Bacanora: everything you need to know about the drink from Sonora

Bacanora is a drink that has been made for centuries in the state of Sonora and is representative of the region, pride of the people who produce it.

Bacanora: everything you need to know about the drink from Sonora
Contrary to the strong flavor of the Jalisco distillate tequila, Bacanora is sweeter and contains a greater amount of alcohol. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bacanora is a distillate obtained from agaves and we could say that it is a close relative of tequila, mezcal, and raicilla. The difference between these drinks is the type of agave with which they are produced. Read more about its origins and how it is produced.

In the state of Sonora grows a very peculiar type of maguey: the Agave Angustifolia haw. It is an intense green color that, as the plant ages, becomes lighter. It can measure up to one and a half meters high by two meters in circumference, with leaves between 60 centimeters and 1 meter 20 cm.

When it reaches maturity, a yellow floral axis sprouts in its middle part: the kiote, which grows six centimeters a day during the first week and two or three during the following three months. The kiote grows for nine months and, of the contained seeds in its interior, new maguey will sprout with time.

The plant adapts to a wide variety of climates, soils, and heights. It is enough to know that it is possible to find it on American soil from the north of Costa Rica to the north of Sonora and the south of Arizona. In the state of Sonora, even though it seems to abound in the ravines that form between mountains and hills of different altitudes, or in the vast lands that serve as cattle pastures, the truth is that it can be found from the warm coasts of the Gulf of California to the cold slopes of the Sierra Madre.

Agave Angustifolia has been, since time immemorial, a very important element for the inhabitants of the desert. The different cultures settled in the region use the maguey as a source of fiber to make some crafts, as a component of numerous religious ceremonies, as a construction material, as a medicinal remedy, as a substitute for water in critical conditions, like soap and, of course, as food.

In this sense, it is possible to appreciate the different forms in which the bulbs of the agave are prepared, the leaves and, mainly, the head or pineapple, whose consumption contributes a good part of the calories required by the opatas, the pimas, the series, and the pápagos to survive in a hostile atmosphere.

Bacanora takes about 10 to 12 years to produce, counting from the time the plant is born until it is bottled. It is a very slow process and the work in the field is heavy.

Agave Angustifolia is also the raw material for the elaboration of Sonora's own distilled beverage: bacanora. As it usually happens, nobody knows for sure where this one comes from, one of the eighteen types of liquor obtained from agave that is produced in the national territory, each one of which has its traditions and its rituals of elaboration and consumption.

Everything seems to indicate that the people who inhabited the areas where maguey grows had the custom of using it as a base for fermented drinks and it would only be with the arrival of the Spaniards that they would begin to produce distillates through the use of stills. It is known that the religions that lived in Sonora in the XVIII century used to elaborate some type of mezcal, either for their consumption or to sell.

During the three centuries of existence of New Spain, the viceregal authorities oscillated between allowing the elaboration of mezcals and liquors, since they meant a secure income of money for the always-needed coffers of the Royal Estate, and prohibiting it, to benefit the producers located in the Iberian Peninsula. However, despite any prohibition, people managed to set up their stills -which was not at all complicated-, to get a plant from which to extract a juice rich in sugars, ferment it and then distill it.

A brief history of bacanora

The first mention of Bacanora, however, comes from the 1880s. A French traveler tells how, after meeting a group of Mexicans, they exchanged drinks of cognac and a mezcal called bacanora, after which they each went on their way. The distillate of Agave Angustifolia, then, existed. Perhaps it already had its name from a long time ago.

Indeed, since 1850, amid the political upheavals that were plaguing the country, the state government had allowed the free installation of stills and the production of mezcals, as long as the corresponding taxes were paid. Twenty years later, once the peace was restored, the sector was in full swing. However, likely, Sonora's condition as a peripheral territory would not have allowed the name of the Bacanora to be known outside its borders; the drink itself, no way.

At the end of the 19th century, more than 1.3 million liters of mezcal were being produced in Sonora, and about 1,000 people participated in its elaboration. What kind of mezcal was it? It is not possible to know, although it can be inferred that a good part of it was Bacanora. The production of Bacanora would probably have been a constant increase during the following decades, had it not been for an event that completely disrupted the productive schemes of the state and, in general, of the country: the revolutionary struggle.

You can find mostly white bacanora in the United States market, while rested and aged is quite common in Mexico.

