SpiritsHandpicked by IWSC

Six agave spirits to try right now

Mezcal is finally having its moment in the spotlight. So how does it differ from Tequila and what’s the deal with sotol and raicilla?

Words by Joel Harrison & IWSC experts

agave field worker in Mexico
Handpicked by IWSC
Tequila and mezcal are among spirits crafted from the agave plant, a succulent native to Mexico

The flavours of Mexico are some of the most recognised across the world, with the country’s flagship distillate, Tequila, an order famous at any bar. Yet, if you’re thinking of the tried-and-tested “salt and a shot” formula (for many, a regrettable or foggy memory of a bad bar experience), it’s time to reapproach a drink with considerably more substance to it.

Tequila is part of the wider mezcal family, a group of spirits derived from the agave plant. While mezcal can be made from a variety of plants, Tequila comes from blue weber agave. The finished product has an incredible depth of flavour, highlighted through the use of oak casks and ageing, which also gives the clear spirit a golden hue.

Agaves ready to be steamed for tequila production
The heart of the agave plant — which is cooked before fermentation — is called a "piña" as it closely resembles the appearance of a pineapple

When sipping clear Tequila (known as “silver”, plata or blanco), you should aim to drink 100% agave and not the lower-quality “mixto”, which is distilled from a blend of agave and other sugars. And be wary that some Tequila is coloured through the addition of caramel, a practice popular in the drinks trade: these will carry the term “golden”. For authentically aged Tequila, seek out the words reposado, añejo, or extra añejo on the label. These styles give a fuller flavour, with oak taming the earthy tones of the agave plant and creating a spirit that is perfect for sipping as well as mixing.

The youngest of these aged Tequilas is reposado (“rested”), which has to spend between two months and a year in cask. Next up is añejo, (“aged”), which takes the maturation up a gear to a maximum of three years. Finally, at the top of the tree is extra añejo, a term applied to any Tequila over three years old before bottling. Ageing adds additional notes of vanilla, spice and leather, resulting in a drink that, at its best, can compete toe-to-toe with whisky, brandy and rum as a wonderfully relaxed sipping spirit.

An adventure into Mexico’s distilled spirits does not stop with Tequila, however. In fact, drinks within the same mezcal family are getting some proper attention at the moment – and quite rightly so – for being full-flavoured, serious spirits.

Mezcal Colores Tóbala is a trophy-winning agave spirits
Mezcolatra Mezcal Colores Tóbala won the agave spirits trophy at the IWSC 2020 awards, with experts praising its "superlatively bright, prolonged finish."

On the whole, mezcal tends to carry a smokier backbone than Tequila thanks to a twist on the production process where the hearts of the agave plant, known as the piña, are cooked in a more agricultural manner than at the larger Tequila distilleries. With mezcal, the piña are roasted in pits dug into the earth, which imparts a smoked, almost barbecue-like note to the final distillate. It’s a more traditional method than that used for Tequila, where the piña is steam-baked in an oven known as a horno, or pressure-cooked in an autoclave, giving a cleaner, unsmoked flavour to the final spirit.

While with Tequila, the choice of agave is limited to the blue weber variety, mezcal offers a selection of styles based on different agave plants from across Mexico. Espadín is the most common variety, accounting for 80-90% of mezcal production; Tepeztate is rarer, and gives an intense spiciness; Arroqueño is more floral; and Tobalá ramps up the fruitiness.

This leaning towards the type of plant and the terroir in which they are grown means that, at the top end of mezcal, the focus is more akin to winemaking, with details on the style of plants and their growing conditions becoming a serious affair. Again, as with Tequila, mezcal can be aged in oak and can offer an exciting option for anyone looking for an aged spirit with personality.

Not to be forgotten are the lesser-known Mexican spirits like raicilla, sotol and bacanora. Made from wild agave, they are very much a local’s drink. Bacanora is issued with an origin denomination bill from the Mexican government, meaning it can only be made in the central state of Sonora. While you might struggle to track down these drinks locally, there is plenty of mezcal on the market to start sampling now.

Mexico, through the distillation of the agave plant, offers a wide variety of spirit styles and flavours as colourful and interesting as the country itself. If your experience of these drinks starts and ends with shots of Tequila, now is the time to expand your horizon and truly explore all that Mexico has to offer when it comes to first-class, award-winning agave distillates. Here are six IWSC award-winning agave spirits to try.