Mexico might not be top of mind when it comes to countries producing notable sugar cane distillates, but between the misty cloud forests of northern Oaxaca, the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula and the rust-stained soils of Michoacán, the country has a compelling—though often overlooked—legacy of rum production.
“People have been making [rum] since colonists introduced coffee and sugar cane to the region,” explains distiller Elisandro Gonzalez, who makes rum under the label Dakabend in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca with his cousin Edgar. The locals in this area adopted sugar “to make a brown sugar called panela, or piloncillo—that was the primary use—[but] some also used it to make rum. In the mountains, we call it aguardiente de caña.”
Though it was Spanish colonists who arrived (along with Filipino sailors) with willowy stalks of cane in tow in the 1500s, it was also Spanish colonists who were responsible for decimating the rum industry by prohibiting the production of homegrown spirits up until the late 18th century to protect the sales of Spanish brandy. Despite the imposed temperance, rural producers all over the country continued to distill this “fire water” in remote areas, keeping generational customs alive to this day. “We called it chinguirito in the times of Spanish Prohibition,” explains Casa Tarasco general manager Miriam Pacheco, whose family history of production stretches back to the early 1900s. “It was more common for it to be made clandestinely by women in their kitchens with similar techniques to the Filipino style, where a few pots was enough. It was cheap due to the abundance of cane, and that is why it was said to be of low quality, too.”
Eventually, post-Prohibition forces created conditions for mass-produced rums to resurge and proliferate, like in the 1930s when Bacardí chose Mexico for the site of its first distillery outside of Cuba, and in the 1990s when the NAFTA accord gave large transnational brands outsize competitive advantages in the marketplace. Today, industrially made molasses-based rums with a light-bodied flavor profile still dominate the landscape. But in the past few years, a promising new crop of artisanal sugar cane distillates have bubbled up from remote areas into mainstream consciousness, drawing immediate favor with bartenders and intrepid drinkers alike.
With sugar cane growing abundantly in states like Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and other coastal areas, it was only a matter of time until some of the countless small-scale producers dotted across the country began sending spirits north of the border. In the United States, we’re only just starting to see the tip of the ultra-artisanal iceberg hit the market, with two prominent, though loosely defined, styles leading the zeitgeist. The first, Charanda, is made from either molasses or fresh-pressed sugar cane (sometimes both) and has a protected denomination of origin in certain municipalities within the state of Michoacán. The second hails from mountainous areas in Oaxaca where fresh-pressed aguardiente de caña is made in a manner akin to rhum agricole and cachaça, and sometimes includes piloncillo. The latter camp is considerably less regulated than Charanda, and generally speaking, more varied for that reason.
These small-batch, hyperregional rums draw many parallels with traditional mezcal: Production facilities are typically isolated away from major cities, they feature handcrafted tools and machinery, and distillation traditions vary by location, creating a sea of diverse styles and flavors from coast to coast. “Similar to mezcal, rum from this part of the land will taste different than the next because the soil is different, the microclimates are different,” Gonzalez says. “From batch to batch it will be different, too.”
With singular personalities, these products offer something unique within the global rum diaspora and are arriving stateside hot on the heels of a mezcal boom that helped prime American palates for a new school of terroir-driven spirits. “Once people started understanding that mezcal is a higher-end and craft-produced spirit—and seeing that validation in the market—being able to introduce other spirits like rum becomes more of a possibility because you have a market that’s more open to understanding and supporting craft distillation in Mexico,” says Susan Coss, co-founder and director of Mezcalistas.
As producer for the tasting roadshow Mexico in a Bottle, Coss has watched the number of Mexican rum offerings in the U.S. grow from as few as three labels in 2018 to upwards of 11 (with a few others slated to launch) as of this year. She attributes the increasing interest partially to a growing national understanding of Mexican food and drink. “For so long, it was only tequila, tortillas, tacos and tamales—this is part of the recognition that Mexico is a country with a huge repertoire of incredible flavors,” she says.
