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.

Friday 18 July 2014

US whiskey: it's the little things that count

DBS gets stuck in
The groundswell of “craft” distilling continues to accelerate (only today I discovered a new distillery just five miles from my house). Over here in Britain it tends to take the form of new gins, and sometimes vodkas. (There are some interesting new whisky products—Welsh whisky, English whisky—but these take so long to mature that the start-up companies tend to put out vodka and gin too, to help pay the bills while they wait.) Meanwhile in the US the number of new whiskey producers is skyrocketing too; while 99% of all the whiskey made still comes from just 13 large producers, the total number of distilleries now numbers in the hundreds, with several being the first in their state since Prohibition—it’s as if the whole industry went to sleep with the Volstead Act and is only now waking up. Some focus on very local production, buying only local grain and executing every stage of the process “from grain to glass” on their premises, yet I’m pleased to say that many of these very locally-minded products are making their way over here to the UK. Last week I was invited to a Boutique American Whiskey Tasting of eight products from four distilleries, organised by the crew behind the Boutique Bar Show and held at “classic Americana” bar and restaurant Steam and Rye.

Michael from Maverick talks us through FEW
First up was the FEW distillery, offering its bourbon and rye whiskey products. The distillery is located in Evanstown, north of Chicago: building a distillery here was a particularly bloody-minded gesture, as in the years before Prohibition Evanstown was the stronghold of the Temperance Movement. In fact it was founded as a dry community and remaining so up until the 1990s. The distillery’s name comes from the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard, head of the forces of Temperance at the time. As another nod to the history of the period, the bottle and label design evokes the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The FEW bourbon is a three-grain blend, mixing southern tradition with the spiciness of the rye more typical of the north—it is 70% corn (from a co-op in Indiana), 20% malted barley and 10% rye (from Wisconsin), aged in charred oak barrels. The nose hits me with wood first, plus cooked apples and oranges, and something like oatmeal. The palate has woody vanilla and meal again, with a hint of eucalyptus. It’s pretty smooth for a youngish whiskey (though there is no age statement) at 46.5%. The rye whiskey shifts the balance to 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malt. Michael from Maverick Drinks, who handle the range in the UK, explains that rye is expensive and low yield and tricky to ferment. One new trick applied to this product was the yeast—it is a strain usually found in red wine making, specifically Syrah gown in the Loire valley. The nose has that meal quality that I’m beginning to associate with the brand, while the palate is sharp and spicy with cooked apple and caramel. And I’m convinced I’m getting a red wine angle too, with cherry and stone fruit.

An Old Forester julep
Old Forester is not actually new at all: in fact it dates back to 1870, in Louisville, Kentucky. In those days whisky wasn’t usually bottled at all but shipped in barrels and poured into decanters at the bar: there was nothing to control how much an establishment might water it down. One George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman, noticed that quality was often poor and hit upon the idea of selling a bourbon in sealed bottles, each one signed by him to guarantee its quality. The result was “American’s First Bottled Whiskey” (technically the first exclusively bottled whiskey). In those days whiskey was frequently prescribed as a medicine (for pretty much everything), and the name Old Forester comes from that of a respected local physician who may or may not have endorsed it. Incidentally, this medicinal use of alcohol was one of the exceptions to Prohibition—yes, a doctor could prescribe you a bottle of whiskey—making Old Forester the only bourbon continuously distilled and marketed by the founding family before during and after Prohibition.* Tom from Brown-Forman tells us that Old Forester has never gone away, and in the area where it is made you see a lot of people drinking it. But as a brand it has been in the background in the Brown-Forman portfolio for a long while.

Old Forester is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, fermented using a “jug yeast” (i.e. nurtured, not chemically engineered) in open steel vats for seven days, double the time for most bourbons. Only 15 barrels are made at a time, and the barrels are made by the distillery themselves from white oak with a high toast and low char. Again there is no aged statement, but I think Tom said it was aged for about 7¼ years. We taste two bottlings, an 86 proof (43%) and a 100 proof (50%) “Signature” edition. The nose of the 86 is spicy and aromatic and for me carries a whiff of mint, which is carried over on to the palate, which is sweeter that the FEW samples. (Although this talk of sweetness and mint sounds as if I’m just imagining a julep…) The 100 proof is spicy but distinctly elegant on the nose, with a hint of citrus, and again smooth and polished on the palate.

