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It came from Utopia: A North American Sotol

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids' production.

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids’ production.

While I was stumbling through the world of North American agave spirits I happened upon the first example of a vertically integrated operation in Texas, one that is technically making a North American sotol from Dasylirion texanum grown, cooked, fermented, and distilled in Texas. We all knew it was going to happen. Native American tribes were already using Dasylirion texanum for some foodstuffs, possibly as an alcoholic beverage, but now it’s joined the world of craft spirits.

The man behind this creation is Mike Groener who owns and operates Genius Liquids in Austin, Texas and got a wild hair up his ass to create this sotol because everything lined up perfectly with the idea. As with many of these situations, he knew someone who knew someone who had a ranch where this elusive Dasylirion texanum was growing wild and they took it from there. As with most of these things, trial and error played a greater role than most would admit.

Genius Liquid’s “Desert Spirit Texas Sotol” is being released in early June so put your money down to see the latest, greatest, entry in the mezcal innovation race or just marvel at where this is all headed. Just ping Mike on Twitter to see if you can secure a bottle. He was kind enough to walk through his entire process.

Genius Liquids' Desert Spirit bottle.

Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit bottle.

How did this whole idea of a North American sotol get started?

The basic premise, the thesis of any good spirit, is to take a plant or fruit from a specific region and process it with as light a touch as possible in order to preserve and concentrate the flavor. Mezcal is the perfect example, you seldom proof it down, you seldom add yeast. It’s a very natural process, a really basic formula, the best way to express terroir.

When it comes to spirits, I didn’t really start caring about what I was drinking until my mid-20’s,when I started to treat spirits like a fine meal. So I started with gin about four years ago. I dug into its wonderful history; there are so many different varieties, and it’s such an intriguing place to start.

Upon thinking about new frontiers in distilling, we really wanted to do something innovative. So, we created the De Terra Collection, an annual release of a Texas grown fermentable. Think of Parker’s Heritage releases as an example. The first release, Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, came together quite fortuitously.

The path to sotol started for me when I attended an Alamo Drafthouse tasting with Judah Kuper from Mezcal Vago. He did a private tasting with Bill Norris, the beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse, where you get to sample spirits and talk with the producer. Judah seemed like he fell into a serendipitous situation; he literally married into it. He had such a straightforward description of his passion for mezcal and the details  of production. He made mezcal clear and easy to understand, with an unpretentious attitude.

Genius Liquids' graphic explaining Sotol's relationship with agave spirits.

Genius Liquids’ graphic explaining Sotol’s relationship with agave spirits.

After that, I got intrigued by the process and started there. That was almost three years ago. I turned my wheels and thought a lot about what we could do in the United States that would reflect the terrain and local taste like Judah does with Vago in Oaxaca.

The opportunity arose 11-12 months ago when a bit of communication came down the pipeline. Justin Elliott, from Qui in Austin, said ‘hey, let’s go down to Utopia, TX and look at a property. Someone told me they have a lot of sotol plants.’ I didn’t know much about sotol, but read and researched as much as I could prior to the trip.

It’s about three-and-a-half hours outside of Austin in West Texas. It’s the only place I’ve been in Texas where there are plateaus and valleys, they narrowly resemble mountains. You drive through these valleys and end up in a small town called Utopia, TX. We met this guy, Travis Sutherland who has been running a music festival, Utopiafest, on this property and his family has owned the property for four or five generations. He had an understanding of the potential of the plants and contacted someone who knew someone.

"Is this the plant you've been looking for?"

“Is this the plant you’ve been looking for?”

Travis says ‘Is this the plant you’ve been looking for?’ My first encounter was not particularly friendly. The plants are spiky, dense, and you think of them as having a prickly personality. They are a perfect metaphor for sotol in general. The texanum varietal is smaller, grows at lower altitudes, and has less available sugar because of the extreme summers we have in Texas.

I took a few of the plants home, chopped them up in the front yard, and cooked them to get a sense of their makeup. We didn’t know if we could even create a spirit from them, but, we just loved the idea that we could be the first in a space race to fully create something like an agave spirit outside of Mexico. I spent the next few weeks analyzing every facet of the piña; taste, smell, texture, color, etc.

What sort of mistakes did you make early on and what did you learn as you worked with the sotol?

At first I baked the sotol leaves to get a sense of their flavor and convert the starches but I ended up just drying them out completely. It took a few months and a few failed experiments in cooking, but ultimately I got a pressure cooker. It was a ‘Let’s see what this pressure cooking bit does.’ It’s a common practice in tequila, a shortcut for them, but for us it’s not a shortcut as much as a necessary evil to preserve and convert as much sugar as possible. 

After the roast.

After the roast.

