Ten of My Favourite Agaves
I have many favourite agaves. As noted in one of my earlier posts “What the Hell is Mezcal” there are up to around 50 different agaves that can be utilised to produce mezcal. Asking me to choose my favourite one is most unfair, a bit like asking me who my favourite child is. Just ridiculous, especially as I don’t have any children.
Combine the fact that there are so many different varieties of agaves utilised, with the hugely varying terroir and you can see why the experiences of drinking mezcal are so wildly varied.
Oh, in case you weren’t paying attention to my earlier posts (concentrate!), the word terroir is used to describe the different environmental conditions encountered when making mezcal. Factors such as temperatures, altitude, surrounding flora and fauna, mezcalero processes etc.
Therefore, the *mathematical mezcal equation is – The plethora of agave types x varied terroir = pretty much countless flavours and experiences.
*Copyrighted and trademarked by: Me
This is probably the most exciting aspect of mezcal. There are literally thousands of different mezcals with unique characteristics. Once you commence your journey into this world you are descending into a giant rabbit hole, probably dug by 400 Drunken Mezcal Rabbits!
So here are 10 of my favourite agaves.
Just like my imaginary children they have very different looks, personalities and abilities to send you a little loopy…whilst always being very loveable.
Common name: Espadin
Scientific name: Angustifolio
Espadin is by far the most commonly used agave. It is used in around 80% of mezcals produced. Does this mean it’s boring, no sir-ee.
It is so frequently utilised as it only takes 6 to 10 years to mature and due to its less fibrous qualities it is more simple to break down after roasting.
The complexity of the terroir ensures that the final product will always be interesting regardless of how often espadin is favoured by mezcaleros. In fact, due to its more simple characteristics compared to some of the more complicated varieties listed below…we can really note the subtleties of the surrounding environment.
The plant itself is medium sized, approximately 1.5 metres tall with 1 metre long leaves.
It is pretty much impossible to describe its typical flavour as it is so versatile and producers use it in many different ways.
Espadin is a great starting point for mezcal, but at the same time it should not be written off as a beginners drink. Respect.
Looks like: The classic all Mexican hero
Behaves like: The reliable, office workhorse type who also has an unexpected adventurous side on weekends
Common name: Agave Tequilana (blue agave – weber azul)
Scientific name: Angustifolio
What’s this? Tequila agave in a mezcal agave list?
Yep, the definition of mezcal is that it must be produced from agave. Therefore, tequila is in fact a mezcal. Welcome to the family!
You may notice (probably not) that espadin and tequilana come from the same scientific family. They have a similar appearance too…the tequilana having a blue shade, and they are both renowned for being super hardy.
The plant favours altitudes of more than 1,500 metres (5,000 ft) and grows in rich and sandy soils.
What does it taste like? Tequila!
Looks like: A proud peacock
Behaves like: The obnoxious, popular kid…who is blissfully unaware that his siblings are superior to him
Common name: Tobala
Scientific name: Potatorum
Tobala is a wild child.
Untamed, rebellious…with a complicated sex life. It relies on birds and bats to spread its seed.
It is super rare, and only grows in the wild at very high altitude under the shade of oak trees…taking 10-15 years to mature. The inulin levels (sugary content which is converted into alcohol) in tobala are very low…meaning that it takes around 8 times the amount of agave compared to espadin, to produce mezcal.
As a result of all this…it’s pretty pricey. But wow, is it worth it. Typically, you will find earthy and sweet notes such as mango and cinnamon.
Tobala is a smaller and broader leafed agave compared to espadin, but makes up for lack of size with its huge character.
Looks like: A spikey, uninviting cabbage.
Behaves like: A young Iggy Pop. Wild and out of control.
Common name: Madre Cuish
Scientific name: Agave Karwinskii
I was sitting in a restaurant with my girlfriend’s family when the waiter approached. My girlfriend’s father asked for tequila. “Sorry sir, we don’t have any” came the reply. A look of shock and panic engulfed his face. “What about mezcal…we have a few of them…do you like your alcohol strong or smooth?”
“OK, I’ll bring you one that will fit the bill.” I got in on the act and asked for one too.
A few minutes later the mezcal arrives and the waiter proudly announces that it is 58% alcohol.
Hello madre cuishe.
Here’s the thing though. I was expecting it to set my innards on fire, but whilst you could taste the alcohol somewhat, it was super smooth and quite subtle. How did they do that? Impressive.
Having said that, when I left the restaurant 30 minutes later to catch a bus my legs seemed to be out of order.
Madre Cuishe grows in mostly dry climates and is usually tall and cylindrical.
Generally, it has pleasant vegetal and floral notes.
