Yes, you’ve probably heard about mezcal and all of its variations, from sotol to, of course, tequila. But Mexico is full of surprises when it comes to distillates. And many of those surprises are about to hit the United States. These are a just a handful of the amazing spirits you can expect to find at a bar near you.
Paranubes is a distinctively Mexican rum just entering the U.S. this year. It has been around for at least three generations, potentially longer, existing on its lonesome in the Sierra Mazateca mountains to the north of Oaxaca. And it’s a truly handmade spirit. The distiller, José Luis Carrera, does everything from harvesting the sugar cane to the final product. Carrera has a fascinating fermentation process in which he takes half of the fermentation tank each day, distills it, then tops it off with fresh sugar cane juice. As time passes, the tank acquires a wide variety of flavors from wild yeasts that are driving the process.
The flavor is ethereal, with a brininess that’s redolent of black olives. It’s great on its own but shows up nicely in cocktails like a Piña Colada, which is why a lot of bartenders are using it as a secret weapon.
Tell this to your bourbon-obsessed buddy: Mexico is the birthplace of corn. It’s where the Italians got polenta and we got popcorn. And Mexicans have been making alcohol from it long before the Spaniards arrived.
It’s unclear how long Mexicans have actually been making whiskeys, but now there are at least two products in the U.S. that feature the amazing heritage varieties of Mexican corn. Jonathan Barbieri founded Pierde Almas, but before that, he was an artist. You can see that creative sensibility in the hand-designed labels and experimentation that resulted in this whiskey.
It’s robust and full of an unmistakable corn flavor. It’s a white whiskey, so there’s no wood to cut the corn. Barbieri is currently aging some in charred oak barrels, but you’ll have to wait until the 2020s before you can try those.
Sierra Norte whiskey comes from established mezcal producer Douglas French, who has been making Scorpion mezcal just outside of Oaxaca since 1995, all the while reinvesting in the local community. He views Sierra Norte as an opportunity to revive the endangered species of native corns, so each bottle is defined by the type of corn that goes into it. Currently, there are three: a white, yellow and black variety. Next up: red corn! They’re all aged in French oak for eight months, so they have woody tannins balanced against the corn richness.
The story of Comiteco is both a warning and history of spirits in Mexico. The agave-based spirit is made in and around Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas, from distilling fermented agave sap known as aguamiel. That sounds unappealing, but it’s very different from the stuff you see dripping from pine trees. It’s much more similar to maple syrup and just as traditional. The local tradition was to collect the sap from agaves and ferment it into a lightly alcoholic drink like pulque.
Once the Spaniards arrived, they started distilling it to wide acclaim. Comiteco grew in production and industrialized early in the 20th century so that volumes were competitive with tequila, but sometime in the 1960s, the industry ran out of agave, and Comiteco was prohibited so that the agave could recover. (Agave requires five to eight years to mature.)
After more than 50 years of hibernation, Comiteco is finally back on the market, available in the U.S. in the form of Comiteco 9 Guardianes, imported by Back Alley Imports. The distillers use a carefully cultivated mother yeast, so expect a strong hint of rum mixed with grass and smoke, and your classic baked agave flavors. Bartenders love the strange set of flavors that you can’t quite put your finger on. Is it a rum, aguardiente, mezcal? With hints of all, it’s something new, yet centuries old—a perfect example of the incredibly diverse and innovative state of Mexican spirits.
Raicilla is another branch of mezcal’s crazily sprouting evolutionary tree. The word literally means “little root,” which hides the spirit’s history. The Spanish crown wanted Mexicans to buy Spanish brandy so that money would flow back to Europe instead of staying in Mexico, so they outlawed mezcal. The distillers of western Jalisco got around that one by calling their mezcal raicilla, basically a version of a bitter or healing potion.
Or so the story goes. What we do know for sure is that people never stopped making a very traditional and very small-production mezcal in the coastal mountains between tequila’s heartland and the coastal playgrounds of Puerto Vallarta.
We’re equally fortunate that La Venenosa is bringing those tiny-production spirits to the U.S., where it has almost single-handedly established a market for them. You can find its core releases just about everywhere, but it recently launched the Etnica label to bring exceedingly rare agave spirits from isolated ethnic groups across Mexico.
Look for the Tutsi from the Masparillo agave, which is about as traditional as you can get. Only 60 bottles were made. Soon, La Venenosa will have Tepe, made by the Tepehuano people in south Durango, so look out for that or anything under its label.