Sunday 20 July 2014

Mezcal: Mexico's smoky spirit comes to town

The Pierde Almas range that we were tasting
Most people with at least a passing interest in booze will have heard of mezcal, but probably very few know what it actually is. Many will think that it is a bit like tequila but has a worm in it with hallucinogenic properties.* In fact mezcal is a more general term for a type of agave spirit of which tequila is just a specific example.

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.

Jonathan Barbieri
Everything else is mezcal.** But there is more to it than just the huge variety of agave that is used and the varied terroir. I was lucky to be invited to a masterclass at Amathus in Soho led by Jonathan Barbieri, the man behind the Pierde Almas brand. Jonathan is an articulate and engaging speaker and clearly passionate (sorry to use the P-word, but there it is) about both promoting this little-known spirit and protecting the traditions behind it. He explains that in addition to the variety of plants that go into mezcal—25–30 species in Oaxaca state alone, the region where he has his distillery—and the effect of different soil, traditionally each village will have its own style, and within each village there might be 40 families with traditions of their own. Mezcal is perfect example of an “artisanal” product, made by many people but typically as a sideline and essentially for personal consumption. For this reason, until recently you couldn’t even buy it in Oaxaca de Juárez, the state capital. Jonathan believes his products are “true” mezcal, tasting pretty much as it would have done 150 years ago.

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
The agave used is all wild. (Only about three species of agave are cultivated, including the blue agave used in tequila.) Jonathon describes the process: although the land is common land, you must first apply for permission to harvest specific plants, which you may have been monitoring as they mature over 20 years. You trek out with your mule train, perhaps for five or six hours, to a particular spot. Having harvested and trimmed the plant you carry it back to the mules—and it may weight 70 or 80 kilos. When all your mules are laden you trek back, then return the next day to start again. Given that the harvesting window between the rains and when the plants start to flower (at which point they can no longer be used) may be just a month, it can be a struggle to fill your oven. Most of the products we taste with Jonathan are made in quantities of just 300–900 bottles a year.

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
Pierde Almas mezcal is made from agave grown at 1800–2000 metres above sea level. The first samples we try are made from the Espadin agave (of which the blue agave is a variant). The Puritita Verda is simply the Espadin mezcal standardised to 40% alcohol. The nose is dry, in a pencil-lead way, like grappa, less herbal and fleshy than tequila, with a hint of white wine (perhaps Reisling). There is fruit in the form of grapefruit and pears, and a smoky tar/creosote element which gradually grows. (In fact I find with all these samples that this smoky element develops the more you slop and swirl it round the glass.) The palate follows through with a strong tarry smokiness married with grapefruit soda. The Espadin product is basically the same drink but bottled in this case at 50.9%. At first the nose seems quieter, barring a buttery quality. But as it opens up in the glass it emerges as much like the Puritita Verda. This continues on to the palate, with an element of oranges too.

The espadin agave
Next we try the Tobaziche mezcal, made from the tobaziche (“long agave”, or Agave karwinskii) plant. This is a complex species, appearing in different forms under different circumstances. This strikes me as fruitier than the Espadin but with a distinct dry, mineral quality, almost like wet plaster or clay, plus wood, grapefruit again and dry sherry. After a while I also get a meaty element, like salami. It’s a complex and evolving beast. The palate is smoky again but much less sweet than the Espadin.

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
But there is more to this recipe than just the meat. Before the third distillation a selection of fruits and nuts are infused in the spirit. Jonathan admits they are not pretty—ugly, potato-like apples, small pineapples, black bananas, hawthorn, almonds and a touch of anise. So essentially it’s being made like gin, though obviously the “botanicals” don’t include any of the traditional gin ones (aside, perhaps, from anise). It seems to me that any attempt to establish the effect of the turkey breast in this process is rendered a bit pointless when there is all this other stuff in there as well! The nose is initially sweet, clear and bright, evolving to caramel and the characteristic smoke, some stewed fruit and something gamey. On the palate there is definitely pineapple, something floral, quite grappa-like; I couldn’t say I was tasting turkey.

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
As you will see from the photos, all the spirits look the same—there are no resposados in the range. Though mezcal is occasionally aged, it is traditionally drunk as it is, and certainly these examples, despite their high strength, do not need any softening in wood to make them palatable.

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.

And as for the name, Pierde Almas? Jonathan has a story about that. His background is as an artist and once, while getting ready for a show, he had an assistant to help with preparing canvases. But the man had a habit of vanishing for days on end. Finally, after a week-long absence, Jonathan determined to find out where he disappeared to, which led to an obscure, inaccessible drinking den, where denizens nodded in a sepia atmosphere, while from behind a bar that was an incongruously colourful desk, mezcal was dispensed by a man with one eye, one arm, no teeth and a crippled leg. He was known as Pierde Almas, “he who loses your soul”.

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.

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