The Secret of Sonora

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In an era when everything is questioned and every bit of messaging comes under scrutiny (as it should), I can tell you with certainty: the agave crisis in Jalisco is real. From my experience, including conversations with Tequila distillers, brand owners, importers, and distributors, no one has been spared from the shortage and conditions are getting worse, not better—especially for growers and smaller producers. You can dig deeper into the factors driving the shortage in the Bloomberg article I’ve linked above, but to give you an idea of what’s happening think of the shortages we saw with 10+ year old Bourbon over the last decade. Demand goes up, supplies are based off of what was made 10 years previously (before demand was high), and everyone scrambles to play catch-up. Except you can’t speed up time, so prices go up and shortages become widespread.

It’s a similar phenomenon with Tequila, but instead growers are looking to speed up the maturation process of their cash crop—agave piñas—which take an average of 7 - 10 years to ripen fully. Since you can’t force agave piñas to ripen any faster, a number of distilleries have turned to diffusers as a loophole. You can read an old blog post I wrote for K&L if you need an explanation into this abomination, but it’s basically a machine that takes unripe agave plants and processes the starch into sugar for fermentation, so brands can still claim their product was made with “100% blue agave.” It’s sort of like taking a bunch of unripe Bordeaux grapes off the vine, dumping in a bag of sugar, adding a can of Welch’s grape juice concentrate, and calling the end result Pauillac. It’s Frankenstein Tequila, but the beauty of the machine for major distillers is that no one really knows about it, or gives a fuck anyway. It’s like organic produce in that sense. Some people will pay more for the real thing, but most won’t. Most consumers won’t even know there’s a difference.

In response to the industrialization of Tequila, a number of aficionados have gravitated to Mezcal, a category that has seen explosive growth over the last few years with its craft-oriented approach and rustic production practices, not to mention its potent character. While Tequila can only be made from blue agave and is generally produced solely in the state of Jalisco (certain limited municipalities in the states of Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Guanajuato can also make Tequila), Mezcal is made in many states and new regulations hope to expand production across Mexico, which will only increase the demand for agave now that the term “Mezcal” can apply to a broad category of agave distillates. I’m sure the everyday consumer will love trying to decipher the differences between Mezcal, Mezcal Artesenal, and Mezcal Ancestral, but of course that’s part of the fun of new regulations. I love both Tequila and Mezcal personally, and I always will, but since marrying into a large Sonoran family, I’ve come to love another agave-based spirit even more. It’s not easy to find, and it was only legalized for consumption 26 years ago, but it’s called Bacanora and it’s suffering neither from industrialization, nor commercial complication.

Bacanora is easy to understand. It can only be made with one type of agave: agave Pacifica. It can only be made in one state: Sonora. Like Tequila, Bacanora is named after a town in the state where it originates. Like Mezcal, the piñas are roasted in underground ovens before distillation. The result is usually a masculine spirit, more smoky than Tequila, less smoky than Mezcal. There are few legitimate producers of Bacanora because the spirit was banned from 1915 to 1992 (due to perceived overconsumption), and only recognized as a category in 2000. Obviously, Sonora saw its fair share of moonshining during the prohibition period, but even today there are few commercial brands, and even fewer exported to the states, despite the close proximity of Sonora to the Arizona border. I’m hoping to change that in the near future (more on that later), but in the meantime I survive on what my in-laws bring me when they visit from Hermosillo, as well as the brand Rancho Tepua, one of the best Bacanoras I’ve tasted and a label you can find here in the U.S. Made with a level of care normally found in artisanal Mezcal expressions, it’s at the higher-end of the spectrum and you can taste every bit of that quality in the glass. Bright, spicy, full of pepper and citrus, with just a hint of smoke, I can’t get enough of it. If you’re looking for an expressive Tequila with just a bit more oomph, this is what you need.

As for how you drink it, I like to drink Bacanora in a room full of crazy Sonorenses, while eating machaca and listening to mariachi, but that’s me. When I open a bottle, everyone likes it. That’s the important part. It mixes well with Squirt, Coke, and classic Tequila recipes. You can sip it, shoot it, gulp it, pound it. The brands you find here are usually well-made (Sunora is another, albeit it’s not quite as good). There are no inventory issues due to popularity or mass consumption (unless you count the empty Bay Area shelves due to my personal mass consumption), hence there’s no reason for any producer to invest in a diffusor. It’s just a straightforward, old school a spirit from a simpler time. Before booze got so complicated!

The only problem is the lack of selection. I’m going to start working on that problem, however.

-David Driscoll