What could be more American than appropriating a relatively minor regional Mexican holiday as an excuse to get plastered? Yes, Cinco de Mayo is here!
In all seriousness, I have no problem with celebrating Cinco de Mayo, but if you’re going to do so, you should at least drink something made in Mexico—and know a little bit about what you’re drinking. With that in mind, here’s a primer on the spirits produced south of the border.
Tequila is, of course, the best known and most popular, by far, of Mexico’s spirits. It must be made from one specific type of agave plant—Weber blue—that has to be grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco or in specific areas of four other states. (Here’s more detail on how that happens.)
Those are pretty specific requirements, but there’s still plenty of room for variety: There are three major age categories for tequila. Spirits labeled white, blanco, silver or plata are crystal-clear, bottled directly from the still (or sometimes rested in steel tanks, which don’t add any color or really affect flavor very much). The hot climate in Mexico accelerates the barrel-aging process, which means that tequilas don’t need the years or decades in wood that whiskies do. Reposado tequila must spend at least two months in oak barrels, while añejo ages for at least a year. Unlike with bourbon, the barrels don’t have to be new, which means many distilleries age their tequilas in casks that previously held whiskey, wine, sherry or even cognac. The hot climate of Mexico
Two types to avoid: Anything that doesn’t say “100 percent agave” or is labeled gold, oro or joven. Both typically indicate inferior products: The former can be made from from up to 49 percent of sugar sources other than agave, and the latter is colored with caramel rather than naturally through aging.
While tequila has to stick with a single variety of agave, there are hundreds that grow in Mexico, and more than a dozen that are used to make booze, both alone and in combination. Legally, “mezcal” is an umbrella term for agave spirits that don’t fall into any other category, though it’s second only to tequila in popularity. Mezcals can be made in any of eight different Mexican states, but the mountainous state of Oaxaca, about 600 miles southeast of Jalisco, is the center of the mezcal universe.
There are hundreds of mezcal distilleries, most extremely small and isolated, which means that they often use old-fashioned techniques like crushing the agave with mule-powered stone wheels, roasting it in mud pits and distilling in clay stills. The result is a more rustic spirit than tequila, with a distinctive smoky flavor. One odd type that’s growing in popularity is pechuga mezcal, for which baskets of fruit and a whole chicken or turkey breast (pechuga in Spanish) is suspended in the still. The practice supposedly dates back up to 100 years and yields a spirit that’s subtly fruity, with the barest hint of umami (and also expensive—most bottlings go for $100 or more).
To properly enjoy a shot of mezcal, serve it in a traditional clay saucer called a copita, and toast by saying “stigibeu” (stee-jee-bay-oo), a Zapotec word that salutes the life force surrounding all of us.
Bacanora is distilled from Pacifica agave, which grows in the mountains of the northern Mexican state of Sonora (that’s the state that borders Arizona). It was actually illegal until 1993 (though plenty of bootleggers made it), but today it has legal protections and a government body to regulate and promote it, just like tequila and mezcal. Right now, there’s pretty much only one brand being imported—Cielo Rojo—but like the other “alternative” agave spirits, it’s on the rise.
If tequila is like a refined bourbon, raicilla is its primitive moonshine ancestor. If you live in tequila’s homeland of Jalisco and make spirits from any kind of agave besides Weber blue, you’ve got raicilla. Its flavor has much in common with mezcal, thanks to similar old-fashioned production techniques.
Sotol shares many characteristics with agave spirits, but it technically is not: It’s made from a plant called the desert spoon, which looks a lot like agave but is botanically a member of a different genus. Sotol is made in northern Mexico, to the east and south of bacanora’s home of Sonora. Sotol tastes very similar to tequila, though with more grassy and less peppery notes.