Agave angustifolia and flasks and a shot glass of bacanora against tan background
Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

What Is Bacanora? A Guide to Sonora’s Famed Agave Spirit

Get to know Sonora’s signature drink.

The state of Sonora in northern Mexico is the second largest in the country, with traditions and beverages that are as diverse as its environments and microclimates. But it’s perhaps most famous for bacanora, a regional mezcal made with the Agave angustifolia plant. Here’s everything to know about the agave spirit, from its clandestine history to its modern production. 

Where Is Bacanora Made?

Bacanora is produced in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. This estado fronterizo, or border state, shares both a border and many cultural and biocultural aspects with the U.S. state of Arizona. Though often associated with the desert of the same name, Sonora also faces the Gulf of California on its western border and shares a mountain range with its neighboring estado fronterizo, Chihuahua. This area is home to forests and rivers, where it is common to find bacanora.

Map of Mexico with Sonora shaded in on northwestern corner / Laura Sant

Like tequila, bacanora’s name is derived from the town where it is made. Bacanora is located in Sonora at the foothills of the Sierra Madres, where one can find a statue dedicated to the spirit’s production. The name is a portmanteau of two words from the indigenous Ópata language: “baca,” which translates to reed, and “nora,” short for “noraco,” or hillside. However, bacanora as the name of a spirit category is a fairly modern development, and the distillate is often still referred to as “mezcal” by older bacanora producers and residents of Sonora. The town of Bacanora is one of 35 municipalities where bacanora is legally recognized, according to its denomination of origin (DO). 

What Agave Does Bacanora Use? 

There are numerous agave species that grow in the desert and mountains of Sonora, but its denomination of origin (DO), which was created in 2000, states that Bacanora can only be made with Agave angustifolia (commonly known in Sonora as Pacifica or Yaquiana), a species that can be found throughout Mexico and goes by the common name espadín in the state of Oaxaca. But unlike the espadín that grows in Oaxaca, far to the south, this angustifolia has adapted to the Sonoran terrain and has become endemic to its microclimates. In short, the angustifolia, or Pacifica, that grows in Sonora is not the same as the espadín that grows in Oaxaca.

Despite its DO, records and oral traditions by the taberneros (bartenders) or bacanoreros (the colloquial term for mezcaleros in the Bacanora region) observe that bacanora was at one time blended with different agaves, and sometimes even Dasylirion, the non-agave plant used to make sotol. However, due to the emphasis placed on the planting and harvest of angustifolia for bacanora, other endemic agave species, such as the Agave palmeri or A. parviflora, have become endangered species in their terrain.

Bacanora Prohibition

Many of the oral traditions behind bacanora stem from its prohibition, which was enacted in 1915 by then-governor of Sonora, General Plutarco Elías Calles, and endured for 77 years. This prohibition gave the spirit a clandestine nature, as bacanoreros would distill bacanora with makeshift equipment, such as car radiators for the condensers or steel oil drums as the pot of the still. 

These activities were often hidden among the brush and mesquites along the rivers and ravines of Sonora. One could consider bacanora to be the moonshine equivalent in Mexico, and some historians have reported that its production was even punishable by death in certain cases. 

Agave heart with penca
An agave penca. / Laura Sant

How Is Bacanora Made?

The production of bacanora follows that of many other mezcals, for which the agave must be harvested, roasted, fermented, and distilled. The agaves are harvested by hand, and their pencas, or blade-shaped leaves, are chopped off with machetes or axes. Some of the harvesters will leave a couple of pencas on the agave to tie around a donkey or mule, which transports the agave piñas to be roasted. 

Roasting the Agave

Some bacanora producers apply modern and more efficient techniques to cooking the agave, such as autoclaves, but many artisanal producers still use cylindrical earthen ovens, which differ from the conical ovens that are often used in the South. These ovens are lined with volcanic rock, or malpais, and can be covered with sheet metal, tarps, and/or dirt to facilitate cooking.

