Regional Guide: Mexico

Tequila, Mezcal and beyond - we journey through Mexico's delicious spirits.

Mexico is a huge country, spanning a broad geographic footprint and home to a diverse, creative and complex population.

No wonder, then, that the country’s drinks scene and its national spirit, Tequila, is much the same. Here's our guide for discerning drinkers who are curious about heading there...


Drinking in Mexico and how Mexican spirits are consumed elsewhere in the world are in stark contrast. So, if you forget what you think you know and tap into local customs when you visit - you'll find a charming and laid back scene filled with weird and wonderful things to taste.

In our research for this guide, what’s been most pleasing to discover is the way traditional drinks such as Pulque are making a comeback in the country, while the likes of Micheladas and Sangritas continue to resonate with drinkers. You can find many authentic variations on all three when you visit the different states, each with their own style and profiles.

It’s also clear to see the significant shifts in what’s paired with tequila and mezcal (such as orange slices and other fruits, Sal con gusano and more) and the way drinking it “neat” is being elevated into an experience. 

Not only does this change the perception around Tequila & Mezcal as spirits, it also offers a glimpse of how bars around the world may start to serve it too. 

Talking of bars, as we delve into further on, Mexican hospitality is finally getting its just deserts on the international scene and several have climbed to the highest echelons of global Top 10 lists. Not only does cocktail culture continue to evolve across the country, Mexico City is now a thriving hotspot for those seeking to engage with adventurous bars re-imagining local customs in original ways. 

This continues to the spirit brands being created. Finally, the tired tropes are being dropped and the depictions of Mexico “land of sombreros and mariachis” is being jettisoned to the past. In its place modern Mexico is being embraced by producers, and the immense ingenuity of the nation’s creative industry is being harnessed to create compelling brands. 

It’s not without its issues though. Mexican spirit producers face several challenges and need to evolve rapidly – for better and for worse. 

Tequila is growing at a rapid pace. Mexico exported over 285 million litres of Tequila in 2020, 80% of which went to the United States. This continues to grow and last year the sales of Tequila surpassed 324 million bottles, while the demand for more means it's set to grow even further in 2022.

For all the talk of booming numbers and astronomic growth though, there’s a battle for the very soul of Tequila & Mezcal underway and if you take a moment to wade in, you’ll see that there’s no easy fix ahead. 

Let’s take the big topics up front, starting with cultural appropriation. Celebrity backed Tequilas are both a positive and a negative for the category. Without the constant limelight and attention on the spirit, the frenzy for more coming from the US drinkers wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is. Irrespective of how one feels about that, or what kind of light is being cast, it is undeniably a big reason demand far outstrips supply. 

Yet it’s also hugely problematic. Where is the line drawn between celebrity owned and operated brands popularising their (Americanised) take on Mexican spirits being a positive, and when is it rank cultural appropriation? How much of the value and extreme wealth being generated by these fast-moving brands passed down to the producers, farmers and the communities that make it possible? There’s a lot of talk of ethical Mezcal, of community backed Tequila and clearly, there’s a balance to be struck. 

If it isn’t addressed, this rise in popularity and this group of owners could well be perceived as some of the most exploitative in the spirit’s history. Take that one step further and it’s possible they may irrevocably change the narrative around the category away from what many traditional producers aspire to and the links that intwine Mexican culture and agave spirits may be lost to a whole new generation of drinkers. 

It's a boom time for Tequila and the volumes being sold may be brilliant for the category. But at what cost?

Identity and value aside, increased demand also builds pressure to industrialise processes and cut corners. It takes years to grow agave and practices to speed up the farming can have dire consequences environmentally. Same goes with processes to extract all of a piña’s sugar. Industrialising Tequila may well help produce more liquid, but it may also be lead to quality issues, a loss of artisanal knowhow, customs and shift flavour styles that may forever weaken the reputation of the spirit. 

The challenges continue in the fields too. The boom-and-bust cycle of agave farmers is well recorded and as we approach the new wave of mass agave shortage, we are about to find out whether it is set to continue or whether the lessons from repeat crashes during the past 20 years have been heeded.

