Bacanora is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant, similar to tequila and mezcal. There has been some debate over whether bacanora should be considered a type of mezcal or a distinct spirit. In this article, we’ll examine the history, production methods, and regulations around bacanora to help determine if it qualifies as a type of mezcal.
What is bacanora?
Bacanora is produced in the state of Sonora in northern Mexico. It gets its name from the town of Bacanora in Sonora. Bacanora is made from the Pacific Blue Agave (Agave azul) plant, which is native to Sonora and surrounding regions.
To make bacanora, the agave hearts are roasted in underground pit ovens, imparting a smoky flavor. The roasted agave is then crushed and fermented with water. The resulting liquid is distilled either one or two times. Bacanora has an alcohol content around 40-50% ABV (80-100 proof).
Like tequila and mezcal, bacanora has a bold, earthy flavor with hints of smoke from the roasting process. It tends to be sharper and wilder compared to the more refined taste of tequila. Some even describe bacanora as a “country cousin” to tequila.
History of bacanora production
Agave cultivation and distillation has a long history in Sonora, with origins tracing back hundreds of years to the early colonial era. The indigenous Mayo and Yaqui people of Sonora are said to have produced fermented drinks from agave even before the arrival of the Spanish.
Primitive distillation of agave likely began in the 1600s. At the time, distilling practices were crude, with the bacanora made in individual homes rather than commercial operations. This early “cottage industry” version of bacanora was known as chinguirita or aguardiente de penoles.
Bacanora production became more commercialized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The opening of modern distilleries helped improve quality standards. Bacanora from this era was traded locally or smuggled into the US due to restrictions on alcohol during Prohibition.
After Prohibition ended, tequila surged in popularity in the 1930s-1950s. Yet bacanora remained relatively obscure outside of Sonora. Illegal operations continued supplying moonshine bacanora to evade taxes and trade limits.
In the 1970s, bacanora production was legalized in Sonora. Regulations were introduced to establish Denomination of Origin status and product standards. However, many distillers continued operating outside the law. In the 1990s, initiatives helped bring bacanora makers into the legal fold and expand the industry.
How is bacanora produced?
Bacanora is produced from the Pacific Blue Agave plant. There are some important differences from how tequila is made:
- Tequila can only be made in designated regions of Jalisco, Michoac??n, Guanajuato, and Nayarit.
- Tequila is distilled from only one variety of agave – Agave tequilana (Blue Weber).
- Bacanora is produced in Sonora from Agave pacifica.
However, bacanora and tequila share some key production methods:
- Harvested agave hearts are roasted in ovens.
- The roasted agave is crushed to extract juices.
- The juices are fermented with added water.
- The fermented wash is distilled in copper pot stills.
After distillation, bacanora can be bottled as is or aged in oak or other barrels to gain complexity and smoothness. White or silver bacanora (blanco) is unaged. Reposado is aged 2-12 months. A??ejo is aged 1-3 years. Bacanora extra a??ejo spends over 3 years in barrels.
Regulations and Denomination of Origin
Bacanora has had an evolving legal status over the past century:
- Pre-1970s – Production carried on informally, largely underground.
- 1970s – Bacanora legalized in Sonora, subject to state taxes.
- 1993 – “Bacanora” recognized as a Denomination of Origin.
- 2000 – Granted Protected Designation of Origin status.
- 2018 – Gained Mexico’s Denomination of Origin certification.
These regulations restrict the name “bacanora” to agave spirits from Sonora. The regulations also define production methods, agave varieties, and quality standards for certified bacanora.
To be considered authentic bacanora, regulations mandate:
- Produced in Sonora from Agave pacifica.
- Agave hearts roasted underground in pit ovens.
- Use of grinding wheels (tahona) to crush agave.
- Fermentation with native Sonoran yeast.
- Double distillation in copper pot stills.
These strict guidelines bear similarities to how mezcal gained legal protections. They help differentiate bacanora from generic agave spirits and provide quality assurances.
Comparison to mezcal
There are some clear overlaps between how bacanora and mezcal are produced:
- Both are made from agave roasted in underground pit ovens.
- They use similar crushing methods and fermentation with native yeasts.