Sonora, in particular, became the scene of violent battles, especially during the struggle of the Constitutionalists against the regime of Victoriano Huerta (1913-1914) and throughout the so-called factional struggle (1914-1915), during which the former allies fought among themselves to take power and thus be able to establish a model of government by their ideas and interests.

For the camps to be filled with soldiers, the campaign necessarily had to multiply and, added to the enormous number of people enrolled in the forces of one or another side as volunteers, determined a decrease in the number of people dedicated to productive work, whose effect was felt in all areas of the economy.

As if that wasn't enough, on August 8, 1915, the constitutionalist governor of Sonora, Plutarco Elias Calles, issued a law prohibiting in the state "the importation, sale, and manufacture of intoxicating beverages", and imposed penalties of five years for the transgressors and three for their accomplices.

The main argument of the governor -and future president of the Republic- was the same that had been used, for similar purposes, at least since the 17th century: drunkenness encourages crime. The government, in combating drunkenness, not only worked for public security but also fulfilled one of its unavoidable duties: the moralization of the population under its charge.

The so-called Dry Law did not end the production of mezcals in Sonora; however, it led it to the shadows, to clandestinity, to operate using tricks and subterfuges, such as corruption. The guardians of the law -called together the Acordada, in memory of those who patrolled the roads in the viceroyalty era and applied justice in the most expeditious way possible- destroyed "vinatas" -that is, distilleries-, went into the sierra and pursued those who had dealings with the Yaquis, to whom they sold alcohol in exchange for being able to operate in peace.

The law promulgated by Calles was repealed in 1919. Despite this, its effects on Bacanora production were far-reaching: the producers isolated themselves in the sierra and dedicated themselves to distilling the drink without paying attention to any type of sanitary or commercial regulations. They lived and operated almost in total clandestinity, from which they built different mercantile circuits in the mountains of Sonora, through which they managed to position Bacanora as the traditional drink of the state.

Proof of this was the recognition obtained in 1963, when it was designated as a regional drink in the Sanitary Regulations of Alcoholic Beverages - concerning which, it is worth mentioning, most of the producers operated on the sidelines -, this measure was complemented with the emission of a series of norms related to its production and commercialization in 1992, considered by many as the express permission of the government to elaborate and commercialize Bacanora.

How bacanora is made

In the small vinatas de la sierra, the bacanora is produced in an artisan way. The equipment includes an oven, a fermentation pit, and a group of metal cans, each with a capacity of 200 liters - usually used to store water or transport chemicals - one of which is adapted to allow the condensation of the alcohol.

Precisely what distinguishes Bacanora from other mezcals is the procedure followed in the second distillation of the liquid, usually known as rectification, but in Sonora, it is called "resaque". During the resaque, the person in charge of supervising the elaboration of the bacanora -called vinatero in Sonora, equivalent to the master mezcalero-, collects in a recipient the first distillate that comes out of the still: the heads, with a very high alcoholic content. As soon as he observes that, in the liquid that flows, a group of small superficial bubbles is formed that they take in breaking -the calls perlitas-, he changes the container. This is the Bacanora, with between 20 and 30 degrees of alcoholic purity.

Finally, when he notices that the bubbles disappear quickly, he changes the recipient again, because the last thing obtained from distillation -the so-called tails-, is composed almost entirely of water. The last step is to taste the bacanora and mix it with the heads to adjust its alcohol content. Or, as the vintners say, to "compose" it. It will be with the palate that, ultimately, the taste and the graduation of the Bacanora will be defined, which is usually between 40 and 50 degrees.

Denomination of origin

The change is shown by the authorities concerning the production, distribution, and even the consumption of bacanora, which led to the idea of protecting the drink through more than just tradition. For that reason, in May 1999, the Secretary of Economic Development and Productivity of Sonora presented the request for the declaration of the Bacanora's denomination of origin.

The measure was not only intended to give formality to the drink's production processes but also, as a collateral benefit, it sought to improve the standard of living of those who lived in the Bacanora-producing municipalities, characterized throughout the decades by their high levels of poverty which, in some cases, reached almost eighty percent of the population.

The figures for Bacanora are still modest; however, obtaining the designation of origin has given it unprecedented visibility outside the state. The production, less than half a million liters per year, is susceptible to increase thanks to the support channeled by the state government through the Council, which has allowed not only the technification of the plants but also has made the Bacanora available to consumers throughout the country in various fairs and events both cultural and commercial.