Looks like: A beaming, green sun
Behaves like: A velvet sledgehammer
Common name: Arroqueno
Scientic name: Agave Americana
I know I said I don’t like to play favourites…but, I really luuurve arroqueno.
It’s a special agave with incredible flavours. Also, I can relate to it as it takes a long time to mature. In the case of this agave, around 30 years. In my case, well……
The comparisons end there though, as the arroqueno is a visually stunning entity. It is massive and often has leaves that are 3 or 4 metres wide.
Arroqueno is the genetic mother of espadin, but unlike its child it is extremely difficult to find.
Arroqueno only grows wild and is becoming increasingly rare. This is a concern for the mezcal industry as demand is high due to its incredible taste and complexities. A number of mezcaleros are undertaking sustainable processes and ensuring that harvested agave are replaced by newly planted ones.
In addition, many producers are only releasing very limited amounts of the mezcal…which of course adds to the not-so-cheap price, but is a good move to sustain levels of the agave. It’s a strategy also employed with other highly in demand agave.
As for the flavours you are likely to encounter whilst partaking in an arrequeno, think tropical fruits, earthy tones, smokiness and dark chocolatey finishes. To say its complex is an understatement…you can feel the flavours pinging and dancing around on your tongue.
Looks like: The Queen of the agave world
Behaves like: A spellbounding temptress
Common name: Tepeztate
Scientific name: Agave Marmorata
Another of my absolute favourites.
Tepeztate is another late-maturer, also taking up to 30 years before its ready to be chopped, baked, distilled and imbibed.
It’s another wild child, growing best on the sides of steep, rocky cliffs.
The tepeztate is a bit of a strange looking fellow, with an erratic leaf structure…and when it has reached maturity it sprouts yellow flowers…which then drop off and go to seed.
Once again, due to low supply and great popularity…sustainable measures are required, with an eye to the future.
Tepeztate packs a real punch with its earthy and aromatic flavours…and great complexity.
Looks like: An ugly duckling
Behaves like: One who knows that looks have no bearing on success!
Common name: Cupreata (Chino)
Scientific name: Papalote
My local agave here in Michoacan, and it’s a beauty.
It may not be as fashionable or as exotic as some of its Oaxaca brothers, but as more mezcal lovers discover its charms it is shooting up the popularity charts.
Cupreata grows best at an altitude of around 1800 metres, generally on the sides of the majestic Michoacan mountains. It is squat in stature and has leaves reaching between 40–80 cm in length which are quite wide and jagged in shape. It takes around 8-15 years to mature.
The beauty of an agave is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m a bit of a sucker for the Cupreata. It’s like a green, prickly, giant lotus flower.
Cupreata is grown both wild and cultivated. You can enjoy light smoky flavours with elegant herbal and citrus notes.
Looks like: A yogi lotus
Behaves like: An underdog giving it to the reigning champs
Common name: Alto
Scientific name: Inaequidens
“The other” agave from Michoacan. Not as widely used as Cupreata but still responsible for some excellent mezcals.
Inaequidens means “uneven teeth”, due to the irregular patterns of the spines. It’s a much taller plant than Cupreata and takes around 15 years to mature.
Often, you will note significantly smokey and nutty influences, with hints of anise.
Looks like: The household hacksaw
Behaves like: A barfly toking on a cuban cigar
Common name: Coyote
Scientific name: Lyoba
This is one hell of a pretty agave. I mean those red tips are just so flash!
To be honest, I’ve never tried it…so I’m including it on my list purely so I can oggle at the picture!
That’s not entirely true (although agave porn is a thing, right?). This coyote (there are a few different types) is a cross between two fantastic agaves…tobala and madre cuish. I can provide absolutely no tasting notes for this one…but with its looks, and impeccable breeding it has to be pretty great.
One to report back on in the future.
Looks like: An agave masterpiece
Behaves like: A mysterious stranger
Common name: Masparillo
Scientific name: Impressa
Another impressive looking agave!
This agave is unique on this list as it is grown in the state of Durango. A place renowned for John Wayne movies and oodles and oodles of scorpions! It’s worth a visit. Who doesn’t like scorpions?!
Masparillo grows on the slopes of a canyon and due to the very limited quantities available, it is offered in only very small batches.
It offers up sweet vanilla flavours, with a touch of caramel.
Looks like: It’s pleased to see you
Behaves like: A confident young man
So, there you have it. Ten of my favourite agaves.
As I start moving around the country to explore the mezcal producing process, I will review different varieties as I encounter them…and consume their delicious content.
Speaking of which, very soon I will be heading off to Tzitzio, a small town here in Michoacan to witness the mezcal-making process, sample the product and of course…eat some tacos!
I look forward to this being the first of many such experiences, and will provide a thorough report for all my loyal readers!