Over time as I pressure cooked the piñas there was a profound change in the plant. The smell and flavor transformed and it filled my house with this amazing rye scent. After my first successful cook, I peeled the cooked leaves, they are intensely fibrous, unctuous, and have a delicious grainy flavor. Ultimately I found a way to cook them consistently with a pressure cooker. However we did have months of testing with an underground pit. We still plan on exploring this in the near future.

How did you scale that up once you figured out the basics?

For now we use a series of pressure cookers to cook everything, but are planning on flying out a key mezcalero in Michoacan to help us build another pit. Typically the more grain you use in a liquid, the higher the sugar content will be – that’s a pretty common foundation in brewing and whiskey – but the more leaf material I added didn’t increase the sugar at all. We use now about 50 pounds per each fermenter. At around 7-10 pounds per piña, this means we use up to 10 piñas per fermenter since the core is removed along with some other woody pieces. To get about 55 gallons you need about 500 pounds of piñas. 

Travis harvests, cooks, and then shreds the pinas in Utopia and delivers them to the distillery. We then steep the leaves for 48 hours and pump out the sugary brown liquid, which is then fermented for about 10 days. Each fermenter results in one ordinario run in our pot still. They don’t yield much. We get a maximum of ten liters of ordinario from each batch.

Before fermentation

Before fermentation

We did our first spirit run 2-3 weeks ago. It was the culmination of about 20 batch/ordinario runs. All stored in stainless and then blended to 49%. Bottles are here, labels coming soon [Genius has since received the labels and has bottled 13 liters of their first batch]. The distillate starts at 160 proof. We blended this batch down to our final ABV of 49%. That will vary slightly by batch.

It’s been non-stop, constant experimentation with failed ferments, different types of yeasts, and various cooking methods. Luckily these plants aren’t really worth anything outside of this purpose so we didn’t lose a lot of money, just time. Currently, these plants are absolutely wild, varying in ages and potentially well over 20 years old. The long term plan is to absolutely regrow the plants. Sotol is great in that the plants will grow back after being harvested. When harvesting, Travis isn’t disrupting the root system, so the plants are already starting to regrow. There’s a massive amount of land, and so far we haven’t even made a dent in what’s growing there.

I talked to many people about sotol production methods to get an understanding of how they ferment and distill. But the point is that we’re playing a different game. These plants are even more hostile to giving up their sugar.

I just want to learn from and pay homage to the the best. I was lucky enough to visit Aquilino’s palenque for a day and ask every possible question because the process and sharing of tradition is very important to me. [Aquilino is the maestro mezcalero who makes many of the Vago mezcals], if this Sotol is made with love like his mezcal then it will definitely work.

Rolling fields of sotol

Rolling fields of sotol

What are your tasting notes for your sotol?

The most interesting and perplexing drinking experience I’ve ever had was with the Del Maguey Tepextate. It was a funky roller coaster of pineapple, rubber band, sweetness, and vegetal notes. I can’t explain it but the sotol starts with a nice level of alcohol reminiscent of lowland tequila, it smells vegetal but when you taste it you’ll get some peach, mid-palate sweetness, and then minerality at the back of the palate with subtle rye notes. It’s a very unique drinking experience, akin to a Tobala.

What’s your release plan?

We’re releasing this for a few reasons. We want to be the first to do this completely domestically. A few other distilleries are trying agave spirits, but they’re all either using syrup or their fruit is processed in Mexico. This is a fine approach but we want to have control over every aspect of production.We’ll release our first two batches in early June.

Most of the bottles will be allocated to bars, but I think we’ll have a few at the distillery and via retail. I have a feeling that it will all be swiped up in Texas because we won’t be able to make much of it. But we’ll see what happens, perhaps expanded distribution to other states is on the horizon. We’ll adjust our process as we go. We could get a larger pine fermenter for instance. We’re aiming to charge $79-80/bottle.

A generator can be useful for a few things, scale, but also powering entertainment.

A generator can be useful for a few things, scale, but also powering entertainment.

What else are you distilling?  

We produce two gins as well, one normal strength at 45% and one navy strength at 57%. We have another gin project where we’re exploring Texas dry gin. This will probably be out late summer. We also have an oaked gin which we will release in June. We’re trying to do a speciality De Terra release every year. We’re looking into a pechuga next year using brisket and possibly a Rum Agricole.

Are you entirely focused on local expressions?

Yes, we caught wind of a large karwinski bundle in West Texas. I want to use stuff in Texas to highlight the terroir here, it’s unique. I think someone was trying to grow blue Weber, but no confirmation on that. I guarantee you that no one is growing karwinski in West Texas looking to cash in. Agave Americana also grows throughout Texas, but I haven’t found a big enough plot of it yet. Once I do though….

IMG_3150

The “Desert Spirit Texas Sotol” fermenting away.

 

What about the fermentation: Are you using wild yeasts? Any other special steps to your process?

