Beyond Mezcal: Meet the next Mexican spirits primed for UK entry

Egg Soldiers explores the wider reaches of Mexican spirits, highlighting Sotol, Raicilla and Bacanora as new candidates for UK operators looking to capitalise on diversifying premium spirit trends
A bottle of Desert Door Texas Sotol next to a tumbler
Mexican spirits have enjoyed a steady rate of growth in the UK over the past few years, with trends driven by tequila and boosted by the emergence of mezcal. Indeed, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) last year revealed that volume sales of tequila rose by 83% in UK shops and supermarkets compared to pre-Covid levels, and up by 94% in value. And, in UK pubs and restaurants, the tequila category had outgrown pre-Covid times by 8% in volume and 11% in value.

In the US, tequila recently surpassed American whiskey in value terms to become the country's second most valuable spirit category, with its 'smokier cousin' Mezcal riding the wave of interest in Mexican spirits to become one of the trendiest options for mixologists and barmen across the pond.

And, in the UK, mezcal started making waves from around 2020, with Nick Gillett, managing director of spirits distributor Mangrove, revealing that "demand for mezcal [that year] was up a mouth-watering 1,000%", albeit from a small starting point.

But it's just the start, with broadening UK consumer demand for traditional, high-ABV, premium Mexican spirits to give rise to Sotol, the distilled, 38% ABV spirit made from the Dasylirion succulent (or Desert Spoon) rather than agave - a key differentiator from the norm.

Bright, grassy and with subtle pepper notes; Sotol's complex flavour profile will be used to great effect by cocktail bars in the UK, with the agave-based Raicilla and Bacanora also to benefit from ever-rising interest in traditional Mexican spirit options.
Next Mexican Spirits: The lowdown
Image: La Bodega Negra
Tequila is just the start of the Mexican spirits category. Made from the blue agave plant (agave azul), tequila is only produced inside the Mexican state of Jalisco and in some municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Traditionally, any agave-based distilled spirit produced outside of these regions is referred to in Mexico as mezcal.

According to these traditional Mexican classifications, spirits such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla are subtypes of mezcal, even though the former is made without agave. It's all to do with the distillation techniques, with oven-roasting a distinctive stage. Once harvested, the hearts of the agave plants (or in the case of sotol, the desert spoon) are then cooked either in an above-ground conical ovens or in large underground pits, before being crushed, combined with water, and allowed to ferment.

It's this cooking stage that gives mezcal its distinctive smoky flavour. In contrast, the blue agave hearts used to make tequila aren't cooked.

So, with mezcal increasingly finding favour among a growing consumer cohort seeking authentic, flavourful drinking experiences within the realm of Mexican spirits, either in cocktails or served neat; it seems logical that regional subtypes of mezcal will soon enter the spotlight, with sotol, raicilla and bacanora now primed to enter the fray.
Next Mexican Spirits: Meet the contenders

The Tropical Flight cocktail, made with Quechol Texanum Sotol, coconut milk, fresh lime juice, vanilla syrup and finely chopped mango
Soto's flavour profile has its own place between a mezcal and a tequila, being smokier than a regular tequila and more earthy than a typical mezcal - very useful in cocktail making when you require a grassy, slightly smoky hit without the potency of mezcal (which can hit as high as 55% ABV, with Sotol averaging around 44%).

While, like tequila, sotol has had its own appellation of origin since 2002, and can only be produced in the Mexican states Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango; these laws are not currently recognised in the US, with artisan sotol brands and bars emerging across Southern states to bring the agave-free spirit to a wider, cocktail-loving audience.

For example, in Texas, Desert Door Distillery features a selection of cocktails at its distillery and taproom made with its own sotol, including its Sotol'd Old Fashioned, comprising oak-aged Texas sotol with the familiar - cane sugar, Angostura Bitters, orange peel and a Luxardo Cherry (with a spoonful of juice).

And, in Arizona, Sotol Modern Cocktail Kitchen's cocktail menu features the 'Sotol So Good', comprising sotol, coconut rum, pineapple, lime and orgeat, with butterfly pea giving it a distinctive purple hue.
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A Raicilla Shandy, made with Raicilla De Una (43% ABV), Aperol and Stiegl Radler
Produced in Jalisco, the seventh-largest Mexican state, specifically in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains; Raicilla has a distinct flavour profile, namely notes of citrus and tropical fruits that dovetail smoky and earthy profiles, with some varieties also delivering floral and herbal notes.

