There are over 200 species of agave and even more subspecies in the world, most of them endemic to Mexico. Approx 50 types of agave sppecies are currently used to make Mezcal, however, as each area in which it’s made or grown has its own dialects and languages, the names can be as varied as the flavours, making it difficult to keep track of how many there are and which are being used!
Agaves have sharp spikes at the tips of their leaves, called pencas, which is probably the main reason why they are often mistaken for cacti, when actually they are part of the asparagus family and don’t share any DNA with cacti.
In ancient Mexican civilisations agaves were seen as being very precious, because they are incredibly useful in so many ways. Their spikes, if removed carefully so as not to break off the natural fibre its attached to, were used for sewing (needle and thread). The roots were a very nutritional meal. The fibres were used to make textile which in turn would be used to make shoes, clothing, paper and even used to thatch roofs. The agave juice itself, which is called aguamiel or honeywater, when fermented became what’s known as pulque, which is a beer-like liquid and still drunk throughout Mexico today. It was perceived as a drink of the gods and was only consumed by priests or the rulers of Aztec times, anyone else seen to drink it would be sentenced to death.
Like grapes take on the flavours of its terrain or terroir, so do agaves. This means an agave growing near a forest in central Mexico will taste very different in comparison to the same species growing in high land deserts. Environment, climate, weather, animals, altitude, soil, all these things and more play a huge roll in the flavours and characteristics of a cooked agave, let alone agave distillates.
Natural fermentation, which is a technique that must be used by all ancestral Mezcal producers and may be used by artisan Mezcal producers too, has a tremendous impact on flavour too because of the airborne yeasts from the local areas.
When agaves mature they shoot a quiote in to the air, which resemble a tree trunk. These grow approximately 15 feet in hight, as if they are reaching for the heavens, in sometimes depending on climate less than 2 weeks! – it’s no surprise that these plants were worshipped back in the day! Agaves have three ways of reproduction. The first form is through offshoots called hijuelos which are in fact identical clones of the mother plant. Because of the need of genetic diversity to sustain in the natural world, identical DNA could lead to problems, as they would be more susceptible to diseases and could destroy an entire field of agaves.
The 2 other ways are through the growth of a quiote, on which hijuelos can grow, which when ready, fall from the branch on to the ground and plant themselves. The final way is through the pollinating birds, bees, insects and bats, that are endemic to Mexico.
Because an agave needs to be harvested before its quiote begins to grow (its growth sucks out the starches needed for making Mezcal), it impacts Mexicos wildlife, as the bats would no longer be able to feed from the flowers and so have been on the endagered species list for far too long already. It’s important to research producers to see how environmentally aware they are cultivating or havesting agaves to ensure a lesser or no impact on the natural world and our fellow inhabitants.
Another wondrous thing about agaves is how long they take to mature. The main reason Espadins are the most used agave species for Mezcal making is that they have a high yield, are abundant, and take the least amount of time to mature (7-10 years). Other species can take up to and more than 30 years! See below for more detail on a small selection of agaves
The name derives from the word ‘sword’ in spanish, as the leaves of this particular species resemble them: ‘espaldas’
It takes an Espadin agave approx. 7-9 years till it reaches maturity
- Species: Agave Angustifolia, var. Espadin
- Approx height: 2m
- Abundance, high yield
Found in most mezcal making states (Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Puebla, Nayarit)
Tobalas are known as the ‘King of Agaves’, not only for their ridiculously delicious minerality but also because the agave grows in the shape of a crown.
Unlike a lot of agaves, Tobala don’t grow ‘hijuelos’ or babies from their roots and so rely entirely on pollinators to spread their seed.
It takes them 12-15 years to reach maturity
- Species: Agave Potatorum, var. Tobala
- Approx height: 60 cm
- Scarce, low yield
Tobalas are found in Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Puebla
Colloquially the term ‘cuishe’ means messy hair which becomes clear when you look at a bicuishe, as they tend to have quite straggly leaves that differ in shape and size.
It takes a Bicuishe approx. 8-25 years till maturity
- Species: Agave Karwinskii, var. Bicuishe
- Approx height: 2-3.5m
- Common, low yield
Bicuishes are found in Oaxaca & Puebla
Fittingly named ‘Madre~’ which translates to ‘mother’, as these facinating agaves actually protect their younglings from pests, and infections. Other agave species and plants eventend to avoid growing near the protective madre.
It takes them 15-25 years to reach maturity
- Species: Agave Karwinskii, var. Madrecuishe
- Approx height: 1-3m
- Common, low yield
Madrecuishes are found in Oaxaca and Puebla
As are other Karwinskiis, the Tobasiche is very particular about climate and altitude, which makes them another amazing wild agave to find.
It takes a Tobasiche approx. 15-20 years to mature
- Species: Agave Karwinskii, var. Tobasiche
- Approx height: 2-2.5m
- Common, low yield
Tobasiches are found in Oaxaca & Puebla
When chopping a Tepeztate you need to take care as the uncooked sap can cause rashes and allergic reactions, making you feel quite ill.
They take approx 15-20 years to mature.
- Species: Agave Marmorata, var. Tepeztate
- Approx height: 1.5-3 m
- Scarce, high yield
Tepeztates are found in Oaxaca, Michoacan and Guerrero.
Arroquenos are fascinating because they grow so big, it makes you feel tiny and humbled to stand next to one. It’s no surprise that the Aztects worshipped these miraculous beasts. They can grow over 4m in height and the cuiote can shoot up to 10m!
It takes an Arroqueno a whopping 25 to 35 years to mature
- Species: Agave Americana, var. Arroqueno
- Approx height: 3-4m
- Scarce, high yield
Arroquenos are found in Oaxaca & Puebla