We are really transparent about what we do. We are in fact using a Epernay yeast, it’s an early champagne varietal [DV10]. We also get some infiltration from other proximate yeast. We use a copper pot still, we only distill up to 50 gallon batches. We invite anyone to come and take a look at our operations. We don’t currently have a tasting room because we’re in a really small spot, but we do host tours regularly. It’s not the wonderful aesthetic experience that I want to provide, but in time we’ll move to a larger facility.

The sotol has been a really difficult product to bring to fruition, but it’s a delicious spirit. I don’t know if anyone will care that we’ve done this, but at least we were the first. We’ve done it the right way and I think the media coverage is piquing people’s interest about agave spirits. By us doing this, the “some guys in Texas,’ story, we’ll hope to elevate the conversation around the agave portfolio. I think tasting is believing on this one.

All photos courtesy of Mike Groener.

Sarah Bowen interview

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University who has long studied the impact of the tequila and mezcal industries on Mexico. Most recently she wrote a great portrait of the battles over how to define mezcal in the winter issue of Gastronomica. Those debates consumed the mezcal world in 2011 and 2012, ultimately culminating in the defeat of NOM 186 and the Mexican government’s proposal to copyright the term “agave.”

It’s well worth reading and is something of a preface to her upcoming book, “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” due out this September from the University of California Press. We are really looking forward to that and will definitely post our notes on it as soon as it’s available.

Here’s an excerpt from the official description of the book:

This book tells the stories of tequila and mezcal, two of Mexico’s most iconic products, to investigate the politics of protecting local products in a global market. As people yearn to connect with the people and places that produce their food, the concept of terroir—the taste of place—has become increasingly salient.

The growing global demand for tequila and mezcal has led to fame and fortune for a handful of people, while excluding and marginalizing many others. Thess cases analyzed in this book illustrate the limitations of relying on alternative markets to protect food cultures and rural livelihoods.

Sarah has published widely in the academic world about the history and contemporary issues with how tequila and mezcal are managing their Denominacion de Origen. It’s a huge story in Mexico and part of an even bigger one as producers of traditional goods as diverse as cheese and spirits struggle to retain control over their intellectual and cultural property in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

Mezcal is currently embroiled in exactly this discussion about the proposed NOM 070 and Sarah delves into this debate  that apparently pits authentic back country distillers against industrialists. But that romanticized portrait is only part of the story, significant issues are seldom discussed like who’s really getting paid? Is that romantic story even true? Is it sustainable? Is the agave listed on the bottle even in the mezcal? And, perhaps most important she raises the big question of whether the industry has to stay static like a fly in amber or whether it can become a dynamic force.

We talked recently to delve into these questions, how she sees the mezcal industry developing in the face of NOM 070, and what role North American consumers play in the entire debate.

How did you get started studying the world of mezcal?

I have been looking at this topic since 2002. I started out looking at the shift to agave cultivation in southern Jalisco during the agave shortage in the early 2000s. I did my dissertation on the Denominación de Origen for tequila, and I have been studying mezcal for about six years. In all this time that I’ve been looking at the history of regulation of tequila and mezcal, it seems like it’s been going in one direction. Almost all of the changes made to the regulations have been expanding the markets for tequila and mezcal and increasing exports. It’s not at all in the direction of helping small farmers and producers. In the last few years, with the failure of NOM 186 and now the proposed revisions to the norm for mezcal, it feels like we are seeing a major shift in the evaluation of the tequila and mezcal industries..

 Why now? Who’s behind it?

 My article in Gastronomica is about the campaign against NOM 186 and the proposal to copyright the word “agave.” American bartenders, retailers, and consumers played a big role. In my interviews, people that had been organizing against the campaign told me that no one was really paying attention until realized that boycotts by American consumers were possible. That played an important role. The case of NOM 186 offers a lot of hope,  because there’s this movement coming out of the US and Mexico, of people who care about artisanal mezcal and are aligning themselves with small producers. This offers small producers an opportunity that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t have on their own. As Americans that care, we also have to be careful because our interests don’t necessarily align with those of the small mezcal producers. We really need to think about our role.

 How would you encourage American consumers to think about this and act?

Try to be educated about how mezcal is produced. It’s hard to do when you’re here in the US. Try to know something about how producers and farmers are being paid. This can be difficult, because not all companies want to be transparent about this. But we should support companies that are paying the workers and producers well, not just because their mezcal or their tequila tastes good. The most important thing is to start talking about the workers and producers.

Can you offer any specific guidance to consumers? Are there any brands they should follow, any specific stories?

There are some interesting brands like Mezcal Sanzekan, which is owned by a cooperative of mezcal producers, or Real Minero, which is Mexican-owned. But then there are other models too, like companies that are part Mexican, part American, or Americans that are working with small producers in respectful and fair ways. 

