I'm sipping a faintly smoky, slightly oily, grass-and-herb-touched liquor, slightly yellowish in color, that reminds me a little of mezcal and a little of reposado tequila but that is neither. It's something else again: bacanora.
Mezcal is distilled from the fermented mash of the hearts or piñas of the maguey or agave plant, the low, spiky-leaved New World succulent that grows in many parts of Mexico. Indigenous peoples have been drinking a dense, fermented maguey beverage called pulque since pre-Hispanic times, and after the Spanish introduced the art of distillation to them, they began making the firewater known as mezcal. The traditional production technique includes roasting the piñas, quartered, in stone-line pit ovens, which lends mezcal its smoky character.
Tequila is to mezcal what cognac is to brandy — a specific product grown out of a generic one. Mezcal is made in many parts of Mexico, though it is a specialty of the state of Oaxaca, and all the mezcal we see in America comes from there. Tequila must come from the state of Jalisco (in which the town of Tequila is found) or from specific portions of four other states, and be made exclusively from the maguey variety called agave tequilana weber azul, or blue agave. Most tequila today is made by steaming the piñas, though some tradition-minded producers still use stone oven pits.
Bacanora might be called a kind of mezcal, too, but it comes from the state of Sonora, where there is a town of Bacanora, and is made from different agave species. The piñas are roasted in mesquite-fired stone-lined oven pits, but they are left whole so they absorb less of the smoky flavor.
Until 1992, all bacanora was moonshine — illegally distilled. Its makers often flavored it with pine nuts or almonds. Production is now regulated and one distiller has begun exporting to the United States: Roberto Contreras Mayoral, who bottles bacanoora under the Cielo Rojo label. It's priced like super-premium tequila, $50 or so a bottle, but is delicious and different enough from tequila or mezcal to delight and intrigue anyone who likes those substances. You could probably make an interesting margarita with it, but I like it straight, with lime on the side.
You may have to look around for Bacanora, but I think it's worth the search. (I bought mine from Corti Brothers in Sacramento.)