There was a time in my past where I almost loathed going to Sonora, where my notion of privilege and appreciation of traveling were nonexistent and I preferred to spend my summer break with the neighborhood kids. The 12 hour drive leaves Los Angeles on the 10 east, through Coachella and into Arizona and then Phoenix, then a turn south to Nogales, then finally another three to four hours to my mom’s hometown of Hermosillo. We did this trip multiple summers, my entire family cooped up in a Safari minivan that had seen better days, loaded with both gifts and goods my parents had acquired throughout the year for both sides of the family. I laid alongside my brother on top of said gifts and goods, fighting over whatever gameboy or book or TV hooked onto the cigarette lighter desperately trying to pick up local channels while on the move into what I had considered that Sonoran inferno.
Finally we would reach my nana’s house on one of the hillsides that overlooked the city, colonia El Coloso, one of the notorious colonias (neighborhoods) of Hermosillo. The vast difference in temperature between the scorched heat of the city center and the cooling updraft on my Nana’s patio paralleled the face of the colonia; the friendly community that bustled across the hillsides during the day but hid behind their locked gates and makeshift wooden pallet and mattress spring fences to protect them from the glue-huffing and drunken local cholitos that roamed the alleys and concrete labyrinth of the hillsides.
Now I revisit Sonora with a different perspective. I appreciate that the dirt roads and dark crevices of the colonia are now paved in cement and lit by street lights. The new renovations still do nothing to prevent the ongoings of the malandrismo so I venture on with my primas on an early morning in May with a brisk walk (at this point it’s 90F) down the hillsides towards El Centro, the old center of commerce in Hermosillo. In recent years with the influx of foreign business in the region, Hermosillo has expanded tremendously to the point where I feel like there is a new colonia or gated community being built on every visit, and that El Centro gradually is losing its luster of yesteryear.
My trips to El Centro have evolved over time. As a child I was dragged by my Nana to the textile stores and would be treated to an agua fresca or that revered cerveza de raíz. Now my trips to the Centro consist of window shopping at sombrero stores, loading up on the ever elusive chiltepín (a small and pain in the ass to find chile endemic to parts of northern mexico), and attempting to quench my thirst for Bacanora.
Our first stop is at the Mercado Municipal, an old and run down colonial structure inhabited with stalls featuring questionable meat, fruits, veggies, spices, natural remedies, comedores, etc. And like most of these mercados in Mexico, there is no one blatantly selling any type of mezcal, it is most definitely a situation where you have to know someone who knows a tio or tia that has a cousin (and so on) at the mercado. With COVID restrictions still in place, we were scanned with a temperature gun by the security guard, squirted with sanitizer, and forced to step on a rubber mat with what I assume was sanitizer or rubbing alcohol, a questionable step, and allowed to pass into the stuffy and bustling marketplace.
The first and only relevant stop in terms of bacanora was found immediately. There was a stall lined with bags of dried goods, hand made trinkets made of palo fierro, ceramic mugs etched with images of deer, Yaquis dancing La Danza del Venado, bottles of honey, dried sage bundled and ready for the limpias, all designed for the tourist market. But behind this pedestrian was another booth filled with true treasures, a mechanized corn mill, bags of masa, and shelves adorned with more intricate decorations and indigenous artifacts. Wooden masks made by the Yaqui community in Vicam, necklaces made by the Seris, another group of indigenous peoples, ojos de venado, venison and beef jerky, machaca.This booth reeked of Sonora in the best sorts of ways.
I could already feel my primas eyeing my gusto at every single item and made sure to be conscious of engaging them in conversation and to be conscious of not impulsively blowing my entire budget at this first stand. At the helm of the stand that would eventually deplete me of a nice chunk of change is an older gentleman in glasses, squat, hunched over in chair, torching the words “S O N O R A” on a gimmicky leather wrapped shot glass with a makeshift burner attached to a large battery via crude cables. Next to him is a cold can of Tecate Light in a beer kozy I can only assume was also made by him. Both the top can and I are sweating in the terribly ventilated mercado despite being by the entrance.