Part of the issue is that getting into the American market is hard to do, so Mexican producers frequently have to work with someone else to get access to the market. My main point of hope is that so much has changed in past 10 years. Just the fact that consumers are talking about all these things makes me really hopeful. When I started this research, no one was talking about terroir, there was hardly any artisanal mezcal available in the US, and no one was talking about environmental practices and sustainability. Now that’s what we talk about. I think that talking about workers and producers is the final step. There isn’t a hard and fast rule; it is hard to figure it out. But I am heartened by the fact that people are talking about mezcal in a more thoughtful way than they were even 5-10 years ago.

What do you think of the proposed Norma?

I was shocked by the proposal, because it is just a radical break from the previous norma for mezcal and the tequila norm. But the problem is that we have no idea what’s actually going to happen. If something even close to the proposal passed, it would be a major shift. As part of my book, I analyzed the regulations and the Denominaciones de Origen for tequila and mezcal. Since 1949, they have evolved in one direction: towards making mezcal and tequila less specific, less tied to particular places, with a focus on expanding markets. The original mezcal norma was almost an exact copy of the norm that regulated tequila, so the proposal is a big change. I’m intrigued to see what will happen.

Are there any other models people should think about other than European wine?

 My dissertation research compared the Denominación de Origen for tequila with a case in France: Comté cheese, which is protected by an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which is France’s version of a Denominación de Origen. Comté cheese is exemplary even in France. That case showed me what a focus on tradition and terroir can do. The AOC included rules that preserved the specific characteristics of the region, but that also had positive effects on farmers. As an example, they had a rule that all of the milk used to make Comté cheese had to come from within a 25 km radius of where the cheese was being made. This helped preserve the link to terroir and the taste of the cheese, but it also helped small farmers and cheesemakers, by discouraging industrial groups form coming in, because the made it harder for them to industrialize and achieve economies of scale.

So there are examples that show the potential for what these kinds of labels can do. But it’s important not to idealize it too much. There are lots of examples of AOCs in France that are industrializing, where big companies are buying out out the small ones. So it’s not a perfect solution. You have to look in Mexico for things that will work there. To my knowledge, tequila is the first Denominación de Origen outside of Europe. Mexico is very different from Europe, so the exact same model isn’t going to work there. What is odd about Denominaciones de Origen in Mexico is that the legal definition is basically an exact copy of the French definition, but even though the idea of terroir is right there in the definition, in practice, the rules have never gone in the direction of preserving tradition or terroir. Some of the producers and retailers that I’ve talked to have proposed having smaller Denominaciones de Origens, which would be linked to a particular village or region, where there’s a sense of tradition in how mezcal has developed in that place.

Politically what examples are mezcal makers looking at? Do they just look at the tequila model?

I’ve talked to many mezcal producers who say, “Look at tequila; it’s been very successful. They built the market and improved quality.” That is true. The market for tequila tripled between 1995 and 2008. By many measures, it’s been very successful. But it has not been successful in terms of protecting the agave farmers, the environment, or the traditions that make tequila unique.

The interesting thing about mezcal now is that there’s this divide between those who want to follow the tequila model, and people who don’t want that. Mezcal still has many small producers and traditions that have developed in particular regions, and there is still a chance of preserving that. The path for tequila has basically already been chosen.

Politically, who knows? The role of the US matters. The United States has a lot of influence in Mexico. The United States agrees to protect tequila and mezcal as Mexican products, but we don’t recognize the concept Denominación de Origen as a legal concept. As an example of the influence of the US, a few years ago, a lot of people, including the president of Mexico at the time, proposed requiring that all tequila be bottled in Mexico. But they backed down due to opposition from the bottlers in the US and some of the tequila companies, many of which are owned by multinational companies.  That case demonstrated the power of the US. In Mexico, the the revisions to the laws that established the procedure for establishing quality standards (the normas) for all Mexican products in the early 1990s were part of a fundamental neoliberal shift in Mexico, focused on increasing access export markets and foreign capital.  The normas and the Denominación de Origen are not focusing on preserving tradition and terroir. They are about preserving market access.  It will be interesting to see what happens with this proposal to change the normas that regulate mezcal. Whatever happens with this proposal will tell us something about which way the wind is blowing.

What about tequila? Could it change?

I interviewed a lot of tequila producers in 2006, and I think maybe one person used the word terroir. Many farmers, and some of the tequila producers, would talk about the way the agave grown in certain regions had particular characteristics, so there was definitely an understanding of the idea of terroir. But now there is a lot more emphasis on terroir. Some companies are saying that their tequila is single estate tequila, or even from a single farm or ranch. So there has definitely been a huge increase in how much people are talking about terroir.