Meanwhile, the story evolves beyond Agave, Rum is a growing category and you can expect much more to emerge from Mexico in the years to come, same with Corn Whisky. Both have producers and brands that are making headway, yet there are still un-tapped areas not being explored like high quality gin or a genuine array of craft liqueurs. 

The more you look into the Mexican drinks scene and its spirits, the more you realise it is in flux. 

It’s a bit of everything, all at once. Headed to the apocalypse according to those who rail against the industrialisation of Tequila, finally claiming its own identity from those in elite hospitality, being understood and adored for its authenticity and ancestral roots in Mezcal. Entire regions remain perennially in the shadows of their famed neighbours, like the Tequila makers of Tamaulipas or the Mezcal makers of Michoacán – while others are just emerging. 

With delicious things to taste as you tour around, it certainly makes for a thought-provoking place to visit.



It’s easy to think that Tequila is made all over Mexico. This is not true. Agave based spirits are made almost everywhere but they are not all Tequila. 

The production of Tequila is tightly regulated because the spirit has denomination of origin status. This status (sometimes called appellation of origin) sets specific standards for producers in terms of how a product is produced, processed and presented. It states what type of agave plant is accepted and also defines the Geographic Indication (the specific places or regions where the product has to be made). 

Even if the same type of agave is made in the exact same way – unless it’s made somewhere that falls in the GI it cannot be called Tequila. Thus why you see names like Raicilla, Bacanora, Aguardiente de Agave or Destilado de Maguey pop up, but more on those later.

The GI covers a massive patch of land though, including 180 municipalities in five states and encompassing a total area of about 27 million acres. That said, the bulk (around 80%) of all blue agave is grown in Jalisco, and almost all the recognised brands and the majority of the tequila distilleries are located there. 

Because of that, if you want to visit producers and get a sense of the spirit – Jalisco is the state to head to. More specifically, to the concentration of producers based in the “tequila valley” around Tequila (the town), El Arenal and Amatitán.

Tequila Trains & Tours (from Guadalajara)

Conveniently given so many visitors to Jalisco land there, Guadalajara is the start point of many Tequila journeys.

There is a Tequila Train that begins in Guadalajara and ends in the town of Amatitán. The route is quite direct, and the view offers a glimpse of the landscape and the reasons why the “valley” is such a good place for agave plantations. The final stop is where you’ll find “La Hacienda de San José del Refugio”, the distillery which makes Herradura and Jimador.

If you’d prefer to visit the town of Tequila, one of Mexico’s ‘pueblos magicos’ instead of Amatitán you can hop on the Jose Cuervo Express. This all-day brand lead excursion includes margaritas and nibbles throughout the journey along with a visit to Cuervo’s distillery – La Rojeña. There are plenty of stop-offs as you travel too, including a visit to the agave fields with a harvest demonstration. 

For those making their way via other means, a healthy tourism infrastructure is one of the perks of having such an established spirits industry in the region. So many distilleries have open door policies where you can book into, and there are several operators that offer day trips that include multiple producers (and someone else driving!). 

There are advantages to either approach but it’s worth noting that Jalisco’s heartland is a diverse and widespread region, with distilleries and agave plantations spread through the state. In our opinion, to truly get under the surface of the spirit, a professional local guide is a must. 

Experience Agave is a highly respected provider that manages to connect the culture with the product, offering a wide range of immersive experiences. One of them heads straight to the producers of our all-time favourite Reposados, Nom 1414. Based just outside historic village of Arandas, the exclusive tour of the family-run Vivanco distillery, followed by a private tequila tasting in the distillery’s picturesque gardens is a guaranteed way to taste fantastic tequila. 

The company also offers four-day excursions for those seriously keen on taking a deep dive. 

