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


The New Year

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.

-David Driscoll


Reading Rainbow

I was all set to type up a long, reflective article about how I finally had time this weekend to relax, hang around, read some books, and think about the perspectives of others, rather than focus on fine-tuning my own. I was ready to tell you about how wonderful that was and what I thought it all meant, but instead I did some more reading and found Frank Bruni's editorial in the New York Times today.

Now I can keep reading, while you read his column instead. He nailed it.

-David Driscoll


"Is It The Best Or Isn't It?"

Towards the end of the evening yesterday I helped an older gentleman who was in search of some New Year's Eve Champagne. He had read about the increasing wave of grower-producer options (our specialty) and wanted to pick out a few interesting selections. While he was excited about the possibility of heightened character in the wines due to the smaller production and older blends, he was also skeptical about the whole thing. He was heading into uncharted waters and wanted to get it just right.

"If you were going to pick four–your four favorites–in order from the best on down, which four would you give me?" he asked. I proceeded to select a bottle of Pierre Paillard, Launois, Bruno Michel, and Ariston: four of our absolute best grower-producer options and exclusive bottlings to K&L. "Are you sure about those?" he asked again. "If I were to ask that gentleman at the counter would he pick the same four?"

"Probably not," I answered. "You'd have to ask him. He might like some of these other bottles instead." This halted the customer in his tracks. No longer was he confident in my decisions.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Are you saying these aren't the four best?"

"Those are my four favorites," I replied, "because you wanted to know which bottles I personally liked. I can't speak for my colleague, however, but let's ask him to see what he thinks."

After another twenty minute conversation with Gary, our Champagne buyer, the man was satisfied in our selections and headed out the door a happy customer. Sometimes it's difficult to separate taste from property. There's often a very fine line between personal opinion and inherent quality. Basically, you've got four different options when it comes to differentiating between the two:

- I recognize that the wine/whiskey is well made, but I don't personally like it.

- I think the wine/whiskey is well made and I like it.

- I don't think the wine/whiskey is well made, but I still like it for some reason.

- I think the wine/whiskey isn't well made, therefore I don't like it.

Navigating between these four options can be a minefield because, in the end, all four of them are still open for debate between any discerning appreciators of booze. When we as consumers become dead set on a fail-safe bottle of wine or whiskey (one that can't possibly go wrong and that we will absolutely enjoy because it's absolutely the best) the idea of standard deviation can be frightening. Yet, there's no way around it. Our recent Faultline bottling of Royal Lochnagar is a great example:

- I gave a small sample of the whisky to one of my closest customers who said, "That whisky just isn't for me." He didn't think it was bad, but he was happy he didn't purchase a bottle.

- I received an email from another customer who was overjoyed with the whisky. "The Royal Lochnagar is amazing," he wrote. "It's so light and refreshing, unlike any other whisky I own. I love it. Thank you for bringing it in."

- Personally, I think the hogshead barrel that matured the whisky was probably on its last legs, therefore offering little richness to the malt itself. It probably isn't the best expression of Royal Lochnagar, but I still think it works on so many levels and I love drinking it because of how purely I can taste the distillate.

- Another customer I know well wrote me an email to say he found the whisky bitter, astringent on the back end, and out of balance.

Right there: four completely different takes on the same whisky (following the four examples precisely) from four people who drink whisky often and understand its potential for variance. Different people can like different things. It's going to happen. It might even disappoint you tremendously (like when you buy a special bottle for a special occasion and no one likes it but you). It might cause you to call into doubt your own credentials as a taster (like when you like something and an online review gives it a low score, or vice versa).

Sometimes we allow the personal tastes of others dictate our own views of inherent quality. For that reason finding someone whose opinion you know and trust is important. I have many customers here at K&L whose palates are completely in tune with mine and will buy (and enjoy) what I personally like. I have many more whose palates are not, but I know what they like and can help them to find it. I've likely given many customers bottles they've gone on to hate and for that reason they'll likely never trust me again, but that's how life works.

As "The Dude" Jeffrey Lebowski would say: "Strikes and gutters." Just do your best.

-David Driscoll


More History: Contract Whisky

The fact that single malt distilleries once operated on a contract basis, rather than by an ownership actively promoting its own product, is difficult to wrap one's head around for those used to the corporate structure we're familiar with today. However, contract production still continues today in regions like Champagne and Cognac, where brands like Hennessey, Remy Martin, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Perignon purchase grapes, must, wine, and distillates from smaller farmers, vintners, and distillers and blend them to create their own line of products. Scotland, on the other hand, is full of companies with no interest in renting--they want to own their own source of production to ensure their demands are being met. What if one day the distillery decided to cut off your contract? Where would you go for whisky after that?

This exact problem happened to Lagavulin owner Peter Mackie back in 1908. For more than seventy years the Mackie family had acted as Laphroaig's marketing agent, purchasing the peated whisky on contract and taking responsibility for its financial growth. When Laphroaig owners the Hunters decided to put their son Ian in charge of the distillery, training him to become its eventual manager, he chose to take marketing responsibilities into his own hands (leading to a slew of legal battles) and cut off the contract with Mackie. So incensed was the former contractor with this new development (and unable to secure the whisky he had been representing to clients), Mackie decided to build his own version of Laphroaig inside of his own distillery. He immediately hired Laphroaig's distiller away from Hunter and put him to work at his new custom-built-to-Laphroaig's-specifications still, calling the mini-production Malt Mill.

Hunter went on to hire another agency to help with marketing, but would begin to travel the world in an attempt to sell Laphroaig whisky directly to the public. He convinced the U.S. government during Prohibition that Laphroaig's medicinal flavors were actually medicinal and managed to export product to America for doctors to prescribe. The man knew how to market his booze. Mackie, on the other hand, was never able to get the Laphroaig flavor exactly right and in 1960 DCL closed down the site and turned Malt Mill into the Lagavulin visitor's center. When Mackie passed away in 1924 his company name changed from Mackie & Co. to White Horse Distillers, in honor of the blended label Mackie had created with his peated Lagavulin and Malt Mill whiskies.

We've got an old imperial gallon that's been hanging around K&L since the 1970s. Maybe it's time to open it?

-David Driscoll