I think that some companies are doing interesting things, but I also think that some companies rely on a rhetoric of terroir, while continuing to source their agave from different regions. This may happen even more during periods of shortage. For the big companies especially, their strategy involves sourcing agave from all over the DO region, to get the best best price and supply. And of course, some companies have been accused of illegally buying agave from Oaxaca during periods of shortage. So in terms of really preserving a link to terroir and helping farmers and communities, for the biggest tequila companies, their talk about terroir and place is just rhetoric, because if they were really talking about it, it would really make them less flexible and put farmers at an advantage. We need to be talking more about the role of farmers in the tequila industry. But even when we’re talking about single estate tequilas, we’re not talking about how farmers are paid and treated. There are a lot of risks associated with cultivating agave for farmers, because it takes so long to mature. The prices fluctuate, and there is a lot of uncertainty. There needs to be more talk about the role of farmers and agricultural workers, and how they are being compensated.

Bien picado

Bien picado is a term you don’t come across that often in the mezcal world but it’s rich in associations. Literally it means  “well eaten” or “nibbled.” It refers to agave plants which, after their quiote is cut off, are attacked by the adult versions of our otherwise tasty gusanos.

This came up recently when I tasted Vago’s Bien Picado with Judah Kuper because the term also refers to a type of mezcal. The Vago post on their very limited run Bien Picado (which is only available in Texas) is well worth reading — it delves into the term and production process in a level of detail that will fascinate any aficionado. The mezcal itself is a unique flavor and a great opportunity to support small production runs like this one. We’d love to see more limited bottles like this and Wahaka’s recent vegan pechugas.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

A North American agave spirit rises in Santa Cruz

Venus Spirits' agave spirit, El Ladrón blanco, left, reposado, right.

Venus Spirits’ agave spirit, El Ladrón blanco, left, reposado, right.

I’ve been following Venus Spirits since they announced an American agave distillate in May of 2014 because this idea of a North American agave distillate is absolutely fascinating. St. George Spirits tried to do one years ago and we occasionally hear about someone growing agave for a distillate in California so it has felt like only a matter of time until someone grafted North American craft distilling onto Mexico’s national spirit. Recently it’s been abundantly clear that the distilling community is up to the challenge because the more I look into it, the more of them I find. I even ran into someone on a trip to a Oaxacan palenque last week who had been noodling on the idea.

I finally got around to setting up an interview with Venus Spirits’ master distiller Sean Venus this April. In mid-conversation he said, ‘looks like the St. George guys are up to it as well, or is this an April Fools prank?’ as he pointed to his Instagram feed which featured a shot of St. George distiller Lance Winters hefting half a roasted piña in the Alameda distillery and another of tanks of roasted piñas. I was as surprised as he was but that little encounter spawned a bunch of research and blog posts which led me to get punked by a true April Fools prank from another distiller and leads me back to my conversation with Sean Venus.

The aging rack at Venus

The aging rack at Venus

Sean launched Venus Distilling in the spring of 2014 with a gin and has since added another gin, an agave spirit, an aquavit, and a trio of whiskeys.  The distillery itself is hidden away in Santa Cruz’s West Side. The corrugated metal ceiling and poured concrete flours are part and parcel of the efficiency model from many a distillery, auto mechanic, and office park. But this one is just down the road from a fast evolving micro-hood of breweries, vintners, a salumeria, and sundry other craft food producers. What used to be the home of the town’s light industry hosts the 21st Century version of American production. It’s a fun scene, well worth a visit because most of the places have tastings and, once you park, it’s all walkable. Venus has plans for a tasting space soon, more on that later.

Sean comes out of the brewing world where he got his start as a teenager when his physics teacher demonstrated the wonders of fermentation to him. A stop in one of the microbrew capitals of the universe at the University of Oregon eventually led to work at Gordon Biersch and ultimately to this distilling venture in Santa Cruz.

He arrived here on the edge of the Pacific because his wife has roots in town and kids are already very much a part of it. Sean is obviously bringing his take on agave and everything else he distills. As he noted during our tasting he emphasizes the aromatics. And that’s the first thing you notice, his gin is full of lavender and citrus while the aquavit is an explosion of scents. He noted with some chagrin that his lavender comes all the way from France because that’s the only organic source matter he’s been able to find. Step outside the distillery and the smell of the sea hits you making the formation of aromatics in his spirits all the more vivid.

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

Sean has been selling the Ladrón Blanco since September 2014 and is set to unveil a Reposado and Añejo later this year. His real bread and butter is the gin which is terrifically floral and a steal at just about $30 retail. We stopped by U Save Liquors off Mission St. on our way home to grab a bottle and remain shocked at the price point. You know you’re in new territory when craft distilling becomes more economic than industrial products.

Back to the Ladrón: It’s an agave spirit. Sean and I chatted a bit about the definition question, why not call it an agave distillate? Sean’s perspective is pretty simple, that the word “spirit” is more fun and meaningful. I agree and I’ve switched my own vocabulary from the overly technical and distancing “distillate” to spirit. As for how it’s made, the base material is 50 gallon drums of agave juice from Guadalajara. I don’t know much about how it was produced.

