Beyond Tequila and mezcal: the other agave spirits you need to know

There’s more to the world of agave spirits than its two big names. Millie Milliken digs into the lesser-known liquids that are getting agave lovers excited

Words by Millie Milliken

Other agave spirits cover
A farmer harvests agave plants in Jalisco

At Zapote Bar at Rosewood Mayakoba in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, bar director Joshua Monaghan and his team are proudly showcasing the diversity of agave spirits. Alongside punchy lists of Tequila and mezcal are some lesser-known, ‘other’ agave spirits that guests of the hotel bar may be less familiar with. ‘It’s crucial for our guests to understand the richness and complexity of agave distillates to truly appreciate the culture and craftsmanship behind these drinks,’ says Monaghan, who offers guided tastings of these exciting and elusive spirits, from bacanora to raicilla and lechuguilla.

The world of agave spirits is at an interesting point. Demand is through the roof. Tequila is leading the charge, having overtaken American whiskey in the US to become its second biggest-selling spirit only behind vodka, which it is also challenging. In the UK, its appeal continues to grow too: its market value rose to £35m in 2023 compared with £24m the previous year.

With over 250 species of agave, the scale of flavour in agave spirits is arguably unrivalled

Mezcal also has a rapidly increasing following. All this means there’s a race to keep up with supply and the pressures on the agave market are mounting. Understanding of the breadth of this historic and traditional category is still in its infancy but achieving it can shine a light on just how important protecting both producers and the agave plant is. So, what other agave spirits are there that Tequila and mezcal lovers should know about?

Zapote bar team
Joshua Monaghan and the team at Zapote are proudly showcasing other agave spirits, including sotol, bacanora, raicilla and lechuguilla


With over 250 species of agave, the scale of flavour in agave spirits is arguably unrivalled – and impossible to cover in one feature. ‘It is really hard to generalise these spirits,’ says Tyler Cazes, beverage director at new restaurant Acamaya in New Orleans, helmed by Mexican chef Ana Castro and accompanied by a bar that will focus on agave spirits. ‘Depending on production methods, each spirit can be so radically different.’

Perhaps the most accessible is raicilla. With over 300 years of history, raicilla is described by Gaby Moncada, Speciality Brands’ agave ambassador, as ‘the original mezcal’. ‘It follows a similar production process to mezcal but occasionally bringing a funkier side to the liquid due to the way it’s fermented,’ she explains. ‘It’s mostly produced in Jalisco, which boasts diverse agave species, climates, soils and altitudes, encapsulating terroir within its borders.’

Gaby Moncada
Gaby Moncada, Speciality Brands’ agave ambassador

Made using a range of agaves including maximiliana and rhodacantha, raicilla’s production process includes roasting the pinas in stone or brick ovens, crushing them and fermenting the juice with wild yeasts before distilling at least once. It has a protected DO and its character is dependent on a variety of factors – terroir, agave species and the producer to name a few – but expect something herbal, green and distinctively earthy.

My first experience with raicilla was at KOL Mezcaleria as part of an agave flight. Bar manager Matthias Ingelmann is one of London’s most knowledgeable agave specialists and has curated a collection of spirits behind the bar that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, including raicilla. ‘I think flavour-wise, I would say it is more citrusy, and with a very limited amount of smokiness – and depending on where it has come from, a bit of salinity too.’

Matthias Ingelmann
Matthias Ingelmann behind the bar at KOL Mezcaleria (Photo: Eleonora Boscarelli)


Then there’s bacanora, still something of a unicorn in the UK but again, understandable within the realms of mezcal.  ‘It’s a type of mezcal outside the Denomination of Origin (DO),’ explains Moncada. ‘It has its own DO due to using a particular endemic agave.’ Made in the state of Sonora, northern Mexico, it’s made using the angustifolia agave plant. They are cooked in volcanic-rock-lined earthen ovens, crushed and then the juice is fermented in wooden, stainless steel or plastic vats before being double distilled. It has an earthy, savoury profile and can be influenced by the chips on which it is roasted.



It would be remiss not to mention sotol. Although technically not made from agave but instead dasylirion (it looks like agave but is genetically different) in Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango, it’s certainly part of the conversation, with the likes of Nocheluna – fronted by Lenny Kravitz – sparking interest overseas. Its profile is more herbal and vegetal – with a distinct minerality too. Speciality Brands has two on offer from La Higuera made from the wheeleri and cedroanum varieties. In Singapore, agave and rice spirit bar Cat Bite Club is embracing it. Jesse Vida, the bar’s cofounder, thinks sotol is the most accessible Mexican spirit aside from Tequila and mezcal. ‘For those who love the complexity of mezcal, this is an easy side step into another similar but different category.’

Sotol cocktail
The Manzano cocktail at Zapote, which combines sotol with Ancho Reyes, Aperol, lime juice, beetroot and manzano chile

Unexpected agave treasures

‘Other lesser-explored spirits include distillates from pulque, the fermented raw sap of the agave plant,’ says Moncada. There are also gins using agave distillate bases and Mexican botanicals, as well as non-alcoholic distillates that involve cooking agave without fermentation, so no alcohol is produced, then concentrating flavours through distillation, she explains. There are even low-alcohol agave wines that undergo fermentation after cooking, often with natural flavours or sugars added.

And that’s just in Mexico. Outside of the home of agave, other countries are producing their own agave spirits, from South Africa to South America. Ingelmann is not against such spirits but warns about quality and provenance despite the perception among some drinkers that this is a relatively new category.

‘Quality is an issue. I think most of them are just not good enough yet. I think you don’t really have lots of other countries with a history in agave spirits production, although we have a lot of countries where you have agave spirits growing around the world. I don’t have a problem with agave spirits from outside of Mexico as long as they’re made properly.’

Agave flights at Cat Bite Club
Agave spirits tasting flights at Singapore's Cat Bite Club

Where to find the other agave spirits

While drinkers might know their way around drinking Tequilas and mezcals (with the boom of the Margarita also helping matters), the prospect of consuming these other agave spirits might feel like a bit of a minefield.

‘Bacanora and raicilla are great for juicy sours,’ says Cazes, who is building the cocktail programme for Acamaya. Over at KOL and Zapote, the teams often present these spirits in flights in order to allow guests to explore before deciding on how they’d apply them to more mainstream cocktail formats.

Many of these other agave spirits aren’t currently widely available in the UK, so finding them is a significant first step. Specialists such as Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange are good places to start, while the growth of mezcalerias and Mexican cocktail bars can offer opportunities to try something unusual if the back bars are sufficiently diverse. Learning who made the liquids, where and how is an important part of understanding agave spirits and will help shape realistic expectations about availability and price.

Sotol’s profile is herbal and vegetal, with a distinct minerality too

‘Agave spirits are inherently expensive to produce,’ explains Moncada. ‘Some consumers believe things like Tequila and mezcal should be cheap, potentially influenced by brands prioritising volume over taste and quality. This misconception overlooks numerous factors: the lengthy growth and maturation period of agave plants [minimum eight years in the ground], meticulous cultivation, labour-intensive harvesting, complex production processes, stringent quality standards, and limitations on methanol content. These contribute to elevated costs.’

At KOL, Ingelmann is focused on transparency. ‘There’s still a lot of work and learning every day, there is so much that is uncovered. Transparency and authenticity are the words that summarise our focus most. Whatever spirit we stock, it’s really important that we know who produced it and how.’