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Taha Ismail of Mike Isabella's Restaurants Talks Alternative Agave Spirits

Pepita Cantina will start serving raicilla and sotol on November 1.

R. Lopez

Those on the prowl for late-night Mexican drinks can rattle off their favorite brands of tequila and now mezcal.

But now lesser-known agave spirits like sotol and raicilla have recently become available in the U.S. and stolen some of the limelight from their more popular spirit sisters. Each one hails from different regions of Mexico and varies slightly according to type of agave and the roasting and distillation processes.

Starting November 1, Isabella's Mexican restaurant, Pepita Cantina, will begin offering the Arlington Vibe cocktail, made with La Venenosa Costa raicilla. It claims to be the first raicilla brand imported to the U.S.

Eater chatted with Taha Ismail, the beverage director for Mike Isabella’s restaurants about these newer agave spirits, which are slowly creeping onto the drinking scene in the D.C. area.

Raicilla is made from wild agave in Jalisco on Mexico's west coast. How would you describe the spirit's flavor?

The Green Label raicilla has a Mediterranean flavor. I get olive notes, a little mint. It’s a more herbaceous mezcal (spirit distilled from agave).

The Arlington Vibe drink is infused with Old Tom gin, Cynar and green peppercorn tincture. How do these ingredients pair with the spirit?

I’m originally from Morocco and one of my favorite things to eat is olive and preserved lemon. The artichoke amaro gives you the bitterness. You get fruit and pepper notes from the peppercorn tincture, pink and green peppercorn that we toss and let sit for 30 days. It will be on the menu until spring.

Sotol is made from a specific type of cactus found mostly in northern Mexico. How would you describe its taste compared to raicilla?

It’s richer than raicilla, with a good fragrance — perfumy — and with a higher alcohol content.

Will you eventually serve a cocktail with sotol too?

We’re working on a sotol cocktail now. I don’t have a recipe in mind. It just became available in the D.C. area two months ago. It’s new to the market.

When will you offer that?

Probably November 1 as well, when we do the menu change to the winter menu.

Why is it tough to find these spirits in the D.C. area?

In D.C. we just got it two months ago. In Virginia, it’s a little bit more difficult as it’s more of a controlled state. The alcohol goes to Richmond first and then gets distributed to the closest liquor store.

How do you drink it?

I usually drink it straight up. I like the flavor of the spirit. You can use it in El Diablo, a classic cocktail [with lime juice, crème de cassis and ginger beer]. You can also use it in a margarita, in place of tequila.

What sort of food do these spirits pair with?

Most of the tacos are rich. When you drink it with an agave spirits it makes it earthier.

Pepita Cantina

4000 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA 22203 (703) 312-0200