Agave spirits are a defining piece of Mexico’s heritage which have, over recent years, received global recognition due to their complex flavours, rich history and versatility in cocktails. An agave spirit is a distillate produced by the cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling of agaves.
What is agave?
Perhaps one of Mexico’s most precious natural commodities, the agave has been part of its culture for more than 9,000 years. The fibrous agaves have been used throughout Mexican history to make textiles, food, medicine, pulque (an alcoholic drink) and, more recently, spirits.
The agave or, in the ancient Nahuatl language, maguey, was celebrated as a divine plant, one that was worshipped as the earthly incarnation of the goddess Mayahuel. As grapes in wine production take on the flavours of their terroir, so do agaves and therefore the climate, altitude and soil all play a part in the flavours of agave spirits.
What other agave spirits are there?
The ancestor of tequila is a spirit called mezcal, derived from the Nahuatl mexicali, meaning ‘cooked agave’. This wine of agave was first distilled when the Spanish brought distillation to the New World and, over years of turbulence, taxation and illegalisation, was eventually permitted to be produced in the town of Tequila in Jalisco. Vino de mezcal became vino de tequila and in time became tequila.
With tequila and mezcal being the most internationally known agave spirits, there are others which are quickly gaining global recognition, namely raicilla and bacanora. The differences between these spirits depend on the types of agave species used and on the way they are produced. Although not an agave spirit, sotol should also be mentioned as it shares a lot of similarities in its heritage and production methods.
The above-mentioned spirits have each been protected with a denomination of origin and so are only allowed to be produced in certain states of Mexico. However, agave spirits can be made in almost any region around the world, with new brands emerging globally.
How are agave spirits produced?
To produce an agave spirit, a ripe agave is harvested by chopping off its heavy and fibrous leaves and by returning the piña, the heart of the plant, to the distillery to be cooked. In modern tequila production, most producers use steel or brick ovens which, through steam injections, cook the agaves evenly and quickly.
After cooking, the piñas are crushed to extract the juices which are fermented and twice distilled. By using more traditional methods of cooking such as a horno de tierra (earthen fire pit), you will often find a ‘smokiness’ to mezcal. This is because of the smoke being created by the smouldering wood which is contained underground during cooking.
Some producers of artisan mezcal, bacanora, raicilla and sotol use small clay ovens which create less smoky or earthy flavours, highlighting the flavours of the agaves used instead. In mezcal the most used agave species is the Espadin agave, but any species can be used, with some taking more than 20 years to mature. Apart from tequila, most agave spirits are fermented naturally without the use of cultivated yeasts. This affects the flavour dramatically and, depending on the area in which the liquid is fermented, can range from funky cheese to ripe green fruits.
What flavours do they add to drinks?
Typical tasting notes of the Tequilana Weber Azul, which is the only species allowed to be used in tequila production, taking up to eight years to mature, include white pepper, spice and citrus. Because of its delicate floral and herbal notes, tequila is complemented in simple cocktails such as a classic margarita or paloma which let the spirit shine through.
Tequila is often aged in virgin or used oak barrels to impart familiar woody, caramel and dried fruit notes, and so work beautifully when recreating a classic rum or whisky cocktail such as an old fashioned. Aged tequilas are easily recognisable due to their amber colour and are called reposados or añejos depending on how long they have been aged for.
Whether you use a drier and pine-y bacanora, a tropical fruit-forward raicilla, or a smoke-heavy and earthy mezcal to add subtle nuances to a drink, the possibilities are endless. Agave spirits can be complemented by fresh juices or fruity/spicy liqueurs or nutty/citrusy bitters: some great examples are the Jessica Rabbit or kiwiriqui cocktails.
Make your own agave cocktails
Bartenders all around the world are falling in love with agave spirits to use in cocktails, due to the versatility of their delicate, yet complex natures.
To create a Mexican twist on any classic such as a negroni, try switching out the base with an agave spirit to give it new dimensions. Try our mezcal cocktail recipes and tequila cocktails for smoky sippers and refreshing summer serves.
This article was written by Jennifer Aspell, owner of Casa Agave, UK importers and retailers of agave spirits and co-owner of 400 Rabbits mezcaleria in Nottingham.
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