You’ve heard of mezcal by now and, of course, there’s tequila. But Mexico has so much more to offer when it comes to distillates––even beyond agave spirits.
Like the rest of the world, it produces whiskey, as well as rum. The whiskey is often made in the American style, using corn, which makes sense if you consider that corn has been a staple in Mexico for millennia. And those agave spirits you think you know so well? We’re betting there are certain expressions you’ve never heard of. After all, some mezcals go by regional names and certain spirits made from agave don’t qualify as mezcal at all. The breadth of variety is born out of the nation’s cultural and biodiversity.
These five are a just a handful of the amazing spirits you’ll find coming out of Mexico today. Whether you’re a whiskey drinker or a tequila fan, there’s something here for you.
This rum has been around for at least three generations, hailing from the Sierra Mazateca mountains of Oaxaca. Distiller José Luis Carrera does everything from harvesting the sugar cane to adjusting the final product. His process involves removing half the fermentation tank each day to distill it, then topping off the remainder with fresh cane juice. Over time, the tank acquires layers of flavors from wild yeasts driving the fermentation.
The rum is ethereal, with a brininess redolent of black olives. It’s great on its own, but shows up nicely in a cocktail like a Piña Colada, which is why a lot of bartenders use it as their secret weapon.
Mexico is the birthplace of corn and Mexicans have been making alcohol from it since long before the Spanish arrived. It’s unclear how long Mexicans have been making whiskey, but several products now available in the U.S. feature heirloom varieties of Mexican corn.
This one is robust and full of corn flavor. It’s a white whiskey, but the brand is aging some in charred oak barrels for a later release. Per the label, it’s made with ancestral heritage corn, which is harder to find and farm than the cobs you throw on the grill in the summertime. Hence the price tag.
Sierra Norte whiskey comes from established mezcal producer Douglas French, who has been making Scorpion Mezcal in Oaxaca since 1995. He views Sierra Norte as an opportunity to revive endangered species of native corn, and each bottle is defined by the type of corn that goes into it.
The white corn, yellow corn, and black corn expressions are all aged in French oak for eight months, yet each is distinct. The black corn bottling is definitely the least conventional, showing an earthy funk that, if your a bourbon drinker, will feel brand new.
The agave spirit from Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas, is made by distilling fermented agave sap, called aguamiel. The locals long collected the sap to make pulque, a sort of beer. Eventually, they started distilling it. Comiteco production grew and industrialized in the early 20th century when volumes were competitive with tequila. When the industry ran out of agave in the 1960s, Comiteco was banned until agave populations could recover.
After more than 50 years in hibernation, Comiteco is back. In the glass, it’s like rum mixed with grass, smoke and baked agave. 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 three, it’s something new, yet centuries old.
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Raicilla is another branch of mezcal’s family tree. The word means “little root,” but that hides the spirit’s history. To force Mexicans to buy Spanish brandy so that money would flow back to Europe instead of staying in Mexico, the Spanish outlawed mezcal. The distillers of western Jalisco got around that by calling their mezcal raicilla, claiming it was a bitter healing potion. Or so the story goes.
This ultra-small-production raicilla from the coastal mountains between tequila’s heartland and Puerto Vallarta comes in several expressions. Look for the Tutsi from the Masparillo agave, about as traditional as you can get. Getting your hands on it is tricky, but not impossible: Only 60 bottles were released.