The itinerary seems densely packed and based around some of the oldest tequila-producing families in the region. It’s a tour featuring immersive learning from traditional brick ovens, fermentation tanks, copper alembic stills, barrel houses, laboratories and more. That said, Tequila as a spirit is both a product of the land and the people and the holistic approach to exploring the region through the people, the food and the music is what create a truly unforgettable cultural experience.

If you are visiting producers on your own steam, remember this bigger picture and be respectful of it. 

A few distilleries to visit:

La Alteña

To see what tequila production looks like on a smaller scale, head to the highlands and to La Alteña distillery, where the Camarena family has been making artisanal tequila for three generations.

The craft is on full display at each stage - agave is farmed without chemicals or pesticides, water comes from a spring on site is used in the distillation process and the agave is typically cooked and aged longer than other brands. You’ll probably recognise the names being made there – namely the Tapatio range. 

Jose Cuervo at La Rojeña Distillery

They are the biggest name in Tequila and a round-up that didn’t feature them would be one that’s not included one of the major hubs for enthusiasts. Countless sites have covered the details of the trips they offer and with hundreds of Trip Advisor reviews, there’s little to add other than it’s one the oldest active distilleries in the Americas and one not to miss.

Tequila Fortaleza 

We love the Fortaleza range and those who visit will get to experience a family-owned hacienda and a small distillery on top of a mountain in Tequila. 

It’s got a rich, but chequered history to uncover too. Their story includes exporting the first bottle of tequila to the U.S, being closed in 1976 after the family business was sold and being converted to become a museum. Thankfully in 1999, Destilería La Fortaleza was reopened and restored, with some of the processes used the same as the as they were over than 140 years ago.

Casa Sauza

Another one of the biggest names in Tequila and a visit that brings scale into context - Don Cenobio Sauza started this distillery in 1873 and “La Perseverancia” is responsible today for bottling and exporting its tequila to 73 countries around the world. 

Casa Sauza offers four different tours including activities like a planting your own agave, a Mexican barbeque and even tasting straight from the barrel. 

Tequila Herradura

Surrounded by agave fields in Amatitán is Casa Herradura. You can get to the distillery by car, bus or as you can guess – by shuttle train on the Tequila Herradura Express to and from Guadalajara. Expect to be treated to an agave harvesting demonstration, see the ovens where the plants are cooked and the large, open-air tanks where the agave juice ferments. 

It’s an interesting tour and one where you can see the evolution of the brand from 1870 first hand – especially during the tasting as the category milestones become apparent (it was one of the first to make reposado and extra añejo).

Prefer Mezcal and headed to Oaxaca?

Just like Tequila, Mezcal has also got an Appellation of Origin (AO, DO) and a Geographical Indication (GI) meaning that production is both defined and limited to certain areas. In this case, Mezcal is limited to the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas.

Compared to Tequila, Mezcal is puny - but punches far above its weight reputationally. Over 3 million litres were exported to 60 different countries last year, less than 2% of the volume of Tequila overall, and yet it commands a fervent fan base. 

The vast majority is made in the state of Oaxaca, where it’s been produced for at least 500 years. This is handy as of all the mezcal producing regions, Oaxaca has well developed infrastructure and is an amazing place to travel.

There are numerous producers around the town of Matatlan, a 45 minute trip from Oaxaca and an easy drive away, making solo excursions more than achievable. 

That said, our advice is to use Oaxaca as your base camp and book in a tour covering multiple places. By working with a tour guide you can visit other mezcal producing towns like Santa Catarina Minas, Sola de Vega, Ejutla, Miahuatlan and more, as well as travel to the more difficult to reach on your own Mixteca or Sierra Norte.

Companies like Mezcalistas and Mezcal Tour Oaxaca both offer a varieties of itineraries to pick from. 

So many mezcal makers are tiny operations, and so much of the process is beguiling in its infinite possibilities. The sunken earth pits, the fermentation pots, the fact that some literally stretch out cow hides to ferment in, the rickety clay stills. There are so many fascinating elements that go into making the spirit. 

