Agave Spirits is out Now!

An Expert Guide to Mexico’s Agave Spirits



On a recent evening at Tequilas, a restaurant in Philadelphia, I was offered a small bowl of what looked like gnarled slices of dried pineapple. It was roasted agave, of the same variety that had produced the mezcal in the small glass cup in front of me on the bar. I chewed the agave, marveling at its sweet-savory balance and the subtle smoke flavor that emanated — nothing like the intensity that I had come to associate with mezcal.

David Suro-Piñera, the owner of Tequilas, had brought the cooked agave back to the restaurant after his most recent trip to Mexico. Suro-Piñera is a longtime advocate for agave spirits and is the author, with ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, of the newly released Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals. He also operates a small company called Siembra Spirits,which takes a highly traceable, farmer-first approach to importing small-production mezcals, tequilas, and other agave spirits, with the goal of preserving Indigenous systems of farming and distilling agave.

Talking about agave with Suro-Piñera is akin to discussing the Bible with the pope: His knowledge is so deep and intuitive that it draws you in, even if you consider yourself agnostic or perhaps (shudder) more of a gin drinker.

One thing that he makes an effort to point out is that beyond tequila and mezcal, which are extremely popular in the United States, there’s a much broader world of agave spirits out there. These spirits, made with the same ancestral methods as tequila and mezcal, have a range of regional names: bacanora, raicilla, and sotol (which technically is made with a relative of agave, the desert spoon plant) are a few; some others are simply labeled as destilado de agave. Coming from outside the legal borders demarcated by the Mexican government in the 1970s for tequila and in the 1990s for mezcal, these alternative agave spirits have largely eluded U.S. buyers until recently. Now, importing companies like Siembra are bringing them to the States.

“People come to the restaurant and sit at the bar and taste our products and say, ‘This doesn’t taste like tequila,’” says Suro-Piñera. “And I say to them, ‘No, that’s what tequila tastes like. That’s real tequila.’”

The process of making all agave spirits is broadly the same: The agave piña is cooked to release its sugars and then shredded or crushed to release its juices. That juice is fermented, distilled, and aged. At every step of this process, Suro-Piñera explains, there’s a continuum of technique. On one side, the producers he imports work to bring out the characteristics of the specific agave variety, fashioning a product that is reflective of where it comes from and how it was grown. On the other side are the vast industrial production systems that make most commercial tequila, which are designed to create a consistent but less characterful spirit.

“The products we import show the beauty of agave,” Suro-Piñera says. “Even after double distillation, they’re still very expressive of the origin. The terroir concept really applies here. Agave spirits are incredibly complex, but industrially made tequila and mezcal don’t show that at all.”

To say that the methods Suro-Piñera is hoping to showcase are traditional is an understatement. One company that Siembra partners with, Mezonte, works with Indigenous farmers whose land is next to archaeological sites where some of the oldest examples of pre-Hispanic distillation in Mexico have been found. In addition to these spirits being delicious, Suro-Piñera hopes that the growing popularity will help protect their heritage.

A mezcal and a tequila to trust

“These are two entry-level spirits I look for,” Suro-Piñera says. “They’re both ethically priced and a good way to get to know the two basic expressions of agave.”

Mezcal Derrumbes San Luis Potosí ($40)

Derrumbes, run by master distiller Javier Mateo, makes a number of mezcals from different states in Mexico. This one uses the salmiana crassispina species of agave, which gives it both fresh herbaceous and chalky notes.

Fortaleza Blanco Tequila ($55)

Fortaleza’s history stretches back to 1873, when Guillermo Sauza’s great-great-grandfather Don Cenobio founded his first distillery in the town of Tequila. (The family made Sauza tequila until 1976, when the brand was sold.)


Food & Wine: Article by Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé