The agave spirits waiting in the wings

01 February, 2024

Oli Dodd gets the lowdown on the lesser-known traditional agave spirits that could be ripe for expansion in the coming years.

Mezcal is one of the spirits world’s least likely success stories. For a rustic, funky, ancient spirit from rural Mexico to become a household name is like Bob Dylan winning The Voice. But when talking about agave spirits, perspective is important. Really anything that isn’t tequila is a drop in the ocean – mezcal, for instance, for all of its recent growth still only holds a 3% share of the entire agave spirits category.

But as tequila opened the door for mezcal, the latter is opening the door to other traditional Mexican spirits. Mezcal has a sense of authenticity and curiosity that begs for deeper discovery, and it’s only natural that those investigations sometimes will wander beyond the confines of the category.

“Right now, there’s a big interest in Mexican spirits, and really Mexico in general as a country and a cuisine,” says Matthias Ingelmann, group bars director for MJMK Restaurants, owner of London-based Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant and mezcaleria KOL.

“We’re getting more and more guests who know a lot about mezcal. At the top end, there are more people who have a lot of knowledge but also we have a broader spectrum of normal guests who know something about mezcal and tequila. That really wasn’t the case three years ago. For our guests, the introduction is always tequila and mezcal but then there’s a growing interest in other spirits – we’re definitely selling and using more.”


When talking about other traditional Mexican spirits, three stand out. The first, raicilla is another agave spirit which, like the vast majority of tequila, hails from the state of Jalisco. Since 2017, it has grown in volume by 225% CAGR according to the IWSR.

“Raicilla is an historic mezcal,” explains Esteban Morales, owner of La Venenosa Raicilla and Sotol La Higuera.

“It originates from the agave variety raicillero, which has a lot of roots, or raiz, hence raicilla, meaning little root. Raicilla's significance is crucial, especially considering that Jalisco is the mecca of agave spirits, it’s growth can be attributed to the freedom of the Mexican people [from under Spanish rule], who initially owned their land, crops, and spirits.

“Distillation techniques were not imported by the Spaniards but by the Filipinos who arrived in Mexico during the 1600s to plant palm trees. The use of clay pot stills for spirit came from them as well.”


But perhaps the most likely Mexican spirit to make the leap into the mainstream as mezcal did, is sotol. From Mexico’s northern states, Sotol isn’t actually made from agave but shares a lot of the characteristics of agave spirits, and since 2017 the category has grown by 117% CAGR according to the IWSR. In 2022, the category made headlines when Lenny Kravitz launched the sotol brand Nocheluna in partnership with the Mexican spirits group behind Montelobos and Abasolo, Casa Lumbre.

“Sotol, a very interesting category, is derived from the raw material dasylirion, boasting 21 different varieties,” says Morales.

“Unlike agave, after reaching four years of age sotol flowers every year, providing the opportunity for continuous production. While the distillation process is similar to mezcal, the organoleptic experience is distinct.

“Despite its small volume, we can see a lot of growing interest for our Sotol La Higuera. There is promise and optimism, but the journey to reach the awareness and recognition its cousin has is long.”


The third traditional spirit is bacanora. Of the three, it has the least footprint outside of the domestic market. It’s made in the northern state of Sonora from an agave called angustifolia, known widely in Sonora as Pacifica or Yaquiana, but would be familiar to fans of mezcal as espadín, its common name in Oaxaca. But despite its comparatively small stature, the category has plenty of potential and is growing fast – 214% CAGR by volume since 2017 according to the IWSR.

“Bacanora has an advantage over traditional mezcal because it’s less funky, it’s an easier, more straightforward drink,” says Mel Abert, founder of the single family bacanora brand Lagarto Azul, meaning blue lizard.

“The reason people like mezcal, I think, is because it’s unique, it’s craft, and it’s not mass produced and that’s bacanora. In Sonora there are a lot of people coming out with their own brands of bacanora, it’s really picked up.”

Abert isn’t alone in his conviction that bacanora may be the easiest for existing agave spirit fans to transition to. The category remains some way behind the other two, but the growth of these spirits overseas is unlikely to be an overnight sensation.

