Yes. It's true. There are many other types of agave spirit beyond tequila and mezcal, made outside the states of Jalisco and Oaxaca. Aside from plata, or oddities like bacanora (made in the state of Sonora), we rarely–if ever–see them distributed widely in the United States. Many of them don't fit into any sort of standardized classification, so they're called vino de agave or vino de mezcal. This is mostly due to the size of production. There are many rural areas in Mexico that produce agave spirits, but we're not talking about distilleries or even "craft" operations. We're talking about a production team that includes a guy and a few pieces of metal. Like Asunción Matilde's project in the village of Zoyalta, Puebla where he distills a spirit from Espadilla agave. Check out his photo below:
This picture is from the Fundación Agaves Silvestres website – an organization dedicated to reforesting the wild agaves in Mexico used for traditional agave spirit production. In order to fund their work, the group is bottling limited edition sets of vinos de mezcal from tiny producers like Asunción all over Mexico. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these sets to sell to retailers, so most of it will be made available to dedicated bars and restaurants across the country (and there aren't more than about 40-80 bottles total from each producer). Before you cry foul that you won't have access to these, let me tell you each bottle would likely retail near the $300 per bottle price point–making the total cost of the set somewhere around $2100 before tax. And who wants to taste just one of them? But that's what tasting groups are for, so I convinced Raza Zaidi from Wahaka Mezcal (acting as their functionary in the U.S.) to sell me one set (after promising I wouldn't make it available for purchase), which I could then break up into minisets for me and my friends. Considering where the money is going and the rarity of the opportunity, I didn't have any problem paying that price between a group of other spirit diehards.
It's going to be much more interesting to visit the FAS website and browse through the selections (with the wonderful photos and descriptions) than to read my tasting notes below, but I'm offering them just to give you a bit of context since there aren't any offered there. These seven spirits are without a doubt some of the most unique, challenging, and wonderful I've ever tasted. In some cases, there is no comparison available to any other type of spirit. This isn't meant to be a ha-ha-you'll-never-get-to-try-these type of review. These spirits created an epiphany for me: I was spellbound, overcome with emotion while tasting. I kept saying to myself: "This is insane! I need to get down to Mexico ASAP to find an affordable version of this stuff!" If you're getting bored with the same old whiskies, agave spirits present a new frontier.
Numero 1 - Puebla - Espadilla agave: Saline on the nose with what seems to be wet paper towel (but not in a bad way) and a mineral note I can't place. The palate is clean, but the finish brings on a bit of herbaceous bitterness that's distinctly peppery and vegetal, before morphing into unripe banana. A rollercoaster ride of complexity.
Numero 2 - Sonora - Lechugilla agave: This spirit was fermented in a leather sack before being distilled! On the nose is a distinct and pure aroma of dried chilies. The palate explodes with bright citrus and floral notes before going right back into cumin and other ground spices you smell when you open your spice cupboard. These go all the way through on the finish. Crazy stuff.
Numero 3 - Puebla - Espadilla agave/Pechuga: (this spirit was distilled then macerated with raw chicken breast marinated in mole sauce). Leathery and meaty on the entry, with dried leaves, savory spices, and dark crushed chilies on the back. Earthy and savory all the way to the finish which leaves your mouth tasting like an oven--but in a good way. Utterly bizarre and unlike anything I've ever tasted. I do want more.
Numero 4 - Michoacán - Cupreata agave: Wow, what a nose. This is the most bizarre spirit I have ever smelled and I can say that safely without a drop of hyperbole. It's like fresh cut mint mixed with refried beans and a bit of sulphur. The palate erupts with sweet fruit, but then an incredibly tangy and astringent flurry of more minty, spicy, savory goodness. It's like a party of insanely dissimilar flavors all washing through your mouth at once.
Numero 5 - Puebla - Papalomé agave: This is by far the most traditional of the bunch. It tastes like various mezcales I've had in the past. The smoky, spicy, zesty flavors of roasted agave are on full display. Yummy.
Numero 6 - Guerrero - Cupreata agave: I think I've found my favorite. This is just a haunting spirit – delicately flavored with nuance. It glides effortlessly from sweet roasted agave notes to tangy and bitter notes of intensity, and then carelessly into a clean and delicate finish. But then.....BLAMO!! Hot chili spices burning my mouth like a serrano pepper! Did they macerate hot chilies in the actual spirit? Holy Christ, I wasn't ready for that. What a turnaround in flavor!
Numero 7 - Puebla - Espadilla agave/Conejo: Here we've got another meat and mole macerated spirit, but this one uses raw rabbit instead of raw chicken. A constant force of savory herbs with roasted meats right off the bat, onto the back palate, and through to the finish. Big, roasted, baked, meaty, savory, nutty flavors. Almost like roasted peanuts on the finish. Amazing.