Beside the gentleman is a lady I can only assume was his daughter, entranced by her phone and waiting for the next transaction. In a semi-interested tone without lifting her head, she gives me the “como le puedo ayudar, mushasho?” in the same heavy Norteño accent that engulfed the region. As I speak to her, asking about the several spices and machaca, I can’t help staring at the gentleman’s beer, and eventually turn my full attention to him. “‘Ta bueno pal’ calor, no?”. Great for the heat, no? I figure a little joke would break the ice with the gentleman. I suspect he may know something about bacanora but was not quick to disclose it. It may be all the drinking paraphernalia available for sale. It may be that cold ass beer at 10am. Who knows, but as I interact with him and ask about all of the indigenous items to satiate my own curiosity, he seems to take interest, puts down his makeshift burner, and gets up to pull down more items which felt more like a curation of local indigenous groups than a sale.
Feeling the impatience and boredom from my primas, I finally take the leap and I shot my shot: “Oye, y no tendras una bacanora por alli?” You wouldn’t happen to have a bacanora back there? And for a split second I brace myself for the rejection and pull out my wallet to pay for the goods I had picked out. I may have made his morning because as it turns out, he had been yearning to try a new batch just sold to him that morning from the town of Suaqui Grande, a town southeast of Hermosillo and one of the 35 municipalities part of the Bacanora Denominacion de Origen. Although there is no bacanora produced in Hermosillo, you can find bacanora from a plethora of pueblos in the regions available in the trunks of people’s cars outside of supermarkets, from someone who knows someone, from Facebook Marketplace, or apparently from under this guy’s stall.
He takes out two shot glasses from under the stall, rinses them in what I think is another bacanora or rubbing alcohol, which I really don’t care about due to the anticipation of the drink, and lines them up. He offers my primas a drink but they refuse, which is understandable given the questionable sanitation. His daughter gives him the side-eye, shakes her head, and gets back to bagging my purchase. Now at this point I feel his desire to speak on the bacanora. We clink caballitos and he sends his down the hatch. I, on the other hand, sip it, shoot about half afterwards, and really try to process the “bacanoraness” of it. In most of the bacanora I have had, I have usually encountered an anise like flavor, maybe something like a light barbeque sauce, or sometimes even a red vines sweetness.
I don’t find these all of the time but I would like to attribute it to the mesquite used in most of the roasting process in Sonora. At any given moment, out any car window glancing off into the desert, under the shade of my Nana’s patio, or in the little placitas in the centro, el mesquite is always there, like a nurturer from the relentless heat or as the start of a fire prior to the famous carne asadas of my mother’s homeland. And for a brief moment I close my eyes and savor the bacanora, my first one of this trip, picking up some of those flavors but then I am approached by these green, slightly spiky flavors, and i feel myself slightly tilting my head trying to figure out where the hell those came from. “Asi me gusta la bacanora” That’s how I like my bacanora, he says, as he wipes his lip with a bandana from his back pocket, and kills the last of his tecate. While trying to formulate my next sentence and expelling the last of the fumes from the distillate through my nostril, I secretly hope that he offers me a can of beer. He doesn’t, which is fine because he offers me a little more bacanora, perhaps in an attempt to encourage me to buy more stuff.
He starts telling me of a kid that has a family in a rancho in Suaqui Grande that drops off bacanora every month or so. They arrive in unlabeled baby blue one liter Ciel water bottles, label ripped off, but with no visible markings of the name of the pueblo or name of the maestro. Sidenote – that was one thing I noticed on this trip that I hadn’t noticed before. Nobody knew the names of the producers. It seems that the names of the towns took precedence over the name of the maker. Throughout our small conversation, the terms “mezcal”, “vino”, and “bacanora” were used interchangeably. Always looking for the patterns, I decide that “bacanora” is used as the topic of the conversation but the more we speak, vino and mezcal roll off our bacanora soaked tongues, each indicating the same meaning. I lift up to inspect the bottle and hear him now going on about how the bacanora from Suaqui Grande was the best, and notice some sediment collecting at the bottle of this baby blue bottle. I ask him if he had spilled some mashaca into the bottle (another attempt at a lame joke) but he tells me that that’s how he likes his bacanora; con la penca.
