An In-depth Guide to Agave Spirits
It’s all about Mexican spirits at the moment. Tequila continues to grow in popularity, mezcal is following in its footsteps, and there are others waiting in the wings. This is a deep and fascinating spirits category, with plenty to discover, and an abundance of interesting, unusual flavours to explore.
If you’re just getting started on your journey into the world of agave, below is a primer, covering all of the basics about both tequila and mezcal, as well as a quick look at some of the lesser-known agave spirits out there.
It's all in the Agave
As the name suggests, what these all have in common is the agave plant, a succulent that is native to Mexico and other parts of the world. There are hundreds of agave species and varieties, each with their own distinct characteristics, such as how long they take to mature. When used to make spirits, each variety has a distinct influence on flavour too.
Unlike raw materials such as grapes or grains used to produce most other spirits, which can be harvested annually, agave plants take a number of years to reach maturity. If they aren’t harvested at this point, they flower and die. Once harvested – which involves removing the usually-spiky leaves, or pencas – the starches in the core, or piña, are converted into sugar. The result is fermented and distilled.
That’s what agave spirits have in common, but there are various differences that distinguish tequila from mezcal, and those from other agave spirits.
The most established and well-known of agave spirits, tequila is known and loved around the world, and its popularity continues to grow. In the US, it recently overtook American whiskey to become the second-biggest spirits category after vodka, and it might take number one spot before the year is out.
Compared with some other agave spirits, and indeed many spirits in general, tequila is quite narrowly defined, and tightly regulated. In 1974, the spirit became Mexico’s first Denomination of Origin (DO).
Among the most important requirements is that tequila can only be made from one variety of agave, known as Weber Blue, blue agave or agave tequilana. Furthermore, the agave must be grown within certain specific areas of Mexico, and the spirit must be produced within those areas too.
The main tequila producing region is within the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where the town of Tequila can be found. Production is also allowed in certain municipalities in four other states, namely Nayarit, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Guanajuato.
Blue agave takes somewhere between five and eight years to mature. Once harvested, the piñas are cooked to transform the starches to sugars, using either stone ovens or pressurised autoclaves. The cooked piñas are then crushed to extract a sweet juice (aguamiel), which is then fermented. Another method, using what’s known as a diffuser, is used by some producers to extract sugars from agave plants.
After fermentation comes distillation. Tequila must be distilled at least twice, either using column or pot stills, or a combination of the two. The result is a blanco, or unaged tequila, which can be sold as is, or optionally aged in oak to produce different styles of tequila.
In terms of style, one of the most important distinctions is between mixto and 100% agave tequilas. For mixtos, at least 51% blue agave must be used when fermenting, with the remainder coming from other sources of sugar. Tequilas that are 100% agave do what they say on the tin – these are made entirely from blue agave, and are generally considered to be more premium. To identify the latter, look for something like “100% agave” or “100% puro de agave” on a bottle’s label.
Within 100% agave tequilas, there are a number of styles, depending on how much time the spirit has spent in oak. Blancos can spend up to two months in oak, while reposados must be aged for at least two months. An añejo must be aged for at least one year, with a minimum of three years for extra añejo.
While not officially recognised, a style that has been steadily growing in popularity in recent years is cristalino, in which an aged tequila is filtered with charcoal to remove its colour.
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While tequila makes exclusive use of one variety of agave, mezcal takes a broader approach, with up to 50 potential varieties to choose from. Some of these can be cultivated, while many grow wild. The most commonly used variety is espadín, although you might encounter others such as tobalá, tepeztate, cuishe and more. Some producers blend more than one variety together to create ensambles, with each bringing its own flavours and characteristics.
To create mezcal, the process is broadly the same as for tequila, but with some distinct differences. Traditionally, agave piñas used to produce mezcal are roasted in underground ovens, a process that contributes towards a smoky flavour profile. This practice is still in use, although producers can choose to use masonry ovens or autoclaves instead.
Some mezcal producers crush their cooked agave using a traditional tahona, a heavy volcanic stone that can still occasionally be found in tequila production too. Mezcaleros use a variety of fermentation vessels – everything from wood and stainless steel to clay or animal skins.
Mezcal’s DO specifies a number of states in which the spirit can be produced. At the forefront of these is the state of Oaxaca, with production also permitted in Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luís Potosí, Puebla, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Durango.
Mezcal is seldom aged in oak, with styles or quality levels defined instead by the production method used. The three main classifications are mezcal, mezcal artesanal and mezcal ancestral, each with increasingly specific requirements. Ancestral, for example, must use agave roasted in an underground stone oven and crushed by hand, and distilled using only clay pot stills.
One noteworthy style of mezcal is pechuga, traditionally made by infusing the spirit with various fruits and grains, and then distilling with a chicken or turkey breast suspended in the still.
Other agave spirits
Beyond tequila and mezcal, there are a number of other agave spirits to explore, such as raicilla and bacanora, both of which have their own DOs. Raicilla is produced in the state of Jalisco – tequila’s heartland – but isn’t restricted to blue weber, drawing on a number of agave varieties. Bacanora, meanwhile, is made exclusively in the Mexican state of Sonora, using only a variety known as pacifica.
Similar to other agave spirits, sotol is usually included in the category, even though it’s made from a different plant – the dasylirion or desert spoon. Common in Mexican states such as Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila, sotol is also produced in some US states.
Agave spirits, too, are produced outside of Mexico, either from locally-grown or imported agave. Some South African producers use local agave plants, and there is at least one distiller in India producing an agave spirit – all further evidence of what a complex and compelling spirits category this is.
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