The Program of Promotion for the Economic Development of the Bacanora Industry contemplates injecting more resources, creating centers of collection of the agave angustifolia, and putting into practice measures for the efficient reforestation of the plantations. For their part, small producers in the sierra have benefited from the boom in the product and, although they still depend on the roads in the sierra to market their bacanora, they have slowly managed to enter urban markets, where they compete successfully with industrial producers.


Paloma cocktail recipe

What do you need?

60 ml of Bacanora

15 ml of lemon juice

250 ml of grapefruit soda

100 ml of carbonated water

1 pinch of salt

1 lemon slice



In a glass, serve abundant ice, the bacanora, lemon juice, and grapefruit soda. Shake with a cocktail spoon. Fill the rest of the glass with carbonated water and combine again. If you wish, you can make a crust in the glass with salt and decorate it with a slice of lemon.

The Outlaw cocktail recipe

What do you need?

45 ml of White Bacanora

15 ml fresh lime juice

90 ml of grapefruit soda

1 pinch of salt

1 lemon slice



Fill a tall Collins glass with ice, and pour in 1.5 oz of White Bacanora. Add 1/2 oz fresh lime juice. Add a pinch of salt. Fill with grapefruit soda (Squirt). If you wish, you can make a crust in the glass with salt and decorate it with a slice of lemon.

Bacarita cocktail recipe

What do you need?

45 ml of Bacanora

15 ml of premium orange liqueur

22 ml of freshly squeezed lemon juice

30 ml of pineapple juice

22 ml of agave nectar (optional)

1 pinch of salt


1 whole fresh lime slice


Add ingredients to a shaker filled with ice and shake. Strain into a cold margarita or rock glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with a slice of lime. For a sweeter drink, add 22 ml of agave nectar before shaking. Garnish with a lime slice and 1/2 edge of salt.


Pork Loin Recipe

What do you need?

90 ml of Bacanora

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons of chopped green chilies

1 1/2 tablespoons of chili powder

1 teaspoon of chopped garlic

1 spoonful of honey

1 teaspoon of salt

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 pork fillets


Beat the Bacanora with lime juice, orange juice, cilantro, chili, chili powder, garlic, honey, salt, and bell pepper in a large bowl. Pour the contents into a resealable bag the size of a gallon and add the pork loins. Seal and store in the refrigerator overnight.

Preheat an outdoor grill for high heat and light oil on the grill. Cook the pork on the preheated grill, turning occasionally until the meat has reached an internal temperature of 63 degrees C (approximately 20 minutes). Serve and enjoy the Taste of Sonora.

Grilled Shrimp Recipe

What do you need?

2 tablespoons of Bacanora

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

1/4 cup of olive oil

1 pinch of garlic salt

1 pinch of ground cumin

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

6 wooden sticks (10 inches)


Beat the Bacanora with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic salt, cumin, and black pepper in a bowl until well mixed. Pour into a large plastic bag with a zipper, then add the shrimp and seal the bag (turn to cover evenly). Refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours before grilling

Soak sticks for at least 30 minutes in water to prevent burning. Preheat the outdoor grill to medium-high heat, lightly grease the grill, and place approximately 4 inches from the heat source. Drain and discard the shrimp marinade and place 5 to 6 pieces per skewer. Cook, uncovered, on the preheated grill until shrimp turn pink, turning once, for 5 to 7 minutes. Serve with lime wedges for garnish. Enjoy the taste of Sonora.

Chili Bacanora Recipe

What do you need?

900 grams of ground meat

45 ml of Bacanora

40 grams of stewed tomatoes

30 grams of red beans

1 onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1 can of tomato sauce

1 tablespoon of chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cumin

1 teaspoon of salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper


Fry the minced meat in a large pot over medium heat, dividing it with a spoon while cooking. Drain and add the tomatoes, beans, onion, garlic, tomato sauce, Bacanora, chili powder, cumin, salt, and cayenne bell pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes. Enjoy the flavor of Sonora.

Sources: Ministry of Economy, Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, an excerpt from the book "Appellations of origin. Pride of Mexico". Recipes adapted from the Sonora Regulatory Council for Bacanora, an organism in charge of verifying and certifying the quality of the Bacanora, besides promoting the culture and commercialization of this drink.