At this time, I am under the assumption that the penca, like pencas in southern states, were in reference to the blades or the green, uncooked, spiky leaves of the agave. I see these brownish floaters, and ask if it was distilled with the pencas and he states that he likes to add just a sliver of penca into el vino because it makes it sweeter. Still confused, I finish my taste, pay the lady who is now having a half shot of bacanora, and ask the gentleman to sell me a bottle. It wasn’t the best bacanora I have had, but I have never tried any from Suaqui Grande. He agrees, we shake hands, and conditioned by COVID, I sanitize my hands, and drink the additional bacanora he pours me, which was probably due to the amount of goods I bought from the stall and say goodbye.
Nothing in the realm of bacanora happens later that day, but I remain intrigued by the concept of having penca in a mezcal. Was it traditional? Is the green bitterness good for stomach aches or digestion? Is the saponin content of the leaves extracted into the distillate and made palatable for medicinal use? While walking the centro and seeking out the shade of mezquite in our path, I am mentally cross referencing ideas accrued from botanicas, shops that specialize in natural remedies and elements of spirituality or witchcraft, depending on how pious or suspicious one is, thinking about mezcales from Oaxaca infused with herbs used for remedies as well, thinking about this one brand that distilled with quiotes or made a distillate of quiotes. My mind is ramblin as loud as my stomach is growling so we head back to my Nana’s house. It’s now in the high 90’s verging on 100 degrees so we grab an Uber back to El Coloso rather than walk up those hills.
Aside from my firefighter uncle, a couple of cousins around my age, and my family out in the pueblos, almost nobody drinks in my immediate family. And when we drink, it’s usually a plastic bucket filled to the brim with ice with Tecate Lights because they don’t get you drunk as fast and it’s easier to down in the heat. We pick them up from the expendio, a store that solely sells beer, some liquor, and botanas, snacks to accompany beer. I find it tragic that the only bacanora found in the store is some commercialized, 35 to 38 percent stuff with gaudy labels and funky bottles, but I am sure my Mexican water bottle will hold me up for a bit. But I have always found it hilarious that despite my Nana not drinking (she will sip an occasional tecate and give the rest to her plants when they are yellowing), she can recite and walk one down the recipe to making bacanora.
Not only doesn’t she drink, she doesn’t smoke, doesn’t dance, goes to church more times a week than I have in the past two decades, and will conveniently have a bible around the house at all times when I stay over. But despite all that, she has stories of how she harvested “maguey”, how she helped crush them with axes in canoas, tree trunks hollowed out vertically and used to crush the cooked agave, and stories of how she helped my great-great grandparents make vino. She has a theory that one of my great or great great grandparents was born in the actual town of Bacanora and that’s where they learned to distill, but talking to other uncles and older folks at the pueblo, there are conflicting stories as to who was born where or when.
Just a wild guess here, with god, her children, and her grand and now great-grand children aside, her biggest love is her garden. The once desolate hilltop land my Tata (grandfather) purchased decades ago has now been built by his hand into this beautiful house overlooking the city of Hermosillo. My Nana made it a home, adorning it with beautiful plants, a single mezquite strategically planted so that years later it covered the entire patio with shade, medicinal herbs, and her maguey. Though she has no intention of harvesting the maguey, she will point out to me everytime that we can make bacanora from it. With my questions and curiosity about our family story, it has become quite apparent to my entire family by now that I am heavily interested in the world of mezcal and our past. I have become the receptacle of all things mezcal and ancestry.
Cooling off after our day in the Centro, we lounge under the mezquite and enjoy the breeze, all of us munching away at the handmade flour tortillas my Nana made while we were away. Despite being vaccinated, my grandparents have not left their house much, so they receive us with welcome arms as I’m sure they’re bored out of their minds. My Nana, for like the tenth time, tells me about her maguey, and bacanora and just like the first time, I soak in every word. She points at one that, if I had to guess, is an Agave Americana. Thick blades, kinda greyish-green, about a meter wide, it acts as the centerpiece on her flowerbed. I find it interesting that she says this when the Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-168-SCFI-2004, the document stating the regulations behind bacanora production, dictates that bacanora can only be made with A. Angustifolia Haw. I am more than certain that my Nana has never referenced this document, so why fight it? Not that I agree with her or know enough about production to fight the Norma, but if I had to read the dry legalese of a document encompassing various municipios describing bacanora production that seems to mirror that Norma behind mezcal and tequila or listen to my Nana call her beautiful and manicured maguey bacanora, of course I will always side with the latter.
