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Saturday
Jan112014

Viva El Lenguaje

My entire relationship to the German language was based on my upbringing as a child. We weren't German, but my mother was a high school German teacher; having learned the language while spending time abroad in Germany after college. I learned German from her, continued on with it in college, and used those language skills to live in Europe for more than a year during the early millennium. I lived in Germany, spoke German at a high level, but used it mostly to speak with other internationals who lived in the dorm housing with me. German was the language that united us. I learned how to cook Thai food that year from the seven Thai giris living on my floor. I hung out with Japanese girls after class was over and watched Kurosawa films. I met Spanish guys who I would go drinking with and watch soccer matches. I have always been a talker, which has helped me pick up languages quickly simply because I have no fear in using them – mistakes be damned. If you can't speak English I will do everything in my power to find a way to talk to you.

To increase my amount of potential interlocutors, I've been learning Spanish over the last ten years, off and on, when I have time to take a class. It has been the best investment of time, money, and resources I have ever made. I've gone from no relationship with my mother-in-law (based on an inability to communicate) to a budding and enjoyable friendship. I'm on a first-name basis with every taqueria worker within ten miles of where I live. I try to use Spanish whenever I can, make friends with people who speak Spanish, and use it to further my appreciation of Mexican food and booze. I eat a lot of Mexican food and I drink a lot of Mexican spirits. If you like to eat and drink these things as well, then you need to find a week to spend at the Mayan Riviera on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. If you can even remotely speak Spanish, then you can by-pass many of the tourist traps and American hang-outs and ask the locals for help navigating the backroads. My Spanish lingual skills (along with my wife's first-language fluency, of course) turned what could have been a typical vacation in a tourist resort into one of the best weeks I've had in recent memory.

If I hadn't been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn't have been able to ask Marco the bartender about his favorite spot in town to eat panuchos (which I found as you can see in the above photo). I wouldn't have been able to ask the girls working there if I could go back into the kitchen and photograph them making the fresh masa for the empanadas. See...

I love Mexican street food. Getting to swim in the Caribbean all day is amazing. It's something that everyone should do at least once. However, for someone like me who loves to stuff his face and bloat his liver, these moments like the one pictured above are the most memorable for me. Just making a small effort to speak to people in their own language, with a respect for their own culture, can help create a lifetime of wonderful experiences. That's why my mom wanted to be a language teacher and that's why I was on the path for sometime.

However, the absolute, hands-down, number-one, best reason for learning another language is that it allows you to enjoy the beautiful aspects of foreign culture without having to deal with other American tourists. I don't hate America, or other Americans, whatsoever. I don't think I'm better than them, or that they're stupid and I'm smart. I just find that they're often full of useless, incorrect information when travelling abroad and cannot help babbling about it when you're in earshot:

- "Hey man, you should listen to this guy. He helped us rent a scooter and he knows what he's talking about. It's a really good deal. You should hear what he has to say."

This was said to me after exiting the ferry to Cozumel by another American. I had just told a local guy that we weren't interested in renting a car or scooter, and this American guy felt the need to chime in. We knew where we were going already and how to get there, so we didn't need help (you get hassled big time for tours and taxis in these locations). To be honest, I don't know who he was trying to convince: me or himself. About ten seconds after he said that the sky opened up and began pouring down rain. "A scooter, huh?" I thought to myself, "Great idea. Thanks for trying to entrap me along with you." 

- "You know you don't have to pay, right? It's all-inclusive. All this stuff is free!"

This was said to me at the hotel bar when I gave the bartender a few bucks for making us our second round of piña coladas. "Yeah, I know," I replied. "I'm just giving him a tip." 

"You don't have to tip either, man!"

Thanks for that advise, fellow American. I'm sure they love you around here.

I think the ultimate moment came when we were at the bar watching the 49ers/Packers game. My wife and I were sitting next to a guy from Wisconsin (who was a real sport and a nice guy), translating the play-by-play for him and his friend (the announcing was in Spanish). His friend said, "Wow, you guys really understand all this, huh?" 

"Yes," I said.

"I don't know." came a voice at the other end. "I speak Spanish too and I can only pick up about every fifth word." 

This guy had been spouting nonsense since the moment we came in. My wife turned and said to me, "What?! So because your Spanish isn't good enough and you feel self-conscious, you think we're faking all of this? WTF?" We ignored him. 

There were numerous embarrassing, American tourist moments at the resort that week, but you can avoid all of this typical American tourist bullshit by leaving them to sort through their insecurities and speaking directly to the friendly locals. The area around Playa del Carmen is full of some of the most wonderful people, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. It's a veritable paradise.

What was the best thing we ate? Here it is. This was a new one for me:

Ladies and gentlemen: the pambaso. A normal French roll, soaked in red chili, then fried until it's crispy. That roll is then topped with fried potatoes, spicy chorizo, and chopped cabbage. You can choose to add habanero salsa as well (which I did). Pure and absolute bliss. We found it only by talking to one of the waiters at the hotel about Mexico City street food. He drew us a map through town where we could find this local stand:

When people ask me how I got into the liquor business, I usually tell them I began by learning languages and becoming a teacher. "Oh, what a waste," people sometimes say. "You don't ever get to use all that German anymore." Except that I do use it. There are five Redwood City customers from Austria and we talk every week about grüner veltliner and riesling. I've learned about their lives, their families, their interests, and their personal stories. It's one of my favorite things about working the floor. Or maybe you've seen me run to the back to find the Presidente Brandy I hide in the rear warehouse for the local gardeners who stop by every Saturday. They don't speak one word of English, but we're now fast friends. Our relationship began one day when I started talking to them in Spanish and they asked for Presidente. "No lo tengo, pero vuelve en una semana," I said (we don't, but come back in a week). Everyone in the store knows them at this point.

I have always been an advocate for language learning and, despite the fact I'm no longer a teacher, I still advocate. Language is more than just nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It's a doorway to new relationships and experiences. Learn how to talk. Learn how to write. You may not know this, but David OG's first language was French. Without his communication skills we wouldn't be working out deals for new Cognac and Armagnac like we are now. Heck, look at this blog! We're getting more than 10,000 people a day reading this thing because of our use of language! 

It's never too late, either. Don't think you're too old. I start my next Advanced Spanish class at Cañada Community College next Tuesday night. I'm still learning, too.

In any case, I'm back from Mexico. I'm refreshed and ready. Let's get back to it.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan032014

Adios Amigos

See you all in a week. If you need me I will be here (see photo above).

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan022014

Agave Spirits - Part III: Beyond Tequila & Mezcal

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.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan022014

Agave Spirits - Part II: The Species

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:

Espadín

  • 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
  • Not-cultivated

Cirial (has a slight sour sweetness)

  • madrecuishe, bicuixe, etc… elongated shape
  • 14 years to harvest
  • 60 kgs
  • Not-cultivated
Barril (just a tad sweet)
  • 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
  • Not-cultivated

Mexicano (sweet with a bit of bitterness)

  • Smaller version of Sierrudo
  • 10 years to harvest
  • 100 kgs
  • Not-cultivated

Papalomé

  • Colloquially called Bilíah
  • 12 years to harvest
  • 25 kgs
  • Not-cultivated

Tovalá (also spelled Tobalá)

  • 12 years to harvest
  • 25 kgs
  • Not-cultivated

Tepeztate

  • Colloquially called Vequela
  • Not-cultivated
  • From Mixteca, used for aromatic flowers during Semana Santa
  • Not used in Oaxacan central valleys

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan022014

Agave Spirits - Part I: Understanding Mezcal

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?

Jake: Espadin.

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.

-David Driscoll