So where does this leave us? I'm going to do my best to get a set released to my buddy who owns a restaurant in San Mateo where we can possibly host a dinner event and sell tickets for those who want to taste. I also talked with Raza about auctioning off a set on our website to raise money for the organization. We'll see what happens. All I can tell you is that these seven spirits are a wake-up call to any spirits fan. They're complex and flavored in ways that no other spirits can or could be.
I'm dying to get down there and get to work. But first, vacation.
See you all in a week or so.
Whereas with tequila the standards and practices of the spirit demand that all producers use Agave Azul (or blue agave) for their production, the mezcales producers of Oaxaca are free to use whichever species are at their disposal. What are the differences between these plants and how do they impact flavor, you ask? Me too!
Luckily my friend Jake Lustig sent me this chart after we got off the phone yesterday. Does anyone remember the old children's scientific book series called Golden Guides? I used to have every single one of these! I used to devour them as a kid. Jake's chart looks just like the one about cacti--with it's old school drawings in place of modern photography. Have a gander:
- In Oaxaca, regarded as best flavor for growth time
- 7 years to harvest
- 80 kgs
- Widely cultivated
Arroqueño (has a light, bee-honey sweetness)
- In Oaxacan central valleys, regarded as best sweetness
- 10 years to harvest
- 180 kgs
Cirial (has a slight sour sweetness)
- madrecuishe, bicuixe, etc… elongated shape
- 14 years to harvest
- 60 kgs
- Long and fat shape
- 10-12 years to harvest
- Up to 340 kgs
- Cultivatable, easy to grow
- Ejutla, Monte de Toro
Sierrudo (a slight sour sweetness)
- Long-living, large size capability
- 16-20 years to harvest
- 450 kgs
Mexicano (sweet with a bit of bitterness)
- Smaller version of Sierrudo
- 10 years to harvest
- 100 kgs
- Colloquially called Bilíah
- 12 years to harvest
- 25 kgs
Tovalá (also spelled Tobalá)
- 12 years to harvest
- 25 kgs
- Colloquially called Vequela
- From Mixteca, used for aromatic flowers during Semana Santa
- Not used in Oaxacan central valleys
I have big plans for the K&L Spirits Department in 2014. One of those plans is to seriously expand the number of agave-based products we carry. However, you can't build an interest for odd and esoteric booze unless people can comprehend it. While many of us discerning drinkers have to come an understanding of tequila--its cultivated blue agave and its industry-standardized flavors--the mezcales of Oaxaca are more of a mystery. There's so much variety that one hardly knows where to begin! They can be smoky, tangy, saline, sweet, wildly-expensive, and can be labeled by region, type of agave, or brand. It's all very overwhelming when contrasted with the mandatory practices of other spirit categories.
Since I'm headed to Mexico this weekend I decided to leave you all with a few interesting posts before I go, to help clarify some key points concerning one of Mexico's rising beverages. I called my friend Jake Lustig this afternoon, owner of the brands Don Amado and Mina Real, to gain some insight into mezcal and how we as consumers can differentiate between various expressions.
Here's our conversation below:
David: How would you differentiate tequila from mezcal for those looking to move beyond Jalisco and into Oaxaca. Let's assume we're talking about someone with a working knowledge of agave.
Jake: I guess I would say that tequila has very specific standards and practices, with standard methodologies, and there are interesting variations on those standards, but there are broader options in the less-developed spirits of Mexico. You've got a pull towards the center in terms of practice. The more esoteric the distillate, the less hegemony there is in the methodology. There's the option to explore many of the nuances with mezcal that aren't available in the realm of tequila.
David: I would compare that to wine where you've got thousands of producers making cabernet, merlot, and pinot noir wines, but then different producers on the fringe making wines from interesting or rarely-heard-of varietals, bringing bold new flavors to the spectrum.
Jake: Right. Mezcal offers more variation, clearly in the type of agave being used and the way those agaves are used. There are different methods of cooking agave. Some bake it--like Fidencio--where as in my projects we use both steam and smoke. You can use different wood to smoke your agave. There are so many possibilities.
David: What about the agave itself? What are the main types of agave being used?
Jake: Espadin is the common type of agave being used in Oaxaca. All of the others are being used to a much lesser degree. The big division in Oaxaca is if you're talking about cultivated agave mezcal or wild agave mezcal. But when you're talking about 95% of the agave in Oaxaca you're referring to cultivated espadin. The primary wild agave species being used are arrequeño, which is probably the most prestigious. Then you've got tobalá, which is the most scarce. Agaves like sierrudo are huge, have good output, and aren't so ultra-scarce, but they're not cultivatable, so you have to find pockets where they exist indigenously.