Sean told me that he worked with a supplier in around Guadalajara that he had worked with during his days in the organic food industry to get a juice that preserved as much agave flavor as possible. That’s just the latest in a series of approaches to the source material question north of the border, the explosion of interest in distilling from agave is only matched by experiments that extends into the entire production process because the production environment is so different. Sean uses a closed fermentation system which can move fast, which is 10 days for him, to incredibly slow, six weeks at Venus Distilling. When you compare that with the 5-7 days that seems something like a standard in many areas of Mexico you get an idea of just how different production is in Santa Cruz than Santa Catarina Minas.

Venus Spirits still

Venus Spirits still

Distillation occurs in classic hand hammered copper pot stills. Two of them stand to one side of the distillery. This is about as far as you can get from a classic Mexican mezcal distillery. Everything is pristine and, on the day of our visit, had just been cleaned after a distillation run so it was doubly so. These contrasts are quite dramatic. The similarities are pretty obvious: The location is just as small and everything is dependent on the distiller’s sensibility.

We chatted a bit about how he blended the Ladrón because I was really curious how someone approaches the idea of mezcal as an outsider. The thought lurking there is something like, ‘how does a guy in Santa Cruz study mezcal in order to copy it’ which, it instantly became clear, is the wrong way to think.

The Ladón is clearly its own spirit, not a tequila, not a mezcal, nor modeling itself on any other Mexican agave distillate. It’s a fresh idea based on the source material at hand. Sean mentioned that he started with the middle of the distillation run and only later realized that he needed to cut in heads and tails in order to give it nuance. That’s pretty standard stuff for mezcal distillers but he’s not out to make the next great American tequila or mezcal, he’s following his own tastes and working with the material to make something that he appreciates.

Botanicals and some time on oak create Venus' second gin its distinct color.

Botanicals and some time on oak create Venus’ second gin its distinct color.

Big picture, that’s the really interesting element that North American distillers can bring to the world of agave spirits. I love very traditional mezcals as much as anyone but every once in a while I’ll taste a novelty that opens a door onto new possibilities. I’m really curious to see how this evolves exactly because of all the pushing and pulling in the craft distilling space. People try things out because they sound neat, might fulfill a personal taste, not necessarily because that’s the way things have always been done. I’m sure there will be duds along the way and that categories will evolve not to my, or many a traditionalist’s taste, but that’s the world of trial and error. Put another way: I may not really like hopped up beers or over oaked chardonnays but I’m happy that someone is working with them.

The Ladrón neck

The Ladrón neck

As a sign of that state of things Sean told me that traditional tequila enthusiasts haven’t fallen for the Ladrón. I understand that completely because it really doesn’t hew to the classic tequila structure. After all, it’s distilled from juice, not the bagasse so I’d assume its flavor would be different.

The Ladrón has a nice inside label with a story behind it. Ask when you visit.

The Ladrón has a nice inside label with a story behind it. Ask when you visit.

As for how to classify it: The nose is really round and fruity. It almost has grappa notes to it. The flavor is cleaner and lighter than a classic tequila with a decent alcohol edge. You definitely get that classic agave fruit in the body but it doesn’t have much viscosity or the caramel that you might expect in a Fortaleza. It’s much closer to a Tapatio. While we were tasting Sean said what we were thinking while tasting, “it tastes like an eu de vie.” That said it sounds like cocktail bars are really interested in the Ladrón. It’s starting to pop up here and there so we’ll see how they integrate it into their programs. And don’t think it’s a lightweight, it weighs in at 47% ABV. We were also lucky enough to taste the Reposado at barrel strength, 106 proof. Sean says he’s going to cut it to 47% before he bottles it but now it’s redolent of the whiskey barrels it rests in, something akin to an agave whiskey because that agave fruit is present and integrated with the oak.

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

The Venus tasting room is a work in progress. When we visited it was framed and swatches were sitting around but they’ve made a ton of progress since and Sean is planning on opening in lat May/early June. Until then email them to set up a tasting. One of the perpetual frustrations for distillers in California is that they can’t sell their products in the tasting room. There’s a bill under discussion in the legislature now which might change that. If you’re curious and want to get involved check it out because, who wouldn’t want distillers to reap the fruits of their labor, right?

The origins of mezcal

Patricia Colunga‘s documentary “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México y la Destilación Prehispánica,” where she tries to establish the pre-hispanic origins of mezcal is now available for rental on Vimeo. You can watch it in English or Spanish, the rental is $10 for a 72-hour period or you can just buy it for $15. Here’s the embed for the English trailer.

Mezcals from Western Mexico and the Pre-Hispanic Distilling – Trailer posted by Dany_Aldana on Vimeo.

