I knew Gunther Maier the photographer. I knew Gunther Maier the foodie. I knew Gunther Maier the art director. I knew Gunther Maier the fancier of fast cars and aficionado of vintage Indian bikes.
Recently, however, I learned about another Gunther, Gunther Maier the entrepreneur who, with his friends Gerardo Schwarz and Frank Guercio, is the owner of his very own brand of bacanora.
“Bacanora?”, you may be saying (just like what I was a few months ago). “What in heaven’s name is a bacanora?”
I thought I might try to explain it to you. Then I thought again and thought about how very little I actually know about bacanora. Wouldn’t it be better if Gunther Maier told you about the pleasures of this mysterious cousin of mezcal? Of course it would. So I asked Gunther a few questions and this is how he answered them.
Don Day: OK, Gunther, I know what tequila is and I know what mezcal is. I even know that tequila is a type of mezcal. How does bacanora fit into this puzzle?
Gunther: Well, like tequila, bacanora is also a type of mezcal. The first difference is in the species of agave plant that’s used. Mezcal can be made from about thirty different species of agave. Tequila can only be made from one of those thirty and it’s the same with bacanora. With tequila, it’s a blue agave called tequilana.
With bacanora, it’s an agave with the scientific name Angustifolia Haw or sometimes known by the simpler name agave Pacifica. The other difference is where it’s made. Bacanora can only be produced in the state of Sonora up in the northwest corner of Mexico.
Don Day: Wine writers use…some may say abuse…the word “terroir” to describe the conditions where grapes are grown. Does “terroir” come in to play with where the agave for the bacanora is grown?
Gunther: Of course it does. The state of Sonora is a very dry state compared to the southern state of Oaxaca where most mezcal is made. So the plants react differently to the climate and therefore the distilled product has different characteristics.
Don Day: Tell me a little about the history of bacanora. When and where did it begin?
Gunther: Bacanora is a regional spirit that can be traced back for a couple of hundred years in Sonora. It was always made by local families for generations. But it was illegal for almost 80 years, made as moonshine with any wild agave.
Don Day: And this legend about people being hung just for drinking bacanora. Fact or fiction?
Gunther: That is actually a true story…if caught making it, hanging was one form of punishment. It wasn’t until 1992 that the state of Sonora legalized the production.
Don Day: So why does a guy living a comfortable, semi-retired life, in this little piece of paradise we call San Miguel de Allende, get together with a couple of his buddies and decide to get into the hyper-competitive liquor business?
Gunther: Well, I’m not a golfer, so I needed something to do half the day. About ten years ago I was introduced to Ron Cooper in Taos, New Mexico. It was the first time that I’d ever tasted mezcal. Then my wife and I went with friends to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead and one afternoon I organized a van and the guys went out visiting some family distilleries. I was hooked by the process, the smell, the taste.
When I moved to SMA I went to Don Taco Tequila and tasted all the mezcals on the menu. One day they had a sotol, again an agave-like distillate from Mexico. I got to know the young Mexican who was trying to start a business with this sotol and we became partners. I also hooked them up with a U.S. importer. A year later the importer came back to me and said, “I’m looking for a bacanora; if you find one and it’s good, I’ll import it.” So the three of us sourced and tasted many bacanoras until we found the current producer of our brand.
It is just fun to be into this business…but it’s also intense with all the Mexican and U.S. regulations you have to follow.
Don Day: You’ve chosen the name Santo Cuviso. Is that some saint that got left out of my King James version? Or does cuviso mean something in Spanish?
Gunther: In my research I came across the story of a German Jesuit missionary who traveled around Sonora and the northern states in the 1750s. His name was Ignaz Pfefferkorn. He wrote a book about his travels and encounters, including his stomach aches, diarrhea and vomiting. When offered a drink by the native Opata Indians, which they called “cuviso” in their language, he became better and actually enjoyed it as a healing remedy. “Santo” in Spanish means “holy”, but also “that which produces a very good effect” so I thought what a perfect combination for a name, the “Holy Spirit”…
Don Day: So imagine this scenario. I have three glasses in front of me. One has a tequila blanco, another has a typical mezcal from Oaxaca and the other has Santo Cuviso Bacanora. What differences will I taste?
Gunther: Tequila is pressure cooked in ovens. Mezcal and bacanora are cooked in underground ovens with mostly mesquite wood. Mezcal and bacanora have to be made with only 100% agave. Tequila can have as little as 51% percent agave and other by-products. So the taste of tequila can vary greatly depending on what is added to stretch the yield. Mezcal usually has a very smoky taste to it based on the species of agave that is used and how it’s distilled. It can be as high as 55% alcohol by volume. Bacanora is also smoky but less harsh and more mild. More earthen flavors come through with bacanora.
Don Day: OK, you’ve got me. I’m intrigued. I’m ready to try Santo Cuviso. Where can I get a taste?
Gunther: Well in San Miguel it’s now being poured at Aperi, Cumpanio and Jacinto 1930. And we will also introduce the brand to San Miguel on October 26 at Dos Casas Garage with a terrific art show called “Saints and Sinners”. But enough of my shameless plugging.
Don Day: OK, see you on the 26th. I’ll check my halo at the door and be ready for some serious sinning.