“I think bacanora may have an easier time with becoming more mainstream as the flavour is similar to an espadín mezcal, since they are both produced using the angustifolia agave species,” says Jennifer Foley, owner of UK-based importer Casa Agave.

“When I first launched Casa Agave in 2018 our selection consisted of only tequila and mezcal, plus a few liqueurs. Within a few months we cautiously started importing a sotol called Ono, and as someone who had only previously tried industrially produced sotol, I was blown away by the flavour bomb that was this sotol.

“Over the years and as we have grown I have added more and more varieties of sotol and spirits such as raicilla and bacanora. I have seen a huge interest from bars but also now sell a great deal to consumers directly through our webshop.”

Importers such as Casa Agave are key to the success of raicilla, bacanora and sotol. Simply accommodating a market presence is obviously vital, but also by curating that selection it means a consumer’s first introduction to the category is likely to be a better quality product.

“For the general market it depends a lot on import,” says Ingelmann. “In this country, Brexit and other things haven’t made that easier over the past few years, but on the other hand there are more and more spirits available. Compared to three years ago, our mezcal selection has nearly doubled and I’d say it’s also better in terms of quality. In the past, we occasionally stocked a mediocre product because nothing else from the category was available, everything we stock now is because we wanted to have it.

“So, the quality of spirits in the UK has increased, there’s more consistency with what is available, and the quantity of brands is a lot bigger. That shows that the market is growing and that the demand is there. With more brands coming into the country and more established brands bringing more variety of mezcal, raicilla and sotol, it’s a great sign.

“From week to week, it can be frustrating but if you look at the bigger picture, compared to three years ago the market is exploding, it’s growing so fast.”

Mainstream concerns

Rapid growth can be hugely beneficial to the Mexican producers of these spirits, but while popularity and demand are exciting prospects, equally they can bring with them a new set of issues. The meteoric rise of tequila and mezcal has created new opportunities but also exploitation and environmental crises. The industrialisation of mainstream mezcal has taken those spirits away from the communities that protected them for centuries.

“The beauty of these agave spirits is that they have not undergone an industrialised production process,” says Foley.

“To retain the exotic, funky, and unique flavours, nothing can change in terms of growing the agaves and the production in my opinion. It’s impossible to do this on a large scale and personally I would always avoid industrially made mezcal and the same would apply to raicilla, sotol and bacanora.

“Another very important aspect, and with where we are at the moment in terms of climate change, is the environment. Would it be sustainable to produce these spirits at high volume? Cutting agaves before they bloom means that the wildlife, the pollinators are losing out on their food. Flight paths of the lesser long-nosed bat have been seen to change dramatically since tequila took off. They are thankfully no longer on the endangered species list but it won’t take much to put them back on. Waste produced from the distillation process of these spirits is also a hot topic.”

Bacanora, sotol and raicilla have an opportunity to grow their respective categories how they choose to and should look to their more developed cousins for what to do and what not to do.

“The key lesson is the decentralisation of mezcal from Oaxaca and the need for increased diversity in tequila distilleries,” says Morales. “While there are thousands of brands, only a limited number of distilleries underline the uniqueness and artisanal nature of tequilas.

“This emphasises the importance of preserving authenticity amid the growth and success of these categories.”

But preserving authenticity and sustainability ultimately deals those categories another barrier.

“When you’re talking about the real stuff from small palenque, that’s where the prices start to go up, but you know that everything is done by hand and correctly to the traditional method,” explains Abert.

“This means I have to sell my bacanora at around £60 a bottle, which is a massive barrier to entry to try to sell to people and to get into the on-trade unless it’s a very special place with clientele that will pay that kind of money.

“So, it’s about doing tastings but also targeting people who are in the know about mezcal and are willing to take a chance. These individual little brands in the category don’t have the marketing budget, they really rely on word of mouth to get their brands out there, and really it’s the on-trade that the category needs to take a chance on and start to get the word out there. Everyone’s going to have the basic tequilas, but these are brands that not everybody is going to have.”

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