The movement is largely being propelled by producers with existing ties to agave spirits. Distiller Elisandro Gonzalez made Mezcal Tosba before starting Dakabend, for example, and the Pacheco family, who manages Casa Tarasco in Michoacán, pivoted from mezcal to Charanda in the early 1900s. Paranubes was founded by Jose Luis Carrera in conjunction with the same team that started Mezcal Vago; Tso’ok comes from Carlos Mendez Blas and Read Spear—the former makes mezcal for a number of brands, including Palomo, and the latter founded Cuentacuentos mezcal; and Cañada comes from the same producers behind Cinco Sentidos mezcal.
It makes perfect sense that the agave crowd would be early adopters of this emerging category, says New York bartender and author Shannon Mustipher, pointing to growing consumer interest in spirits that have minimal impact on the environment and the people who produce them. “As it is becoming apparent that some aspects of the agave spirits industry are proving to be unsustainable in the long term, I think that some agave lovers are keen to seek out other Mexican spirits that express the terroir of the region,” she says.
While still nascent in the bar world at large, Mexican rums are finding their footing as cocktail bartenders realize their mixing potential. Mustipher likes to use them to update classics like the Tom Collins and Gin & Tonic, adding that they also shine in a carajillo, Espresso Martini or coquito. Megan Barnes, who works for Bar Lab hospitality group (The Broken Shaker, Hoja Taqueria) in Miami, suggests Paranubes as a somewhat unexpected candidate for an unctuous Martini variation. “I believe that most Mexican spirits have that vegetal taste to [them] and sometimes if you want to experiment, [trying] it in a cocktail instead of using gin is a move,” she says.
While these rums can sometimes be a hard sell for those unaccustomed to the untamed flavors one finds in similar spirits like Haitian clairin, rhum agricole and caçhaca, both Mustipher and Barnes see the task as a welcome opportunity. “I know that there are a ton of small producers of aguardiente in Mexico who have been making the spirit for generations,” says Barnes. “I am hoping that like with mezcal, people open their palates to something they’ve never tried before.”
It’s unclear whether or not Mexican rums will earn the same commercial success that their agave siblings have in recent years. But, by being inextricably tied to the histories and traditions of Mexican culture as they are, these spirits aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Rum from Mexico is a really artisanal product that is really close to people because people make it with their hands and not machinery—people in Oaxaca embrace it as part of their culture,” says Gonzalez. “I hope more people are excited to try these rums, because we are very proud of what we are making.”
Bottles to Try
From Jose Luis Carrera, whose family has been making aguardiente de caña in the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca for at least three generations, Paranubes is a fresh-pressed cane distillate made primarily with four varieties of cane—some estate-grown, some sourced locally. A rolling fermentation process, kick-started with a bespoke mesquite tincture, can last up to four months and is responsible for this rum’s incredibly funky depth of character and hints of smoke. Landing somewhere between a rhum agricole and high-ester Jamaican rum, with a full-bodied, fatty texture, the flagship unaged blend served as a bellwether for the category when it first hit the U.S. market in 2017, and remains a favorite among particularly adventurous drinkers. More recently, limited-edition small batches of single-variety caña morada, plus an expanding experimental aging program, have made the brand one worth watching.
- Price: $36
- ABV: 54%
Dakabend loosely means “the disobedient one” or “the one that doesn’t listen,” as a nod to how cousins Elisandro and Edgar Gonzalez have built on their family’s distilling legacy by forging a unique path of their own. Made in San Cristóbal Lachirioag in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, fresh-pressed sugar cane is wild-fermented in wooden vats within hours of harvest. Similar to Jose Luis Carrera’s process with Paranubes, the cousins use a rolling fermentation that lasts a week or two. At 49 percent ABV, the unaged rum has a strong, booze-forward structure that underlies a pleasant brown sugar–like sweetness. It makes for a lovely Daiquiri for those looking to simply dip a toe into the category. And if you’re looking for a great-tasting aged expression, a recently released four-year-old bottling has a commanding presence, with dry nutmeg and ripe banana notes.