Patricia is also finalizing another documentary that may be of interest. This one delves into the basis for the diet for the societies the preceded the Maya, Toltec, and Olmecs and especially how they used agave for food. As their press release says

“This documentary unveils the diet that could have been created 10,600 to 4,400 years before the present, before the invention of pots and comales, and even before the domestication of species fundamental for the traditional agriculture system called milpa, cornerstone of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.”

They dig into which ingredients and recipes may have been used with a goal of recovering this lost culinary culture and confronting the current illnesses of the Western diet. It sounds fascinating so we’ll pass along news of its final release as soon as we have it. As with the “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México” documentary this one titled, “Mesoamerican Diet: Origins,” is directed byPascual Aldana with Patricia and Daniel Zizumbo sharing in the writing.

How do you get all that mezcal back home?

That's much more than mineral water and there's a second two liter bottle beneath it.

That’s much more than mineral water and there’s a second two liter bottle beneath it.

Since I’m just back from Oaxaca I just went through the mezcal packing drill. I also chatted with people who do this monthly and fielded a ton of questions from nervous first timers. The quick answers to most questions: Yes, you can do it, it’s legal, there are just a few things to pay attention to. Read on!

First, read Mezcal PhD:

John McEvoy did some great research on what you need to know about bringing mezcal ( or anything liquid more than 3oz/100ml ) home with you. The summation is that airlines have different limits, the US government doesn’t care a whole lot as long you declare what you’re carrying, especially if it’s not large quantity.

Second, how to pack.

John McEvoy loves wine skins. I think they’re great too because they’re easy to pack, but they will also cost you four to six bucks. I prefer the cheap poster tube method where you buy some big poster tubes, cut them to length for your bottles, pack the ends with socks and underwear, and you’re ready to go.

Poster tubes are my preferred way of packing mezcal.

Poster tubes are my preferred way of packing mezcal.

Any cheap serrated knife will do.

Any cheap serrated knife will do.

If you want to be super secure, wrap your bottle in bubble wrap and then shove it into the poster tube.

For extra security wrap bottles in bubble wrap before inserting them into a poster tube.

For extra security wrap bottles in bubble wrap before inserting them into a poster tube.

Other people I know forgo any additional packing material and just wrap their bottles in clothing. One person who has done this tons of times told me that he has never lost a bottle this way and he brings home cases at a time. Literally. Still, poster tubes offer an extra layer of security for me and since they’re so inexpensive and easy to find in Mexico I stick with them. You can get them at Office Depot or many of the paper shops in larger towns like Oaxaca.

There's that second two liter bottle in the bottom layer. Weight limits and bag size are your only limitations.

There’s that second two liter bottle in the bottom layer. Weight limits and bag size are your only limitations.

If you’re going to buy plastic containers try to get the palenque to seal them for you. Many of them will do this without asking. Just make sure to leave extra room at top because the your bag is going to get tossed around and undergo some pressure changes.

If you bought a five gallon garafone and need to bottle your own mezcal, head to the bottle store. I go to the one on Av. Heroico Colegio Militar which is just north of downtown in Colonia Reforma. They will sell you any bottle size you want along with corks and are a great resource for any other questions. Otherwise ask around, there’s bound to be something like it in places where mezcal is popular. And you can almost definitely get bottles sealed at a palenque.

Third, how to talk to the airlines.

They’re in the business of getting you home while keeping the weight down on their planes so that they don’t burn too much gas, while extracting every marginal dollar from you so it makes perfect sense that your flight home is your biggest potential problem.

All the airlines have different limits on the amount of alcohol you can bring with you and different baggage weight limits. But you should be able to get by no matter what: If they ask you whether you have mezcal, just say no. If they ask you why your bag is so heavy say that you’re carrying crafts and books. But really, it probably won’t come to that.

Do pay attention to your airline’s bag weight limit. If you’re under that limit, rarely will anyone blink an eye. Usually you can just pay a fee to exceed it. Or you can always buy another cheap bag in the market to spread the bottle weight around your luggage. Of course you may well end up paying yet another fee to the airline for that extra bag. Such is life in the wealth extraction industry known as commercial flight.

Fourth, how to talk to customs

As it turns out this is the least of your problems. Just declare that you have mezcal on the customs form and put a fair market value on it. Fair market value is an extremely flexible standard so you could minimize it quite a bit. Plus, customs is busy and usually looking for other things like fruit, seeds, and the like. If they do grab you, just pay the duty. It will be minimal and they’ll have you on your way quickly.

There’s now an app for your mezcal

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera's Mezcaleria app.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.

That sneaky Ulises Torrentera popped an iOS app on mezcal into the App Store last week with nary a notice. Actually he did flag it on Twitter but it feels like this will just spread by word of mouth so take a look and tell him what you think. Maybe it won’t rock your world but it’s exactly the sort of thing that mezcal has been missing.

