What Is Bacanora and What Does the Spirit Mean to Sonora, Mexico?
This agave-distilled spirit tastes like an earthy, easy-to-drink tequila.
You’re familiar with tequila, and you’ve likely taken note of the current mezcal craze, but also worth your attention is bacanora, a regional mezcal that’s been produced in the northwest Mexican state of Sonora for at least 300 years.
The spirit is named after the town of Bacanora, a small village with less than 1,000 residents that sits at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, with the Bacanora River flowing north to south through it.
The heritage of bacanora and its significance to Sonora
Though there’s a multi-century history of making bacanora in Sonora, that heritage was interrupted in 1915, when production was banned by Plutarco Elías Calles, the governor of Sonora at the time, who was devoutly religious and believed that the spirit was encouraging a hedonistic lifestyle. But that wasn’t the case at all.
“Traditionally, bacanora was made for weddings and very family-oriented celebrations,” Rodrigo Bojorquez, master distiller and founder of Kilinga Bacanora, explains. “Quinceañeras, big family gatherings, and things of that nature.”
For more than 75 years, bacanora was illegal, forcing producers to go underground in order to keep its cultural lineage intact. “Throughout the 1920s through even the ’40s, people lost their lives because they were making bacanora,” says Bojorquez. “The army would go up into the mountains and destroy any facilities that they saw making the distillate. It’s horrible what happened, but it’s still a part of the history of the drink.”
The path for production was cleared in 1992, and since then, there’s been a push to promote bacanora as a significant Sonoran export, similar to mezcal in Oaxaca. In December 2021, Sonora’s current governor Alfonso Durazo promised to work to facilitate bacanora production and commercialization, saying, “We must aspire to say, 'In Sonora, and in the world, they drink bacanora.' And we're going to make it happen.”
Bojorquez started producing bacanora as a hobby in 2009, and as his craft developed, he was approached by his family about starting a brand. Today he runs Kilinga Bacanora with his mother and sisters.
Kilinga makes it a point to farm in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways. Agaves are sealed and cooked in volcanic stone ovens with mesquite for four days. After the agave is roasted, it’s quartered and ground in a stone mill. The agave pulp is fermented with high-quality water and cultured yeast, then double-distilled for purity. Finally, it’s allowed to rest until Bojorquez determines that the batch is perfect and ready for bottling.
What does bacanora taste like?
For Bojorquez, describing the taste of bacanora is a masterclass in Sonora topography.
“Once you come to this land, you’ll understand what you’re tasting,” he says. “What you’re feeling in your mouth and smelling in your nose is going to transport you to where we live: the desert, the ocean. We have a very short springtime, but when the desert blooms, it’s just beautiful, with a lot of flowers and life coming back to the desert. I think all of that is very well-represented in our traditional drink.”
Given how the flavors of bacanora are informed by its landscape, Bojorquez enjoys seeing how different environmental conditions impact the final taste of the distillate. Rather than manipulate his batches into tasting identical, he relishes how the flavors transform depending on whether the agave are harvested during rainy or dry seasons, and other factors.
For bacanora, in general, you can expect bold tasting notes of toasted and roasted coffee, earthiness, and wet leather—as well as lots of variation depending on the region, as Sonora is a large state.
Kilinga, which is harvested and produced in Álamos, Sonora, is situated less than 25 miles from the ocean, resulting in a strong coastal breeze. Bojorquez describes Kilinga’s Bacanora Silvestre as, “Very floral. It tastes just like springtime and is very vibrant, citric, and playful. We use a younger agave between six- and eight-years-old, so you can compare it a bit to a not-quite-ripe apple, a little sour and tangy.”
On the other hand, the distillery’s Bacanora Blanco is distilled from a mature agave of about 12 years old and he describes its flavor profile as, “Bolder, with notes of coffee and toasted sugar. If you’ve ever put sugar in a pan and toasted it, it smells kind of like that. It's caramel and earthy and mineral. Because the agave is cooked in mesquite, that gives it some smokey notes.”
How to drink bacanora
As for how to imbibe, Bojorquez prefers sipping bacanora neat. For a hot summer day, he suggests mixing it like a Highball with soda water, ice, and a wedge of orange dusted with cinnamon.
But there’s also an exciting craft cocktail movement rising around bacanora as the spirit grows in popularity.
“I recently had a bacanora cocktail that mixed avocado ice cream and coffee,” Bojorquez says. “It sounded really weird to me, but when I had it, it just blew my mind. It was very silky, smooth, and sumptuous. It just worked.”
He describes another cocktail innovation, saying he tried it mixed with black tea, which was another surprisingly nice complement.
Those looking to try bacanora stateside can find brands like Kilinga in specialty liquor stores and on sites like Drizly. Agave bars with impressive mezcal and tequila collections are also likely to have a couple bacanora options in stock.
Kilinga’s Álamos distillery isn’t open to the public yet, but hopes to be soon. Tours can be arranged for those who reach out with enough advance notice.