is not in the agave family, but production is similar to that of mezcal
  • Denomination of origin in Mexico limits production to states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango; producers outside of Mexico can technically also label their products sotol
  • Earthy and mineral-like flavor profile
  • Often aged after distillation