The story of Hudson Whiskey is just as rich in strange incident. The Tuthilltown Gristmill, 40 minutes north of Manhattan in Gardiner, was purchased in 2001 by Ralph Erenzo as a site for a climbing centre. However, planning permission was refused, allegedly because neighbours didn’t fancy the idea of strangers trooping into town. The site had a working windmill, and one day a chap asked if he could mill some grain; they got talking and decided to go into the whiskey business, setting up the first distillery in New York since Prohibition. (Note that since then there are now 290 distilleries in the state, which gives an idea of just how much craft/artisan distilling has taken off.) It’s another grain-to-glass enterprise, aiming to “capture local flavour and ambience using the agricultural resources of local farmers while leaving a smaller footprint on the environment”.** They have also pioneered some interesting techniques: after someone suggested they could enhance the wood-ageing process by agitating the barrels every day, they hit upon the idea of playing bass-heavy music in the warehouse. (No one would comment, but I’m sure I’ve heard that it is, naturally, New York hip hop.)

I rather like the squat Hudson bottles
The Hudson Four-Grain Bourbon balances the richness of corn with the smoothness of wheat, the pepperiness of rye and the sweetness of malted barley. The make-up is 70% corn with 10% or each of the others. The aroma has a dusty sweet-dry quality that reminds me of halva (a Middle Eastern confection made from sweetened sesame seed paste) along with smoke and a hint of sandalwood. The palate is strong but smooth, with mint, caramel, orange and rye spice. We also try a 100% rye whiskey. This was not an easy course to take for a new distillery: as mentioned above, rye is tough to ferment, and their first eight or nine batches just turned to wallpaper paste. However, it was worth it, with the end result having a complex nose of apples, meal, toffee, caramel, prunes, kumquats, a blue smoky note and a hint of varnish. The palate is surprisingly subtle with elements of cooked apples, mint, sharp spice and cinnamon.

Finally we are introduced to Balcones, a tiny distillery built under a flyover, using handmade stills, that set out to create an entirely new tradition: Texas whisky (spelled without the “e”). Baby Blue and True Blue are the regular (46%) and cask strength (61.8% ish) version of their groundbreaking whiskey made from roasted atole blue corn meal. (Apparently all batches start out the same and any could go either the True Blue or Baby Blue route, until the master distiller decides, after which it can be shaped through the precise charring of the barrel, etc.) This is completely different from the other samples we’ve had, with a nose of maple syrup, pancakes, caramel, candyfloss and varnished wood. (Apparently the distillery is very hot, and they use small barrels, so there is a lot of interaction with the wood.) It is very soft on the tongue, with the same sugary flavours, plenty of wood and a hint of apples.

Our whiskey ambassadors at Steam and Rye
The Balcones team’s quest to push the envelope doesn’t stop there. They also produce Brimstone, made from corn smoked over a Texas scrub oak fire (the world’s first wood-smoked whisky, apparently), Rumble, made from honey, sugar and figs, and our last sample of the day, their Texas Single Malt Whisky. If I expected it to taste like single malt Scotch I was in for a surprise: the nose has more in common with the blue corn whisky, with strong meal elements, but also fruit and something strangely vinous. The palate is unexpectedly soft but with tropical fruit notes and an odd toasted aftertaste.

The lesson from all of this is that there is a hell of a lot going on in the US whiskey world at the moment. Age statements tend to be out of fashion, and you have some interesting techniques (such as the Tuthilltown bass frequency angle) to speed up the ageing process, while distilleries like Balcones are really opening up the possibilities of what you can make spirit from. The weight of tradition is much less of a marketing trope (in fact in this batch Old Forester really stands out for being so old), and instead brands identify themselves by the struggle, determination and ingenuity of the story behind the start-ups. The pioneering spirit—what could be more American than that?

* I think that there were four brands that had medicinal licences to carry on through Prohibition, of which I know Four Roses was one.

** I never thought of distilling as particularly wasteful of the earth’s resources, but this idea of “green distilling” is another trend. The Adnams distillery in Southwold has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the sustainability of their operation.
Our gang at the tasting in the strange environs of Steam and Rye (I'm in the middle at the back)

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Solerno: an orange liqueur you can't refuse

Once again I have Candlelight Club mixologist David Hamilton-Boyd to thank for bringing a new product to my attention, in this case Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur. Brought to us by master distiller Lesley Gracie, also responsible for Hendrick’s Gin, it is made in Sicily using blood oranges grown locally on the slopes of Mt Etna. These are processed by a local family who somehow extract essential oils from the oranges, which are blended with neutral spirit, Italian lemon and natural sugar.