The last time I was here was about 2 years ago, so her garden has become more of a small paradise over time. Over that time (and before), studying mezcal extensively, tasting, researching, curating menus, and travelling now raised a whole different set of questions, ideals, and expectations. I notice a couple of new agaves growing in her garden. Definitely not Americana like one she pointed out before. These new ones grew off a mound of rock, had thinner blades without teeth with yellowish stripes, and are definitely some type of agave, though my only guess would have been some type of ornamental agave one would find in an eco friendly succulent landscape.
“Esas con para la lechuguilla”. Those are for lechuguilla. And with that, I am captivated. She had never never mentioned lechuguilla. Or maybe she had in the past but I didn’t have the ear for it then. She goes on to tell me stories about how in the rancho sometimes there wasn’t enough mezcal to harvest so they had to mix in the lechuguilla “pa’ que rindiera”, so it would yield enough. On a previous trip, it was an uncle that told me that the lechuguilla plant, when eaten by a horse or cattle, would kill them. In later conversations, there were stories told of lechuguilla causing allergic reactions in some people. Some producers would not harvest lechuguilla because they were not able to. And in another drunken tall tale, another uncle claims that one night they all ran out of beer after last call at the expendio, so one of the guys in their crew ran inside their house, brought out lechuguilla in a bottle, poured it out in styrofoam cups to drink and that the lechuguilla ended up melting the styrofoam cups! If they had continued drinking that night was never confirmed…
Recently, I came across Palmilla, a Dasylirion distillate from Sonora that is just as elusive (or if not more elusive than a 100% lechuguilla) by Rancho Tepua in Aconchi. There was another Palmilla I tried and enjoyed from Mazot years ago, but these are the only two I have encountered in the States. And despite being focused on bacanora on this trip, I asked my Nana about palmilla, and when she answered me with a blank face, I mentioned the word “Sotol” and she immediately knew what I was talking about. Most of these pueblos that are legally recognized by the Norma are near or in Las Sierras, the mountains that act as a natural border with its neighboring eastern state, Chihuahua, so it only seemed logical that sotol would be known in Sonora. Now, I don’t know if it was just because I mentioned sotol to her and she saw my face light up, but she says that there were times when sotol would be mixed in in a harvest to have a larger yield of whatever distillate they were drinking. Perhaps there was an observer bias at play or perhaps there was, at some point, maguey, lechuguilla, and even sotol mixed in together, which was not far fetched. Some of the later Clande releases and current Sotoleros releases had Dasylirion and Agave blends in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. So perhaps it wasn’t too far off in the distance to one day find a Sonoran dasylirion-agave distillate.
Days passed where I mingled with family and drank endless Tecate Lights, anxiously waiting to go my Nana’s hometown of Granados, a pueblo about four hours east of Hermosillo, where some of my relatives reside at the base of La Pirinola, a famed geological feature defining the landscape of Granados. The night before we are scheduled to go, we have my cousin’s wedding that naturally involved a fiesta. Many Tecates were had, many flour tortillas were eaten, and at around midnight, on the street littered with cans (there would be someone in the morning to recycle all the cans), my uncle had his neighbors, a set of twins from Chihuahua that resembled Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum in the most recent iteration of Alice in Wonderland, bring out another plastic bottle of nondescript bacanora.
As I sipped and talked about the flavors and nuances of matters nobody seemed to care, my aunt came from inside and brought out another bacanora, this time the bottle was in a reused Jose Cuervo bottle stored in the freezer. It was becoming increasingly clear that I am a bacanora magnet. Shortly after my aunt, another guy brought out a pachita of bacanora from his truck, so now, this pocho from LA was now sipping on 3 types of bacanoras simultaneously. My uncle, intrigued by the flavors I could pick up on with the varying distillates, had me tell everyone over and over what flavors I tasted like a neat party trick. I wasn’t mad or annoyed, just a little drunk by this point and desperately hoping I could remember the names of the towns they came from. The only one I remembered was Villa Hidalgo, where my aunt’s family was from.
There seems to be a theme in the city with people showing off bacanora during la peda, a drunken gathering. To date, I have not begun an evening of drinking with bacanora but regrettably have ended up many nights with a blank pachita in hand, cooing classic norteñas with the men of the party until we inevitably made our way to bed. In my pedas in Oaxaca, I often feel that las pedas start off with mezcal and end in beer. Maybe in el norte things are done differently…