AGAVE SPIRITS: Alcohol distilled from members of the Agave genus of plants, native to Mexico and parts of southwestern USA.
A Brief History of Agave Spirits
Agave plants have been around for thousands of years. They have been revered and harvested by indigeneous people since long before the introduction of distillation by the Spanish in the 16th century. The fibrous structure of the plant formed the base material for brushes, ropes, woven textiles and more, the thorny spines as sewing needles and arrowheads. The sap of the piña or “heart” of the agave plant, known as aguamiel, or “honey water” was used as a sweeter. When fermented, aguamiel produces an alcoholic beverage called pulque, used in ceremonial and religious events for millenia.
The introduction of distillation with the arrival of the conquistadors began a new stage of evolution for the use of the agave plant. Distilling pulque results in a spirit broadly defined as mezcal, historically. A short journey west of the city of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco there lies a small town. Known there to produce a distillate of pulque they were quite proud of, referred to as “Vino de Mezcal de Tequila,” the small town of Tequila quickly gained renown. Yes, tequila takes its name from the town of origin. Not unlike Pilsen for pilsner beer or Cognac for brandy produced in that region of France. To learn more about tequila, read more below!
Today, we’re going to be talking about some of our favorite craft agave spirits here at The Crafty Cask and why you might want to give these spirits another try. We hope trying some high-quality craft agave spirits may banish lingering memories of young over-indulgence while on spring break in Cancun.
Drinking Craft is Critical For Agave Spirits
Agave plants take a long time to mature to the point where harvesting them is feasible. The most well-known species, Blue Weber agave (used exclusively for tequila production) takes on average 7 years to mature. Similarly, the massive Arroqueño species (one of many used in mezcal production) can take upwards of 20 years before being ready to harvest.
As a result, cultivating agave plants is a huge challenge. To ensure these unique plants aren’t depleted faster than replenished, sustainable farming practices are vital. Who better to shepherd this industry forward than the small families whose livelihood depends on a long-term plan? So, while we always encourage drinking craft, we are doubling down on the importance of doing so when it comes to sipping on tequila, mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, or any other destilados de agave…
How Should I Enjoy Agave Spirits?
As we introduce you to new things here at The Crafty Cask, we always encourage you to try them simply as the producer made them first. Then, feel free to play around!
While many refined examples can genuinely be enjoyed neat, there are often traditional accompaniments offered alongside various agave spirits. Tequila with a salt rim and a wedge of lime? I’m sure you’ve had it presented this way. Serving Mezcal with slices of grapefruit or orange with sal de gusano is common. What is sal de gusano, you ask? A mixture of salt, ground chiles, and dried, ground larvae which live in the agave plant.
A plethora of cocktails, from a refreshing Paloma to a sultry mezcal Negroni, rely on various agave spirits. If you like bartending at home, try substituting blanco tequila in place of gin in citrus-forward cocktails, or replacing whiskey with a smoky mezcal for a revitalizing take on an Old Fashioned.
Is that a WORM in my bottle of tequila?!
No, no it’s not. And it’s not even a tequila.
In the 1950’s, a mezcal producer found moth larvae in a batch and thought they added a nice flavor to the product. He added them to his bottles as a marketing tactic to capitalize on the “exoticness” of mezcal at the time. This mystique has certainly lent itself to the curiousity surrounding agave spirits, then and now.
So, now that we’ve whet your appetite for some delicious agave spirits, let us share some favorites of The Crafty Cask team for you to explore…
The Crafty Cask’s Picks
Arroqueño Ancestral Mezcal
Read Spear worked with Carlos Mendez to create a distillery dedicated to Cuentacuentos production in Santiago Matatlan, the epicenter of Oaxacan mezcal. Mezcalero Ricardo Ruiz of Sola de Vega, using artisan methods, distills the first run on a traditional copper pot still, then distills the ordinario in small clay potstills.
Madre is made by hand by the Morales, Vasquez, and Blas families in the rolling hills of the Oaxacan Sierras. They distill from the Espadin and Cuishe agave varieties as a blend and single expression. Blessed with copal, smoked in the earth, and stone-ground by horse-drawn Tahona, this mezcal comes straight from the palenque to you.
Created by Juan & Hortensia Hernández Martínez in Santiago Matatlán using open-vat fermentation in Encino wood, distilled in copper Alembic. Erstwhile is boutique importer whose mission is to advocate for small, family-owned makers who lack representation outside their communities and bring their craft mezcal to the international market
From Xavier Villegran, whose family has been involved with mezcal for three generations. His main focus is Raicilla de Costa, distilled in El Tuito on the mountainous Cabo Corientes peninsula south of Puerto Vallarta, where raicillero Rosalio Rodriquez has substantial hillside plantings of chico aguilar, a wild species of agave.
In 1937 Don Felipe opened La Alteña distillery in the mountain region of Jalisco, Mexico, known for producing the best blue agave. His passion for doing things just right inspired his family to continue hand-crafting Tapatio so it could be enjoyed by future generations. Introduced to The Crafty Cask by their importer, Charbay, this a staple in our bar.
Looking for American craft distillers who are making agave spirits as well? It’s a new and exciting trend with more and more of them showing up these days! Two of our favorites to check out are Mean Mule Distilling Co. from Kansas City and Western Reserve Distillery in Lakewood, OH.
Did you see your favorite on our list? Our favorites continually grow and evolve as we discover new craft makers, so let us know what we’re missing out on. Sound off below on your favorite Agave spirits, so we can taste your favorites too!