Cucharilla: When is a Maguey Not an Agave?

Mezcal is a confusing a category. There’s a lot of information to take in - the huge variety of plants, the wide production region, and the variation of localised techniques. But beyond this huge volume of information, the real confusion lies in the apparent contradictions, most of which arise from the conflict between traditional and official categorisation.


The term “mezcal” itself is confusing, with 3 definitions in common parlance.  Traditionally “mezcal”, or “vino de mezcal” was used to refer to all agave spirits. It is now often used to refer to the group of small-scale artisanal Mexican agave spirits, including the sub-categories of Raicilla, Bacanora, and Destilado de Agave, but excluding Tequila. Or there is the official definition of "Mezcal" as laid out by Comercam in the late 90s: Mezcal as an agave spirit produced within the Denomination of Origin, adhering to certain production standards, and certified as such by an official regulating body. So far, so confusing.


The next wave of confusing terminology lurks not far behind: the names and categorisation of the plants.


First, a quick brush up on botanical taxonomy. There are typically 6 hierarchical categories which we use to order the plant kingdom, beginning with Phylum. We’re interested here in the final two categories: Genus, and Species. For example, the plant most commonly used to make mezcal is of the Genus Agave, and the Species Angustofolia. But confusingly, no one calls it that. They call it by its traditional, or common name – Espadín. And because these traditional names are based on observable qualities rather than genetics, things start to get a bit muddled.


In Tlacolula, the name Mexicano is used to refer to an agave in the Rhodacantha species, while in Miahuatlán it’s used to refer to an agave in the Americana species. Throughout Oaxaca, the name Cuishe, or Bicuishe, refers to a member of the Karwinskii Species, except in Santa Catarina Minas, where it refers to an agave in the Rhodacantha species.


In order to try to account for these differences, without dictating to heritage producers what they can or can’t call their crops, Comercam have encouraged brands to list both the species name – signified by the word “agave”, and the common name, signified by “maguey” – maguey being the traditional collective term for plants of the genus “agave”. So a mezcal brand may categorise itself as Agave: Angustofolia, Maguey: Espadin.


This solution, though convoluted, is fairly satisfactory, and gives you a good idea about which plants have gone into your bottle. But then there are some plants which really rock the boat: plants which looks and behaves like agaves, and so qualify as Magueys, but are in fact a different genus. The spirits produced from these plants are mezcals in the traditional or common sense, but not in the official sense as defined by Comercam. Officially, they don't even count as Destilado de Agave. They’re a hybrid; an outcast not fit for modern categories. They’re freaky, and fascinating - frustrating regulators and delighting consumers. One such plant is Cucharilla.  


Chucharilla looks like an agave, a succulent with spiked leaves that grows long flowering stems from its core. Like agave it can be cooked and eaten, or fermented and distilled into complex and delicious spirits. But it belongs to a different genus – Dasylirion. These plants, also known colloquially as Desert Spoon, are the typical base for Sotol, the traditional mexican spirit hailing from the nothern states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila. Like agave, there are a variety of species within the Genus, each with their own traditional names. Chucharilla is the traditional name for the Lucidum Rose species which is endemic to Miahuatlán. They’re a particular favourite of Jose, who loves the distinctive earthy, barbecue notes they bring to his mezcals. Notes which shine in his Especial Ensamble JX1 – Chucharilla, Tepextate, Bicuishe and Tobala.


When it comes to our Especial Series, we're interested in flavours and not labels, so we leapt at the chance to bottle this hybrid spirit presenting a new and exciting profile. It might not be agave, it might not be mezcal, but it's certainly a banger, and that's what really matters.