David: Let's say you're going to release a line of mezcales. You've got different routes you can take to distinguish them from one another. Del Maguey, for example, distinguishes between their products by the village of origin. That's the French approach to wine as well, using the region to distinguish between the style. Fidencio, as we mentioned earlier, uses the species of agave: tobala, espadin, etc. You could also mention the style of the mezcal, like pechuga, which macerates the spirit with raw chicken or fruits and nuts. Are we missing any further styles of classification?
Jake: A key distinction would be geographically. You've got three broad styles of mezcal depending on the three large valleys in Oaxaca, that convene in the city of Oaxaca, and then shoot off into different directions: one shooting up north towards Mexico City, one going due south to the isthmus of Oaxaca, and one heading towards the coast. Over the last hundred years three different methodologies have emerged, which would be an early way to classify mezcal.
David: Is anyone still differentiating their mezcales that way?
Jake: I don't know of any project doing that now, but there are indigenous cultures that live in these regions that still practice their own style of production. There are markedly different styles between the different valleys.
David: If you were to start breaking these styles down to explain them to a newcomer, going from village to village, are there distinctively different styles being made in the different communes?
Jake: This could be disputed by others, but I would contend that there's not a huge difference from village to village. Within the municipalities there are trends and tendencies, but the differences are more family to family. There are families in each village that have their own recipes for mezcal, like any family does for their cooking, and those specific preferences are what will dictate style. In French wine there are certain districts that use the same grapes, but each family or producer will eventually make their own style of wine.
David: What about from agave to agave? Are there inherent flavors that should be present in an espadin mezcal across the board?
Jake: With espadin agave we're talking about such a functional, utilitarian species that the main concern is suitable sugar for fermentation, rather than any particular nuance from the plant. This could also be a point of contention with others, but I would say that espadin doesn't really have any site-specific characteristics. 28 Brix sugar at 4800 feet won't taste all that different from an agave with 28 Brix sugar at 3800 given the same production style.
David: So if someone is paying more for a mezcal made of tobalá, what are they paying for?
Jake: Scarcity. Tobalá is a non-cultivatable species of agave. It takes an extremely long time to grow and produces an extremely small amount of spirit.
David: Is there any commonality of flavor between tobalá mezcales?
Jake: There is, but there are variations between species of tobalá. It's also tough to know if any of the production methods between producers are standardized.
David: I think selling something like that, a $100 bottle of tobalá mezcal, to someone simply because of the rarity is a tough marketing job--especially when the flavors aren't necessarily more pronounced, or richer, or smoother. Even more so given the fact that espadin mezcales are often smoky and flavorful.
Jake: Ha! Being both a cultivator of agave, a producer, a distributor, and a brand owner, I'm looking at that statement from so many different angles. It's nearly impossible really to compare similar products between producers, the way you might compare two pinot noir wines from Paso Robles. One wine from Paso Robles might share similarities with another and you could celebrate the characteristics of the region, but with mezcal there's so much variation at every level of the production. In whiskey you might talk about pot still versus column still, but with mezcal you've got ceramic pot versus alembic pot. Then you've got people using alembic stills with different necks and condensers. And that's just with distillation. Then there's massive variation in how the agave is cooked, and then what type of wood you're using if you're smoking it. In all honesty, all of these measures are so much more impactful on the final product. What one might conclude are due to variations in agave might actually be variations in production: the cooking, the fermentation, and the distillation methods.
David: So, really, someone looking to understand mezcal might do better to look at each producer independently rather than for commonalities between region or species of agave.
Jake: Right, and what we have to remember--because we're still in our infancy here of understanding mezcal in the U.S.--what may emerge eventually are consistent and compliant distilleries that run healthy, long-term operations and over time garner attention for being quality producers, even with the variance in the distillate. This as opposed to a collection of more rustic producers. Look at something like a Cognac house--they can celebrate different brands and styles under one roof and therefore can present a style to compare and contrast. That garners confidence in the brand--that what they make is of quality and dependable. Rather than an independent bottler, so to speak, amassing different styles of mezcal that differ wildly in quality and style.
David: I can see where it becomes more important to have some kind of consistency--via blending or whatever--rather than making something distinctive of a certain style, vintage, or terroir.
Jake: Right. I've long maintained that mezcal needs some kind of pillar--a benchmark--to which other things can be compared. Since mezcal has no real benchmark brand, so much is really at whim and novelty.
David: Put on your brand owner hat for a minute. How would you distinguish Don Amado from other brands of mezcal.
Jake: Well, we try to start with heritage and tradition and go from there. After evaluating more than sixty different producers in the early 90s, I concluded that the Arellanos family was the best at what they did. It's important to achieve a standard of quality both for yourself and in the marketplace.
