Shad Kvetko

The demand for Mexican spirits has been growing exponentially in the United States and abroad. While tequila still dominates the market, one of the most exciting developments has been the celebration of regionality that’s happening today. Pox from Chiapas, raicilla from Jalisco and sotol from Northern Mexico — as well as other spirits that once were hard to find outside their production regions — are finding their way onto back bars and liquor store shelves.

In Arizona, there’s been a resurgence of bacanora, lechuguilla and paliella. Why call it a resurgence? Because bacanora and other agave distillates were almost as common as whiskey on the shelves of Southern Arizona saloons before Sonora’s governor outlawed them in 1915 — a prohibition that lasted until 1992. And agave spirits produced in Arizona included the only “tequila” ever made outside of Mexico.

On my recent trip to Tucson for the Agave Heritage Festival, I spent some time with archaeologists Paul and Suzy Fish in an ancient Hohokam agricultural field, at the base of Tumamoc Hill, that was used to cultivate agaves. To the untrained eye, it looked like any other Sonoran Desert landscape, but under Paul and Suzy’s guidance, I began to see signs of human intervention in the landscape. Piles of rocks formed terraces, check dams and structures that helped to prevent evaporation in the scorching desert heat. The Hohokam people were excellent irrigators, as evidenced by the canal systems they built off the Salt River. But here, they were using runoff irrigation from infrequent storms, meaning they had to prevent erosion while preserving moisture.

The Hohokams cultivated agaves for use as food, rope and textiles. Once roasted, the trunk, or heart, of an agave — known in Mexico as the piña, due to its resemblance to a pineapple when the leaves are removed — and its inflorescence become a delicious and nutritious food source. The growers would also squeeze the juice, rich in sugars, from the fibrous hearts and ferment it into what became known as “mezcal wine.”

The production and consumption of mezcal wine was widespread until European contact, when distillation technology virtually wiped it off of the map. But it was far from the most important alcoholic beverage. Others were made from corn, prickly pears, mesquite pods, and the fruit of organ pipe and saguaro cactuses. Each of these held a far more important place, both ritually and ceremonially, among the region’s tribes.

Bacanora and Other Spirits of Sonora

Distillation technology spread quickly after European contact and was adapted for use with plants endemic to the continent, namely the agave and the sotol. The Opata and other Indigenous groups in present-day Sonora were no exception. Bacanora, which takes its name from the Sonoran town, is the most famous of the state’s distillates. It’s been produced for approximately 300 years, and although originally it would have been made from several species of agave, now it’s produced solely from Agave angustifolia haw. In 2000, it was legally protected it as an exclusively Sonoran product.

By the 19th century, bacanora was well known to the people of Southern Arizona and had distinguished itself from other agave spirits there. But even after the production of spirits was outlawed in Sonora in 1915, production never ceased; instead, it moved into remote areas, away from government eyes. Modified 50-gallon oil drums — cheap and easy to get, and far less conspicuous than copper setups — were used as stills.

Prohibition of spirits in Mexico (and New Spain before that) was not unusual and occurred throughout history, for reasons of competition with imported spirits or morality. Pancho Villa himself was a teetotaler who preferred strawberry soda and ice cream to tequila and beer, and he prohibited alcohol production — and even barred the soldados of the fearsome División del Norte from imbibing.

Agave Spirits in Pre-Statehood Arizona

That agave spirits were produced in what now is Arizona should not be a surprise, considering that up until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Arizona was part of Mexico. And, of course, Arizona has several endemic agave species that are suitable for distillation (of approximately 240 species, mezcal is produced from only 40 to 45). Still, evidence of it is almost non-existent, except for some mentions in archives of newspapers and a few other sources.

Perusing these, one frequently finds references to smuggling, which in those days was a tactic to avoid taxation. But others were engaged in the legitimate importation and sale of spirits to quench early Arizonans’ thirst. Of these, Julius Goldbaum was one of the most enterprising. One of seven children of Prussian immigrants, Goldbaum was born in 1861 in Denver. In 1877, he moved to Tucson and worked as a bartender at the Park and then at his uncle’s establishment, the Gem Saloon. He bought his first saloon in 1885; not long after, he moved it to Congress Street.

Goldbaum was not a distiller himself — although it’s said that in 1888, he bought the building that now houses Old Town Artisans, at 201 N. Court Avenue, for use as a distillery and residence. He was a “rectifier,” blending raw whiskey he bought in bulk from distillers in Kentucky and elsewhere, then bottling them under several brands he created for resale. Here, Goldbaum showed his propensity for graphic design and promotion, creating bottles and labels that today are prized by collectors. Included in these is his label for his mezcal bacanora, featuring a chromolithographed representation of an agave in bloom. The label puts Goldbaum’s establishment at the corner of Meyer and Congress streets.

Although Goldbaum was one of the most prolific of Southern Arizona’s liquor men, he was hardly the only one. …

Learn more in the next installment of this story, coming next week.

Shad Kvetko is a Phoenix native who now lives in Dallas, where he is a co-owner of Las Almas Rotas, a James Beard-nominated bar specializing in the spirits of Mexico. Kvetko has traveled throughout Mexico, learning directly from the producers themselves to learn about the history, processes and cultures behind the spirits.