Raicilla differs from mezcal due to the way the agave plant is roasted. Standard mezcal is traditionally roasted in underground pits lined with lava rocks, while raicilla is often roasted in open-air pits made of stone and clay, resulting in its different flavour profile.

Raicilla's complex flavour profile is starting to enter the conversation for cocktail innovators - innovators such Tim Wiggins at Lazy Tiger in Missouri, who uses Mexicat Raicilla for his STL Catholic cocktail, mixed with Zucca Rabarbaro amaro, cachaça, Cynar 70-proof, and charred poblano-infused sweet vermouth.

Mexican spirits brand, Kilinga, announced the US entry of its award-winning Bacanora in 2022. It launched with four expressions, including Bacanora Añejo (44%), a bold and complex Bacanora aged in ex-Baja red wine French Oak casks for a "decadent depth of flavour".
Bacanora is produced in the state of Sonora, in the northwest of Mexico, and is made the Angustifolia species of agave.

Delivering smoky, fruity and earthy notes, Bacanora is typically smoother than other mezcals due to it being distilled only once in the production process compared to the usual two-to-three.

Ranging from 40%-48% ABV, Bacanora's smoothness makes it ideal for drinking neat. Not exclusively, of course, with Bacanora also able to be creatively harnessed in cocktails.

Take Espiritu Cocktails + Comida in Arizona, for example, which offers a Sonoran Sling - a spicy concoction of chiltepin-infused bacanora, Grandeza orange liqueur, Cherry Heering, charred pineapple Peychauds bitter aperitivo, lime juice, pineapple juice, almond orgeat, tiki bitters.

Then there's Bacanora (a restaurant, also in Arizona) and its Bacanorita cocktail - fresh lime juice, agave nectar, Santo Pecado Bacanora and orange liqueur.
Next Mexican Spirits: Three UK examples

Dubbed the 'Secret House of Mexican Spirits'; Mayahuel is a basement Mezcal bar found under Cavita, a traditional Mexican restaurant in Marylebone. It offers nine cocktails based around Mexican spirits, including sotol, bacanora and mezcal, with its 'El Divo' a blend of Balam Sotol, Chambord, agave syrup, lime juice and grapefruit soda.
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Also found in Marylebone, Santiago Lastra's KOL - the modern Mexican restaurant making serious waves in the capital - houses his own basement Mezcal bar that champions the diversity of Mexican spirits. It's range of unique cocktails includes the Raspado (pictured), made with Estancia Raicilla, scotch bonnet, quince, and Empirical Spirits' 'F*ck Trump and His Stupid F*cking Wall'

Hacha, London
Winner of UK Specialist Bar of the Year 2022, Hacha is said to be London's only Agaveria, with outposts in both Dalston and Brixton. Its Agave List is an ever-changing rotation of 25 varied agave spirits, covering everything from infused blanco Tequila, to wild agave Mezcal and lesser-known spirits such as Bacanora and Raicilla. Each is paired with a flavour enhancer, either edible or liquid, to compliment the notes of the spirit.
Next Mexican Spirits: Action Points for 2023
  • Sound out Sotol
    Of the potential next Mexican spirits outlined above, Sotol is the example making the most waves at the time of writing, with barmen readily embracing the tequila-meets-mezcal flavour profile of the bold, distinctive spirit.

    As Mexican spirit trends evolve and diversify over the next few years, sotol could be a shrewd new addition to the spirits shelf.
  • Raicilla creativity
    With a broader range of flavour notes than its cousins, Raicilla is arguably best suited for creative cocktails, blending nicely with fruity, acidic components.

    Consider introducing Raicilla as part of a cocktail special for the summer, paired simply with lime and pineapple juice and a splash of bitters. Simple, flavourful and reminiscent of a holiday treat on the beach.
  • Simply Bacanora
    Bacanora, which boasts a unique smoothness, could find favour with UK consumers seeking new, neat spirit experiences.

    Test the waters by adding an aged Bacanora to a sampling flight of spirits, alongside mainstays such as brandy and whiskey.

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