David: How do you describe the flavor profile of Don Amado and what is it the result of?
Jake: Mezcal all starts with a distiller's vision: where do you want to go? It's a march towards an objective. We wanted a controlled level of smoke, or a tempered level. We thought it should be sought in order to allow some of the more delicate, nuanced aromatics and flavors of the agave to be displayed. We felt that those two characteristics--one stemming from the cooking of the agave and the other stemming from the cultivation--will inevitably compete, but they need to co-exist in the final product. After years of trial and error, we tried different methods to make sure we thoroughly cooked the agave without charring, so we wanted to integrate steam into the cook. We came up with a way to integrate steam into the final stage of an earthen, firewood roast to soften the last bit of smoke that the agave might absorb.
David: What type of agave are you using?
David: And it's cultivated?
Jake: Yes. So the house style of our distillery--Real de Mina--would be widely agreed upon as being light in smoke, while brightly displaying the flavor of the agave.
David: It's almost like single malt whisky where there are certain aspects of terroir--like water, peat, and barley--and then there are the practices of the cook--like smoking the barley or fermentation time--and then you also have the search for a house flavor that might come through blending or other methods to ensure consistency. It's not necessarily any one thing, but rather a combination of things. That's definitely the case with most single malt whisky.
Jake: We enjoy a very bright, clean, dry, flowery agave essence that espadin can show when you get about 28 brix of sugar and harvested with little water. You get honeysuckle, jasmine, very floral aromas. We've always had that common pursuit in mind at Don Amado and we strive to bring that out in our products. Secondary flavors are coming, not so much from agave species because we're really just using espadin, from the type of still and the type of roast.
David: This has all been super helpful. I think perhaps the most important point you made was the fact that no brand has been able to emerge as the epitome of what mezcal is or should be. There's no Don Julio or Cuervo to work against or towards. That's allowed a whole market of diversity to emerge and forced customers to decide what ultimately does and doesn't work. However, it's tough to navigate that market if you don't understand it. This hopefully will add a bit of clarity.
Right before heading out the door to work on New Year's Eve day, I sat at my desk perusing the morning news on the internet. There were the various local events, and the nostalgic pieces focusing on the important moments of 2013, but at the top of the page was an article about Guy Fieri's restaurant in Times Square:
"Guy Fieri's Restaurant Charging $795 For NYE Dinner"
"Can you believe the nerve of this guy?" was the tone of the article. The story went on to list what was included for the price (which was meant to make you huff and puff and shake your head) and stated what was even more offensive was that the tickets had already sold out. Not only was the price ridiculous, but there were actually idiots out there willing to pay it! HA! Can you believe it?!!
But then down in the comment field, buried under knee-jerk responses and vitriol galore, was one calm, collected, level-headed line of complete sense:
"Different strokes for different folks. I wouldn't pay that, but I don't see where it's my place to tell people what they should and shouldn't do with their money."
I sat there and said to myself: "How logical."
I have my own views about what a whisky company should or shouldn't charge for a bottle, but ultimately there's little I can do other than recommend something else to customers if they ask for my opinion. I'm not going to walk around the store belittling the choices of consumers because they're buying brand names or fancy booze. If we were to only sell products that never went up in price and were guaranteed to rise only at the correct rate of inflation, I'd be out of a job fast. On top of that, I'd be going against the wishes of the majority of our customers. 90% of K&L shoppers don't read whisky blogs and they don't care what you or I think about fair pricing. There are plenty of people who email me every day asking when we'll get the new Brora, the new Port Ellen, and all the fancy new Diageo releases--even at the doubled, tripled, and quadrupled prices. These people aren't dumb. Much like the people who paid $795 for a ticket to Guy Fieri's dinner, they don't need to be told that these prices are expensive. They know it and they're fine with it.
What do you think would happen if a bunch of women went into a Chanel store and started telling customers that $5000 was a ridiculous price to pay for a handbag? Nothing. What would happen if you walked onto a Masarati dealership and started telling the prospective buyers that they would be better off spending their money on a Prius, a mortgage payment, and a year's worth of groceries? They would give you a funny look, probably have you escorted off the lot, and go on about their business. People spending large sums of money on booze don't need to be told that these bottles might cost more than they did a few years ago. They do not care. They also don't care about what you would or wouldn't spend their money on. AND.....they're not just a bunch of brainless idiots with money to blow. There are just as many people out there who think guys like me--who spend around $60 to $100 on a bottle of whisky--are out of our minds blowing that kind of cash on liquid.
It's all relative. We all have the choice to spend money on what's important to us. As the one wise commenter said concerning Guy Fieri's dinner in Times Square: I don't see where it's my place to tell people what they should and shouldn't do with their money. Especially when they never asked me in the first place.