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7 'Other' Agave Spirits You Should Know

Tequila and mezcal were just the beginning. Now, meet sotol, bacanora and raicilla.

a collection of agave spirit bottles
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Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

The way tequila and mezcal have won over the world during recent years, you’d think those two spirits were the alpha and the omega of agave-based drinking. They’re not. There are a range of other exciting agave spirits produced all over Mexico—and some are even produced right in the U.S.

From cheesy Jaliscan raicillas to musty Chihuahuan sotols to homegrown agave spirits, now’s a good time to take a step beyond Arandas and Oaxaca. These are seven agave spirits you should know.

  • Cielo Rojo Bacanora ($36)

    Cielo Rojo Bacanora

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    Technically, any agave spirit distilled in Mexico is a mezcal. But a number of regions that produce those spirits have sought their own denominations of origin over the years, with tequila being the most well-known. Bacanora is one such spirit with its own appellation: It can only be produced in the state of Sonora. It’s made in a similar fashion to the smokier mezcals you might know from Oaxaca, with seven-to-10-year-old agave roasted in earthen pits, hand-crushed, naturally fermented and then double-distilled in copper pots. Bacanora is derived from the pacifica (or yaquiana) agave, which is a close relative to mezcal’s most common espadín variety. Cielo Rojo, one of very few bacanoras available in the States, is particularly floral and herbaceous on the nose, with very little presence of the smoke in which its agave was cooked. And at 42% ABV, it’s light and smooth on the palate.

  • El Ladrón Blue Agave Spirit ($43)

    El Ladrón Blue Agave Spirit

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    Blue agave spirit: That’s what you call it when you can’t call it tequila, mezcal or bacanora—and when you’re making it in the U.S.A. And why would you call it tequila when it tastes nothing like tequila? That’s exactly the point for Santa Cruz, California, distillers Venus Spirits, which import organic blue weber agave from Mexico and distill it into El Ladrón, the company’s own distinct spirit. This pioneer of oddball agave spirits is deeply funky (in a good way), rustic, spicy and unlike any other distillate out there. It’s a winner on its own, and also gives citrus cocktails quite a punch.

  • Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol ($23-$90)

    Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol

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    Hacienda de Chihuahua makes an easy-to-imbibe line of sotols that level off at 38% ABV. The plata expression resembles a slightly drier, subtler tequila with a gentle chorus of citrus notes, but the company also experiments with aging. The H5 extra-añejo, fermented with Champagne yeasts and racked in new French white oak barrels for five years, is a finely-tuned sipping beverage that plays aged sweetness against an earthy background.

  • La Niña Del Mezcal Bacanora ($75)

    La Niña Del Mezcal Bacanora

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    Brand owner Cecilia Rios Murrieta has steadily hustled her La Niña del Mezcal label into the hearts and mouths of mezcal fans recently, with a huge selection of wild and cultivated Oaxacan mezcals. It was only a matter of time before she broadened her portfolio to include a bacanora. As part of La Niña’s Vintage Agave Series, the deliciously adventurous bacanora clocks in at a hearty 96-proof and bursts with complex flavors. It’s all sweet, roasted nuts and agave on the nose, with zippy, refreshing mint and pepper notes on the tongue.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • La Venenosa Raicilla ($80-$120)

    La Venenosa Raicillas

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    Raicilla is the true outlaw of agave spirits. It’s made outside of any denomination of origin, mostly in the western part of Jalisco (the tequila-producing mecca), from a number of different agaves and in an array of styles. It also boasts a wild-eyed, untamable range of flavors. La Venenosa (“venom”), created by chef Esteban Morales Garibi and imported by Fidencio Mezcal’s Arik Torren, is one of the few raicillas for sale in the U.S. But don’t just trust its pedigree: These four completely unique expressions are special. The black-label Raicilla Sierra de Jalisco is particularly unconventional in that it’s only distilled once. It explodes with a sake-like freshness, tart acidity and blooming fruity papaya. The 91-proof, green-sticker Costa de Jalisco is a mix of rhodacantha and angustifolia agave that’s distilled in wood, not just fermented in wood, like so many mezcals. It lights up on the nose with piney aromatics and has a gorgeously spicy and round taste. Into pechuga mezcals? While La Venenosa’s red mark is not distilled with a raw chicken breast, it has a similarly unctuous, gamey and fruity scent. It also has a fairly potent 47% ABV, so you’ll get a little blast of alcohol on the back of the tongue. The orange-label Sierra del Tigre de Jalisco is the oddest of the bunch: a raicilla made from wild inaequidens agave, with a nose that can only be likened to that of a hard cheese. Its transformation in the mouth, though, is remarkable, as it morphs into a mix of berry and cilantro notes. Each of the Venenosa raicillas is special in its own way.

  • Ocho Cientos Sotol ($43)

    ocho cientos sotol

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    Though it gets lumped in with other agave spirits, sotol isn’t made from agave. Its source, the sotol plant (also known as the desert spoon or dasylirion wheeleri), is more like a semi-succulent grass. Sotol, too, has a denomination of origin, and can only be made in the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. Ocho Cientos, like many tequila brands, produces three expressions: blanco, reposado and añejo. The blanco shows off sotol’s very grassy, earthy characteristics, remaining dry across the palate with a hint of anise on the finish. Its aged siblings progressively take on more oaky influence, with the añejo balancing reedy vegetal notes with hints of caramel and cinnamon.

  • Sotol Por Siempre ($38)

    Sotol por Siempre

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    To the chagrin of those mezcal purists who scoff at anything less than 45% ABV, sotol in the U.S. hasn’t gotten its head above 84-proof. But that changed when Seattle’s Back Bar Project began sourcing Sotol Por Siempre for the American market. Sotol Por Siempre is a whopper of a spirit: minty, herbal, minerally and dynamic on the nose and palate, yet surprisingly smooth through the finish. Like the finest wild-harvested mezcals, this one brims with character. And you can mix it. Back Bar Project also imports France’s Giffard liqueurs, which play beautifully in a number of agave-based drinks. The Diabla cocktail combines Sotol Por Siempre with Cassis Noir de Bourgogne, lime juice and ginger beer, and the refreshing Mariposa mixes sotol with crème de pamplemousse rose and lime.