More so, so much of it speaks to generational production passed down through tradition, through regional customs and knowhow honed over centuries. It’s hard to not think of Mezcal as the literal embodiment of a place and its people. Each visit will offer you a different glimpse revealing another part of this centuries old story. Be warned, it changes everything about how you see the spirit in your glass.

Whatever you chose, a must visit in our book is Mezcal Real Minero. They are known to be one of the finest mezcal producers, and the family operation has been making mezcal for many generations in Santa Catarina Minas. 

They are famed for their traditional approach using natural fermentation, small clay pot and making delicious (and rare) bottlings. From process, to tasting to the nursery plantation and agave reforestation programme – there’s so much depth to go into and quality to be found in each part.

Getting under into the soul of Mezcal is not just about visiting producers out in the sticks though; Oaxaca City has some awesome Mezcal experiences to offer itself. 

In Situ is considered one of the best and with over 150 different mezcals it’s easy to see why. It's true that a big range is worthless unless you have the team to bring it to life, but thankfully their team is one with an impressive depth of knowledge. Added bonus? The bar also hosts regular tastings and mezcal-related events. 

La Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca City

Meanwhile, the team at La Mezcaloteca has a serious passion for mezcal and offers with a broad choice of mezcals from around Oaxaca and beyond. It’s more of a tasting room than a bar making it an ideal place for both newbies and aficionados who want to dig a little deeper into the spirit. 


As we referred to when exploring the wider drinking context, a wide array of craft and artisanal spirits are made in Mexico and those who look beyond Tequila & Mezcal are richly rewarded. Not only are these other regional spirits captivating to taste, they also reflect the spectrum and heritage of Mexican culture.

Let’s start with Raicilla, which isn’t that different to Tequila, also made in the state of Jalisco, and as of 2019 boasts its own Denomination of Origen status. 

The category is generally split into two; raicillas made in the coastal style (typically made from the varieties Agave angustifolia and Agave rhodacantha) vs the mountain style (typically made from Agave maximiliana baker and Agave inaequidens). 

Most are unaged but as the category evolves and grows in popularity, the rules are becoming more formalised and new styles are being explored. Expect to hear a lot more about it in the years to come. 

Bacanora (named after eponymous city in the northwestern state of Sonora) is also worth seeking out. It’s essentially a lighter bodied mezcal made from a specific type of agave; Agave Pacifica. (It’s not considered a mezcal though as Sonora is not included within the protected Denomination of Origin). 

Dasylirion wheeleri, more commonly called Desert Spoon.

While Bacanora is not mezcal but it is made from agave, Sotol is another cousin that’s wrongly lumped in the same group. Sotol isn’t made from agave. It’s a distillate made from a type of shrub, Dasylirion wheeleri, more commonly called desert spoon. 

To be fair, at a quick glace it looks a lot like agave but on closer inspection you’ll see far more resemblance to an evergreen or a yucca plant. Desert Spoon is predominantly found in Mexico’s Chihuahua region, though the plant can also be found south in Oaxaca and thrives in both desert and forest climates. 

As a rule of thumb - Sotol tends to be bright and grassy but there are more than a dozen micro-species that grow across various regions and with it, each captures a sense of terroir. 

In the wetter, rain heavy forest environments the sotols will have menthol, eucalyptus and very fresh pine notes. In more arid climates bottlings can have musky, earthy or vegetal characteristics.

If you put agave distillates aside, even more niche craft spirits with extraordinary stories continue to emerge in all corners of the country.

Pox is one such spirit. It has its roots in ancient Mayan times and is preserved by the Tzotzil. Pox was originally made from corn and cacao beans, but nowadays it is made from four native varieties of corn with the addition of wheat and panela. Since the production is not controlled, there are many styles but it is usually quite pokey, lightly smoky (a lot like moonshine) and is only produced in the highlands of Mexico’s most southern state, Chiapas.

Another lesser-known spirit originating from the highlands of Chiapas, is Comiteco. It’s made from a mix of pulque (the fermented sap of the agave heart) and fresh sugarcane juice. It was once a common sighting, but there are now only around a hundred registered brands of Comiteco in Mexico, so bottlings are few and far between. 