OK, the first thing you notice about Solerno is the striking bottle, in blood-red glass (inspired by the Venetian island of Murano where they make a lot of glass) with the shape of an orange juicer built into the base. This is quite a clever ploy because every time you look at the bottle you are made to think of the process of squeezing the fresh juice from an orange—and this whole-orange emphasis is very much part of what makes this liqueur different.

I line Solerno up against the obvious default orange liqueur, Cointreau, and also a sample of Original Combier, apparently “the world’s first triple sec”, dating back to 1834, which Ted Breaux gave me on one of his recent visits to the UK. (Ted makes his Jade absinthe range at the Combier distillery in Saumur.) Original Combier is made from sun-dried Haitian bitter oranges and Valencian sweet oranges, which are rehydrated before the bitter pith is carefully removed and discarded. The orange rinds are macerated in neutral spirit, along with local spices and “secret ingredients from the Loire Valley”, before the infused spirit is redistilled twice. Cointreau don’t give much away about how their product, first released in 1875, is made, but it likewise involves both bitter and sweet orange peels.

On the nose Cointreau gives you a clear hit of bitter orange peel. It’s pretty vivid, but it is definitely the peel/pith that you can smell. Combier has a softer nose, offering what seems, by comparison, a combination of peel and fresh orange juice. Solerno’s aroma similarly seems softer and juicer than Cointreau’s.

My Combier samples were just minis. Can't help noticing
a disturbing sediment in the Royal Combier!
Cointreau’s taste pretty much carries on from the nose. It is quite sweet but with some steeliness in the mouthfeel, perhaps from the bitter oranges or perhaps from the spirit used (which I gather is made from sugar beet). Combier’s orange flavour is softer and less pronounced, though likewise there is an edge to the mouthfeel. In fact if anything I would say it is a shade fiercer on the tongue.

When I come to taste Solerno it really is quite different. It has a high note, very aromatic, like a piece of fresh orange peel squeezed over a cocktail, but there are spices in there too, plus a darker, tongue-tingling mid-note; perhaps it is the sourness of fresh citrus compared to the bitterness of the rind. It is very lively, with a peppery finish. Which brings us back to the whole-fruit concept. The basic difference between Solerno and Cointreau is that the former does taste much more of both orange peel and juice, while Cointreau is just about the peel.

This character persists in cocktails: I make Margaritas (tequila, lime juice and triple sec) and White Ladies (gin, lemon juice, triple sec, egg white) using both Solerno and Cointreau, and the former’s darker, sourer whole-orange flavour makes itself felt. Whether or not you think this is a good thing is a matter of taste. While I would far sooner drink Solerno neat than Cointreau—it is smoother and more multi-faceted—in a cocktail context it comes down to the essential difference of character, Cointreau’s straightforward high, bright, bitter-peel balance compared to Solerno’s more mid-note orange juice thrust.

Ted gave me another sample, of something called Royal Combier. I taste this too before finding out anything about it. It is yellow in colour rather than clear and the orange flavours are joined by a sandalwood spice on the nose and, on the palate, cloves, sandalwood, soft pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. It is very moreish. I had guessed that perhaps it was a wood-aged version of Original Combier, but on the website I see that it is actually a blend of Original, VSOP Cognac and Elixir Combier, another ancient liqueur recipe created by founder Jean-Baptiste Combier and released in 1860. Like many famous liqueurs (and indeed absinthe and probably gin) it was originally intended as a medicine, a way of capturing the healing properties of plants in alcohol. This one includes aloe, myrrh, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron on the botanical list, and it was actually discontinued for decades before being reintroduced recently.

For comparison I also tried Grand Marnier, the famous Cognac-based orange liqueur. Dating back to 1880, this is a blend of Cognac and “distilled essence” of orange peels, plus a secret recipe of other ingredients. In this respect it sounds much like Royal Combier, though Grand Marnier is barrel aged after blending. In any case it tastes quite different—you can really taste the Cognac and it has a pronounced dry wood character compared to Royal Combier, plus prunes and liquorice.

I think that Solerno is definitely an interesting addition to the triple sec world. Drunk neat it beats Cointreau hands down, but as a cocktail ingredient it comes more down to a question of styles, with Solerno offering more sweet/sour OJ as opposed to Cointreau’s bitter/sweet rind emphasis. And then there is the matter of price: Cointreau is relatively affordable at £20 for a 70cl bottle, Solerno is almost double that at around £39. Probably too precious for cocktails, then!

Solerno can be had from The Whisky Exchange for £38.95