- Both involve distilling in copper pot stills.
- Mezcal and bacanora can be unaged or aged in barrels.
However, there are also some distinct differences:
- Bacanora uses Pacific Blue Agave while mezcal utilizes many agave varieties.
- Mezcal can be made in Oaxaca, Durango, Guerrero and other Mexican states.
- Bacanora is produced only in Sonora.
- They have separate Denomination of Origin certifications.
While the similarities are clear, the geographic and agave differences suggest bacanora is reasonably considered its own unique spirit rather than a sub-type of mezcal.
In terms of flavor profiles, bacanora and mezcal share an earthy, smoky agave taste but with some subtle differences:
- Bacanora – Tends to be sharper and rougher with more burn. Flavor notes of citrus, pepper, and wild desert plants.
- Mezcal – More diversity in flavors depending on agave variety. Often slightly sweeter and fruitier tasting than bacanora.
Of course, these are broad generalizations with overlap between some styles. But the distinct agave and regional influences make the tasting experience unique for bacanora and mezcal.
Is bacanora a variety of mezcal?
Based on its history, production methods, and taste profile, most spirits experts consider bacanora to be its own category separate from mezcal:
- Bacanora has a distinct Denomination of Origin.
- It is made from different agave in a specific region of Mexico.
- The flavor tends to be more intense and rugged compared to mezcal.
Some key international spirits organizations also classify bacanora separately from mezcal:
- The TTB (U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) identifies bacanora and mezcal as distinct spirits.
- The European Union recognizes them as separate Geographical Indications.
- Mexico controls them through separate regulatory councils (CRT).
There are some dissenting opinions arguing bacanora could fall under the broad umbrella of “mezcal.” But the consensus view seems to be that bacanora warrants its own category as a unique agave distillate.
Bacanora industry today
For many years, bacanora was produced on a small scale as a humble local moonshine. But in recent decades, the industry has grown and seen rising commercial success:
- In the 1970s, there were just 5 registered manufacturers.
- By 2000, there were 14 legal distilleries.
- Today there are over 60 licensed producers.
- Exports to the US, Europe and other regions are expanding.
- Premium brands are generating buzz at international spirits competitions.
Total annual production reached about 1.1 million liters by 2018. Bacanora has obtained legal protections in Mexico, the EU, and US to safeguard its reputation.
Major bacanora brands include:
- Rancho Tepua
- Bacanora Diego
- Rey Rodrigo
- Los Renegados
- Don Elias
Bacanora has received recognition at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, International Wine & Spirits Competition, and other events.
The spirit is gaining popularity on cocktail menus at upscale bars in major cities. It provides a local Mexican alternative to tequila and mezcal.
Despite the growth, 90% of bacanora is still consumed within Sonora. But its appeal continues spreading to new markets worldwide.
What does the future hold for bacanora? Here are some projections:
- Industry experts predict bacanora exports could grow 5-10% annually over the next decade.
- Its reputation for quality and authenticity should continue capturing new enthusiasts.
- Cocktail bars will use more bacanora, catalyzing consumer interest.
- Premium and artisanal brands will lead export growth.
- Mexico’s large tequila market provides a blueprint for expansion.
- Tourism to Sonora may drive interest in bringing back genuine bacanora.
At the same time, some challenges exist:
- Tequila has much stronger brand awareness globally.
- Enforcing standards remains difficult with clandestine producers.
- Sustaining agave supply requires careful cultivation.
- Competition from emerging agave spirits like raicilla.
Overall, the long-term trajectory looks positive for bacanora as long as quality and authenticity remain priorities.
While often overshadowed by tequila and mezcal, bacanora has its own storied history and distinct production process that set it apart. The spirit has gained legal protections and commercial success in Mexico, with growing exports around the world.
Most experts consider bacanora to be in its own category, rather than a type of mezcal, due to its unique agave type, regional origins, and flavor profile. This special identity contributes to bacanora’s appeal.
The Bacanora industry has an optimistic future as long as producers adhere to strict quality standards and prevent adulterated or counterfeit versions from threatening its reputation. Overall, bacanora has rightly claimed its place among Mexico’s finest agave-based spirits.