From the unknown to the relatively new – corn whisky and other corn liqueurs. It’s a little mad that this is a new (let alone a niche) spirit for the country given Mexico is the birthplace of corn and that the crop is so predominant in local cuisine. 

Thankfully, what it lacks in quantity and heritage, it makes up for in quality. 

Sierra Norte, and Pierde Almas are a couple of known brands that are making headway in the region, but our attention is firmly on Abasolo & Nixta – and their architecturally striking distillery. 

It’s located in the heart of Jilotepec at an altitude of 7,800 feet, making it one of the highest distilleries in the world. When it opened, Destilería y Bodega Abasolo was the first and only Mexican distillery built to be a dedicated corn whisky producer.

The spirit they make is distilled from 100% Mexican Cacahuazintle corn, which has been cultivated and passed down for more than 200 generations by local farmers. Through a process called nixtamalization – a 4,000-year-old cooking technique never before used in whisky production but fundamental in preparing corn as food in Mexico – it’s managed to create some phenomenal Whisky. The liqueur that also make tastes as good as it looks too.

You can visit them to see for yourself, but it’s advisable to book ahead. 


Mexico’s nightlife is as lively and varied as everything else the country has to offer. It’s obvious when you think about it, but after the decades of being depicted as the destination of clandestine jaunts across the border up north, years of bearing the weight of the Spring Break masses on the coast and a continued narrative focused around value (and excess) not quality, it’s taken a while for Mexican bars to get the credit they deserve. 

Several in Mexico City now rank in “World Best” charts and are starting to yield their influence internationally. If you are headed there, here are a few to add to your itinerary.

Licorería Limantour

Licorería Limantour has become an institution. Having first opened a decade ago it’s now regarded as one of the city’s best bars and flies the flag for Mexico on the international bartending community. They mix up creative Mexican-infused takes on classic cocktails in an often-bustling atmosphere. 

The bar is split across two levels and every night of the week you’ll be welcomed by a packed bar that prides itself on exceptional speed of service and flawless hospitality.

From the best known to one that will not feature in cocktail round ups as its focus is Pulque. Pulque is weird – it’s fermented agave sap – but it’s a must-try and Pulqueria los Insurgentes is a good place to discover something different. Everything on the menu is reasonably cheap so great for all types of travellers, while the atmosphere is fun.

Baltra Bar

Switching gears once more - Baltra Bar is a cool little venue in Mexico City’s chic Colonia Condesa and known for its laid-back yet sophisticated atmosphere. The crowd is varied too, with a real mix of regulars and newcomers drinking there nightly. 

The menu is reinvented enough to keep it fresh, but not too often to be pretentious, while the Classics are expertly crafted too. Head there on a Tuesday (nicknamed Martes de Martinis) to sample for yourself.

Meanwhile, Hanky Panky (named after the famed cocktail) is the kind cool space that you hope it will be when you read the word speakeasy. It's a place that makes you feel truly covert as the only way to get in – and actually find out the address – is by making a reservation on the website. Despite everyone knowing about it, it’s nice to see that former patrons also keep the location a secret allowing the bar to maintain a special feel for those yet to experience it, so bare that in mind before you add it on the ‘gram. 

For the mezcal enthusiasts, Mundana Mezcalería is a little bar in Barrio Alameda, a cool reconverted three-story mall that’s also home to small fashion, music and other stores. It offers a small selection of mezcals from different states and various varietals like tobalá, coyote, madre cuishe and tepextate. Instead of the usual orange slices doused in worm salt, straight shots of mezcal are served with slivers of tomatillo. A great pitstop so close to the Centro Historico.

Spirits Kiosk
Jose Cuervo Silver Especial Tequila
Jose Cuervo Silver Especial Tequila
Herradura Plata Silver Tequila
Herradura Plata Silver Tequila
Fortaleza Reposado Tequila
Fortaleza Reposado Tequila

9 August 2022