Of ELISABETTA LUGLI
A couple of weeks ago we went to discover agave accompanied by Cristian Bugiada, who in addition to telling us the secrets of tequila and mezcal gave an interesting discussion on some "minor" distillates from Northern Mexico. Well, we decided to find out more and for this reason we consulted Roberto Artusio, the other creator of the “LA PUNTA” project, who has traveled far and wide through Mexico with Cristian many times, and many other times he also started from Alone. With him we talked about bacanora, raicilla and sotol, the three spirits that best represent northern Mexico.
Here's what he told us:
Roberto, let's start from the beginning. How and when was this passion for Mexican spirits born, which you also have in common with Cristian Bugiada?
You know, what we always say is that it's not you looking for the agave, it's looking for you, even if you don't realize it. My journey in this sense began already in 2005, when I paid a lot of attention to the scene of London clubs: there was excitement about tequila there. Then in London I also worked there, between 2008 and 2009. Later, in Rome, I opened Jerry Thomas, which represented a sort of underground movement for bartenders. We all met there after finishing work in our respective places, and that was how I met Cristian and discovered that he too had been "taken by the agave". I lived near Freni e Frizioni, where he lived; we met and developed our conversation about agave. We held masterclasses on the topic, both at Jerry Thomas and at Freni e Frizioni, and at a certain point we realized that we were assembling information and that we didn't have direct knowledge of distillates: so we set off for Mexico, practically at risk, without still know the area.
The first of a long series of trips.
Yes, traveling has become a drug! In 2015 I even left on my own and rented a car with which I clocked up more than 10,000 kilometres. One trip after another, our contacts increased, for example knowing Esteban Morales (producer of La Venenosa raicilla, ed.), allowed us to discover many small distilleries, and little by little we fell in love with Mexico in its entirety, for so to speak. With Cristian, at a certain point, we went to a fair in Mexico City where there were producers of bacanora, sotol and raicilla (which at the time, in 2015, had not yet obtained the denomination). From there we set off on a road trip from the mountains to the coast of Jalisco.
Jalisco, the raicilla area, right?
Exact. Imagine that drinking raicilla describes the territorial aspect of the State of Jalisco, a bit like tasting all types of Piedmontese wines could describe Piedmont. They are very artisanal products, often distilled by rural people, who also do agriculture. It is produced with various types of endemic plants, such as amarillo, cenizo, chino, brocha, azul. Think about how curious it is: raicilla is often distilled with stills called "filippini", which have a terracotta base and a wooden "montera". The cooler is not a coil but a kind of Asian-style wok. The reason for this peculiarity is easy to say: in the area of Jalisco, oriented towards the Pacific, the slaves arrived from the Philippines. Traces of their customs can still be found today in the production of raicilla, which obtained its name only a year and a half ago.
What can you tell us about bacanora instead?
For bacanora we have to move further north of Jalisco and arrive in the Sonora area. Bacanora has a curious history: it was hit by a sort of cultural and social prohibitionism for many years, from 1915 to 1992. Its denomination arrived in 2000. Bacanora is produced in 35 microregions of Sonora, mainly on the mountains, because the agave yield is better at altitude. The plants used are narrow-leaved plants commonly called Pacific agaves, and the production method is identical to that of mezcal. It is a clean distillate, in which the exaltation of the terroir can be found. It still has to grow: prohibitionism certainly had an impact from this point of view. In Italy there are still very few types.
Finally, let's talk about Sotol.
Sotol is the northern distillate par excellence. It is considered young but in reality it has long been rooted in its production areas, which are Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. The peculiarity of sotol is that the plant used to produce it is not an agave: but this was discovered only in 1994 by an American scholar. Commonly called sotol like distillate, this plant goes by the name dapylirion. A plant that was already used 7000 years before Christ! In Texas there are traces of it and even rock paintings depicting the sotol deities: that of hunting, because the leaf was used as a propeller for spears, and that of fire, because the plant produces a flammable resin which they used as a lighter.
Rock paintings and ancient traces that I imagine you have seen with your own eyes!
Of course, I slipped into all the caves possible: in my enthusiasm I even forgot all the types of poisonous snakes I might have encountered! Starting from those ancient traces, the history of sotol then evolved: the Indians began to make a fermented product that was used for religious rites and as a medicine, with the addition of peyote. We can imagine the effects! Distillation, however, arrived later with the conquistadors: that's when sotol was born. Which today in my opinion has the potential to become one of the spirits of the future, a truly interesting product.
We thank Roberto and after listening to his stories about Mexico we begin to hope that the agave will decide to look for us too!