A wide range of spirits can be distilled from agaves. Here’s a quick rundown of that spectrum and a look at what defines each different category of agave spirits:
Mezcal is the over-arching category of Mexican spirits fermented and distilled from several varieties of the agave plant. It is produced all over Mexico under various names and designations, including tequila.
Bottles labeled “mezcal” are usually from the state of Oaxaca and often have a smoky flavor because during production the agave hearts are roasted in rock-lined pits fired by mesquite.
Tequila is a type of mezcal produced under strict regulations as to how and where it can be made. Tequila is fermented and distilled from a single type of agave plant, Agave tequilana Weber blue. Tequila is not smoky because the agave hearts are steamed or kilned during production; it can only be produced in Jalisco, and designated areas in four other Mexican states.
The best tequilas are 100% blue agave, which is noted on the label. Distinctions are often made between tequila made from blue agave grown in highland regions, which tend to be fruitier, and from lowlands, which are earthier.
Named for the eponymous town in Sonora, this mezcal variant is made from wild plants of agave Pacifica. Bacanora is often lighter and less smoky than most mezcals, even though the agaves are also pit roasted.
Like tequila, raicilla is made in Jalisco state; unlike tequila, it is made from two varieties of agave—lechuguilla and puta de mula. Raicilla tends to be sweeter and fruitier than most other mezcals.
Although a gringo might mistake it for agave, sotol is made from another succulent plant called Desert Spoon. Produced mainly in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila, the process is similar to mezcal, with roasting of the hearts of Desert Spoon in volcanic rock-lined pits. Flavor varies according to the terroir, say aficionados; predominately herbal notes, as well as eucalyptus, pepper and cocoa, with lighter smoke accents.
Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.