Bacanora: Distilling the Sonoran Desert

The harvest, production, and distillation of Agave angustifolia into a mescal called bacanora.

June 23, 2013

Issue 1: Summer 2013Sabores de Sonora
Agave angustafolia, used to make Sonoran Mescal Bacanora.

Agave angustafolia, used to make Sonoran Mescal Bacanora.

Throughout my childhood years, whenever I heard the word Bacanora being used in conversations between my mother and her sisters, it was often accompanied by laughter and a kind of mystique that fascinated me. Years later, I was to discover that they were talking about an exquisite mescal from Sonora, Mexico that is made from the Agave angustifolia. Technically speaking, any distilled spirit made from the agave plant is a mescal. Tequila happens to be a mescal that comes from the region around the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco. Mescal products from Oaxaca use the letter in the spelling to name their products that are known as Mezcal. 

Officially, making Bacanora was a clandestine activity until the mid-90s, although it has been an integral part of Sonoran life for centuries. Until recent times, it would have been difficult to find a rural Sonoran household without it. Many Sonoran people equate Bacanora with the region’s soul and identity, and the tradition of making and selling Bacanora lives on in many rural areas. Little has changed over the years. Typically, the equipment used in the stills is very rustic, but still produces a high quality product, often only for sale directly from the mescalero’s home.

Bacanora has entered a new era. The Mexican government has granted it the status of Denomination of Origin, meaning that it can only be produced within a geographic region of 35 municipalities. Climate change in the form of hard freezes has caused severe damage to plant populations over the past several years; no longer should Bacanora be assumed easily accessible. If you are fortunate, and a bottle comes into your possession, you should treasure it. The distilled essence of Sonora is priceless. ✜

Bill Steen and his wife Athena are founders of The Canelo Project, a non-profit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture and nature.” 

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