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.