|The Pierde Almas range that we were tasting
The people of Central America have been making booze from agave in a traditional way for a long time: there are 200 different species that are used, and 150 that are just found in Mexico alone. But the distillers of the area where tequila is made started pressing for legislation to protect their particular version: “tequila” can only be made in the state of Jalisco and limited areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas and it must be at least 51% blue Weber agave (many premium examples are 100%), a strain bred for the purpose. Much of it is made under modern industrial conditions.
Like most mezcals the Pierde Almas batches have no standard ABV (with the exception of the Puritita Verda, which is standardised at 40% to help barmen make cocktails with constant results). In each case the master distiller decides what ABV best suits that bottling. The examples we taste on this occasion are 48, 49, even 50.9%. (By contrast tequila, while permissibly between 35 and 55%, is typically 38–40%.) Jonathan explains that all kinds of natural factors affect the flavour: if it is cold the fermentation takes longer.*** If it is rainy water may seep into the oven pits where the agave is roasted prior to fermentation and cool the contents, reducing the level of smokiness imparted by heat. The maestros test ABV by dribbling some of the spirit from a bamboo tube into a gourd bowl. By observing the formation and behaviour of the bubbles (“las perlas”) they can gauge the alcohol strength accurately to within 1%. (Nowadays they also have lab equipment to verify their conclusions to comply with legal requirements, but they still use the old method in the first instance.)
|A mezcal maestro can gauge the alcohol percentage from these bubbles
To convert the starch in the agave into sugar that can be fermented, the plants are roasted. Wood fires are used to heat stones in pits and the agave are placed on top and covered. To prevent singeing the stones are covered with mats of damp agave fibre, and the amount of this used will affect the smokiness of the finished drink. Likewise, some villages line the pit with stones, which will reflect heat back in on the agave, while others do not.
|Loading the pit oven to roast the agave piñas
|The espadin agave
On the subject of meatiness, the next example, Pechuga, is peculiar indeed. The spirit is double distilled then distilled a third time, but this time a turkey breast is hung inside the still. Yes, a turkey breast. In fact traditionally it is a chicken breast (pechuga means “breast”), but Jonathon, for all his respect for tradition, is not averse to experimentation. What effect does this meat have? No one knows, Jonathan admits. It starts off the size of a man’s hand and, by the end of the distillation, it is the size of a walnut. This alarms some vegetarians in the room—has the rest of the breast somehow entered into the drink? Jonathan explains that it is the spirit of the turkey rather than its flesh that passes into the drink. (I suspect that the shrinkage is due to muscle fibres contracting in the heat—I’m sure most meat contracts if you cook it on a high heat.)
|The tobaziche agave
To take his experiments further, Jonathan decided to switch not just from one bird to another but to another phylum, choosing the cottontail rabbit. Because of the season it took several days to catch just a few rabbits, and in the whole year they only made 340 bottles. The Conejo smells to me very similar to the Pechuga, though most of us feel that it is sweeter and less smoky. I get more of the apples on the palate (some get a distinct game character but I didn’t pick it up myself).
|As you can see, all the Pierde Almas products are unaged and colourless
But Jonathan has one more trick up his sleeve—and indeed this is the whole reason DBS has come to the tasting. There is also a mezcal-based gin in the range, Botanica +9. Instead of infusing the botanicals, as with the fruit in the previous examples, they are vapour-infused—suspended in a hair net inside the still! The botanicals are juniper, coriander, fennel seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, nutmeg and star anise. On the nose the juniper and orange are up front, with a sweet base and floral notes. The palate is dry with distinct elements of orange, coriander and orris. It has a nice “rustic” feel, but I don’t mean that it is crude, rather that you can clearly discern individual ingredients that went into it. I overhear DBS saying to Jonathan that, when he previously tasted the gin, he got more of the mezcal elements, but this time it just tastes like gin. But as with the whole range I think it is important to let the spirit open up in the glass: once again, after a while the smoky mezcal elements begin to emerge. I think this is a very interesting and worthwhile product.
It seemed natural that Jonathan would borrow the name when he came to make his own product. The fibrous paper used for the labels is handmade, originally to his specification to resist a lot of rubbing out while drawing. It has a range of components, including cotton, acacia, mulberry and agave fibres. The logo, drawn by Jonathan, is based on a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and shows a lost soul falling into the hellfire of an agave plant.
Sounds a bit gloomy. “The mezcal may have caused us to lose our souls,” Jonathon says cheerfully, “but we’re better off without them.”
The Pierde Almas range is available from Amathus, priced £42.50 (70cl, 40% ABV) for the Puritita Verda, £72.70 for the Espadin (50.9%), £106.36 for the Tobaziche (47%) and Botanica +9 (45%), £162.35 for the Pechuga (47%) and £176.50 for the Conejo (48.3%).
* The worm is a moth larva that is found living in a few species of agave, but to find one in a finished bottle would suggest rather slack quality control. However, Jonathon tells us that the worms are considered rather a delicacy—they are collected, dried, fried on a skillet and ground up with sea salt and dried chillis. He gave us some to taste that they made at his distillery: in addition to the chilli and salt there was a curious dusty, musty flavour, with an element of something like saffron. Quite tasty.
** In fact there are now eight mezcal states with protected geographical indication status, though the whole country makes the spirit.
*** The yeasts are natural, and each family with a tradition of mezcal-making will have its own resident combination of strains. At Pierde Almas they have 14 yeasts which start all together. As the fermentation takes place, typically over six days, the strains vie with each other until just two dominant ones are left. But the other 12 leave their mark on the flavour. If the weather is cooler this struggle is more protracted, meaning the less dominant strains may have more time to influence the final flavour.