Maybe you heard the news: supplies of blue agave, the stuff tequila is made from, are drying up. The plant can take as long as a decade to mature, and about ten years ago the price dropped. So farmers planted crops like corn instead. As a result, stores have fallen an estimated 42 percent since 2014.
Don’t worry too much, though. Mexico has several endemic spirits. The easiest to find are mezcal, which primarily comes from Oaxaca and is made from agave (not the blue variety), and sotol, a Chihuahuan specialty distilled from a plant called desert spoon, a cousin of agave. (A third, bacanora, is made in Sonora, but it’s pricey and tough to find in the U.S.) Unlike the tequila of your youth, these are made for sipping, not shooting, and many think they’re better than a lot of tequilas.
“Agave is such a great vehicle for terroir. There are about 30 varieties, and the spirits from each one taste different, depending on where it’s grown,” says Chantal Martineau, who wrote How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit after five years spent sipping mezcal in the bars of Oaxaca City. “Some of my favorites come from really small producers in the most rustic places you’ve ever seen. No electricity, no walls, just a clay pot on a stove under a desert structure.”
Drink sotol, which tastes like a crisp, grassy tequila, and you’re in the mountains of Durango, wrapped in a wool serape. Drink a smoky mezcal and you’re kicking back under a ceiling fan in an airy saloon, listening to a Oaxacan brass band. From where we’re sitting, the music sounds pretty good.