Much of the bacanora produced has a distinct barbecue-like flavor from the mesquite wood that is used in some regions to cook the agaves. In other regions, oak is the wood of choice to fire these pits. 

Crushing the Cooked Agave

The application of a mechanized mill is not uncommon in larger productions to aid with the crushing of the cooked agave prior to fermentation. But smaller and more artisanal producers use axes to shred and crush the cooked agave chunks and fibers. Today, there are still a few canoas in use—tree trunks that are hollowed out vertically in the shape of a canoe, where the cooked agave is placed and then crushed. However, this can be labor-intensive and in some instances less practical than a mechanized mill.

The influence on the flavor of the final product is up for debate but, as in the world of mezcal, many lean toward bacanora whose agave has been hand-crushed under close attention. 


Historically, fermentation pits called barrancos were dug into the ground and lined with volcanic or river rocks and caked mud. Modern distilleries, however, often ferment the agave in wooden vats, stainless steel, or large plastic vats that were once used for water storage (the latter being both an ode to bacanora’s clandestine past and a surprisingly effective vessel for fermentation).

With Sonora’s notorious heat, which peaks October through March, the bacanora production season ends around the onset of summer. Due in part to these temperatures, fermentation can be completed as quickly as two days.

Bacanora tren still
A tren used for distilling bacanora. / Laura Sant


Most modern bacanoras go through double distillations, in copper or stainless steel stills, usually pot stills. However, in rural areas where bacanora retains its rustic image and traditions, the tren may still be used. Similar to Oaxaca’s refrescador, this train-like still structure includes two old oil drums—one that acts as the pot and the other as the condenser. These drums are connected by a horizontal copper pipe encased by a vessel, often a repurposed and hollowed-out water heater. 

The structure is filled with water to condense the alcohol vapors as they leave the pot-like portion of the still. As the vapors travels across the “train” via the copper tube, they condense and fall through a serpentine-like tube within the second used drum, also filled with water. The distilled liquid is then collected where the serpentine coil ends at the bottom of the drum.

Bacanora is typically bottled after distillation, although it may be aged in oak for reposado and añejo expressions. 

How Do You Drink Bacanora?

Bacanora can be enjoyed several ways, although it is traditionally sipped neat, on its own. The cowboys of Sonora have been known to drink the spirit from a pachita, a glass flask, to stay warm while herding cattle in the region’s piercing cold seasons.

Types of Bacanora

Although uncommon, aged reposado and añejo expressions of bacanora can be found, and in fact retain a historical significance, as the spirit was often stored in wooden vessels in rural regions. Bacanora can also be matured in glass vessels.

Abocado are bacanoras infused with regionally specific ingredients, and are also prevalent in bacanora-producing regions. Popular flavors include anise, to make a digestif popular with locals, and uvalama, a grape-like fruit found on the uvalamo trees of the region that, according to local lore, combats respiratory illnesses during the cold and harsh winters. Recent commercial offerings like bacanora seltzer showcase the spirit’s industrial evolution and attempts to bridge the spirit’s rustic past with an evolving market.  

Agave angustifolia / Laura Sant

The Future of Bacanora

Despite having a denomination of origin and a growing interest in bacanora on both sides of the border, the spirit remains difficult to regulate after so many years of prohibition. The Consejo Sonorense Regulador del Bacanora, a regulatory council for bacanora, was established in 2006 to help regulate the industry’s quality and commerce. 

However, this regulatory council is a subdivision of Sonora’s secretary of economy, and though it remains active, many argue there should be more strides to help preserve bacanora’s culture and the perils the spirit faces with looming agave monoculture restrictions. Fortunately, smaller groups of bacanora producers are helping bring these and other social issues to light, such as the Asociación de Mujeres del Bacanora y Maguey de México, who aim to challenge the issues regarding bacanora’s sustainability, commerce, and role of women in the production of this Sonoran spirit. They, along with many of the producers that still make bacanora in traditional ways, are the hope for the future of this historic distillate.