- Price: $36
- ABV: 49%
The story of Cañada starts in 1917, when German expat Max Krassel arrived in the state of Veracruz after fleeing his home country at the beginning of World War I; once in Mexico, Krassel began making aguardiente. Today, brothers Isidoro, Rommel, William and Axel carry on their grandfather’s legacy in Santa Maria Tlalixtac in Oaxaca. Organically grown estate sugar cane is sourced from two different altitudes, then it is crushed and spontaneously fermented for six to 10 days. Next, the brothers employ a tool that Max Krassel designed himself in the 1930s, an eight-plate continuous still that uses diesel to heat (to reduce the need for local wood) and sugar cane juice to cool the vapors. Bottled between 53 and 55 percent ABV, this agricole-like rum punches above its weight, with bountiful tropical fruit flavors and bright green herbaceous qualities.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 53%
An illustration of the goddess Tajëëw—shapeshifter and protector of the mountains for Oaxaca’s Mixe people—adorns the label of Tso’ok, made by Juan Neponucena Ortega in Totontepec Villa de Morelos in the Sierra Norte. Fresh sugar cane juice is wild-fermented in clay vats with the crushed fibers included for extra complexity. Hefty rocks are placed on top of the mash to keep the cane fibers submerged while the natural yeasts on the cane stalks jump-start the fermentation. It’s distilled twice in copper pot stills and bottled at 49 percent ABV, allowing for a robust punch of sweetness to emerge on the first sip, fading into a slightly ashy finish. That blast of sweetness also comes through prominently in the aged version, which rests in French oak casks for six months and is bottled at 49 percent ABV, though its character against the woody qualities of the barrel makes the flavor skew rich instead of grassy, like a decadent crème brulée.
- Price: $33
- ABV: 49%
Located in the Sierra Mixe region of Oaxaca, Leoncio Gaspar’s family ranch—accessible only by foot (or horse or donkey)—is surrounded by organic sugar cane the locals call jaba, which is harvested by hand to make Camazotz. The cane is crushed twice using a horse-drawn press built by Gaspar’s father, since the distillery operates with no electricity. Some of the pulverized stalks are added to the wooden vats to start fermentation and infuse the liquid with extra cane character. After five days to a few weeks of natural fermentation, Gaspar distills to proof in small batches using a copper pot still, then allows the liquid to rest for several weeks before bottling at 48 percent ABV. The eye-catching label features a vibrant illustration of the Camazotz, a folk deity with the head of a bat. Flavorwise, it’s got enough grassy goodness to please fans of the category, with a warmth that lingers well after each sip.
- Price: $46
- ABV: 48%
Charanda has a protected denomination of origin that was established in 2003, which dictates how it must be made in one of 16 municipalities (out of 113) in the state of Michoacán. Members of the Pacheco family, who were instrumental in getting the DO passed, have been making expressive Charanda—the word means “red soil” in the Purépecha language, a nod to the rust-colored earth where the cane grows—under the Casa Tarasco brand since Don José Cleofas shifted from mezcal to rum in 1907. Today, general manager Miriam Pacheco oversees production of three different expressions: a 50/50 blend of molasses and fresh-pressed cane packaged in a sea-blue bottle that’s so bright, it’s hard to miss; a 100 percent fresh-pressed agricola that offers a fine grassy freshness; and an aged version of the blended distillate that rests in ex-bourbon casks for an average of 18 months. Each one is delicious and versatile in its own right, but the blend offers a high-pitched salinity—like wet oyster shell—layered over warm banana bread notes that makes it stand out.
- Price: $23
- ABV: 46%
While also made in Michoacán, Gustoso Artisanal Rum does not fall under the denomination of Charanda, so it is instead called an aguardiente. It’s made similarly to the others, and like Charanda Uruapan, the company sells three different expressions of spirit: a 100 percent fresh-pressed cane juice rum distilled twice in copper pot stills; a blend of molasses distilled in a copper column still and fresh-pressed juice distilled in a pot still; and an aged blend that mellows in oak, sherry and single-pass whiskey casks. At 43 percent ABV, the fresh-pressed rum lands at the lighter end of the spectrum, which means texturewise it is the most mellow on this list; its more prominent sweetness skews toward a caramelized maple syrup flavor.
- Price: $23
- ABV: 43%