Ulises is the owner of the In Situ Mezcaleria in Oaxaca as well as the Farolito mezcal brand and author of three books on mezcal. I guess, an app was the rational next step. The real question is why no one else did it before. Susan and I have talked about it but never managed to achieve the momentum and time to do it. Fortune to the bold and all of that. Ulises did it.

The app is really quite simple, an introduction, shots and descriptions of the most common maguey, and a guide to how its made. The photos and layout of the steps to make mezcal make this a great A/V tool for tastings and conversations so I’ll be definitely be using it in that capacity. There’s lots of room for additional information including agave types and details about history. Hopefully Ulises is thinking of this as a first version and will develop it further.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera's Mezcaleria app.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.

The app is also something of a living advertisement for El Farolito and In Situ in that those are the only items listed under the Mezcales and Mezcaleria menus but, again, that’s what you get to do if you create the app. It’s all in Spanish but the translation shouldn’t be that hard for anyone who has a decent understanding of the language. I’ll be asking Ulises about the possibility of a translation when I’m in Oaxaca later this week so stay tuned.

How Mexicans get their mezcal

Puntera mezcal

The high alcohol Puntera mezcal at Palenque Roaguia.

In Mexico lots of people don’t pay taxes on their mezcal, they don’t see brand labels, and it’s probably not certified by COMERCAM: Many Mexicans buy their mezcal in bulk directly from the distiller. Or they depend on the underground railroad, friends, family, producers, bring garafones, big plastic containers up to the size of gas cans, into the city from the country side and then it’s broken down into used glass bottles.

It’s so common and pervasive that it’s easy to forget. But being in Mexico City and drinking with friends you see all these unlabeled bottles in home bars and that’s what they’re full of. Whereas we may have cases of wine in our closets, there’s a set here who has cases of mezcal ready from that annual pick up/drop off.

Punked by agave!

The label of Westland Distillery's Tukwila reposado.

The label of Westland Distillery’s Tukwila reposado.

In the fluster of the past few days as I’ve been hunting down all things agave spirit related in the United States a Facebook follower pointed me to Tukwila Reposado from Westland Distillery in Seattle. I blithely noted it and kept going and only circled back this morning to do more research. Then I realized that there was more to the story and got into touch with Westland’s distiller Matt Hofmann for a quick talk about the truth behind Tukwila.

First up it’s pronounced ‘taqwilla’ and is named after a Seattle suburb that runs south to Seatac. Second, the spirit actually exists but it was really a one off stunt. As Matt told me, it “was just a joke that we had thought of years ago. We’re 100% a malt whiskey distillery but let’s try something fun.”

Their version of fun is a bit more complex than what you or I get into and it turned to be more than they bargained for as well. They started four years ago with 50 gallon drums of agave syrup because that was the only agave source material they could use in Seattle. So good, so far but once they started to work with it they couldn’t get it fermenting. Matt said that it “was one of most difficult things to ferment, we couldn’t get it to go, we were utterly defeated by it. We threw 4-5 yeasts at it, we used enzymes, and then we ended up only getting 20% of the yield that we thought we would.”

Their perseverance paid off because they finally did get to distill it and stored it in the prototype barrels they’d used fro their early work with malt whiskeys. They blended the Tukwila by removing some of the spirit after a year and the rest after three years which yielded a grand total of 65 bottles; evaporation is the distiller’s enemy!

As for the confusion about the release well, they got to have it both ways. Matt is nothing if not a literal prankster because he fulfilled the desire to deliver an April Fools prank but “we actually released it.” It was a distillery only release with emphasis on the past tense since they sold out on April 1 after they posted it to their Facebook page and ran a press release. A group of fans showed up saying “we’re only here if you’re actually releasing it” which could have led to a rather sticky situation but everyone came out in the end.

How does it taste? Since it sold out long before I could hop a flight to Seattle we’ll have to trust Matt’s description.

It doesn’t really taste like tequila or mezcal. It tastes like what it’s made from, agave syrup. It’s pleasant but not super complex. A bit nutty with dark, spicy syrup notes. It picked up some of the character from the malt whiskey barrels. It’s pretty clean, and not viscous because the consistency of the syrup doesn’t translate to the distillate. And it’s certainly concentrated because of time in barrel.

Would they do it again? “It was a fun side project for us, but we’re never going to do it again. However, we are going to mature some of our single malt whiskey in used mezcal barrels. ”

 

 

American agave spirits

Yesterday’s post about St. George Spirits’ apparent re-entry in the agave spirits world drew a ton of messages from readers about other distillers trying their hand at distilling agave. So much so that we need a list to keep track. We’ll update it as we go so keep sending in your local craft distiller’s agave spirits and we’ll report back on their different approaches.


DistillerBottlesLocationDetailsAgave Source Material
Venus SpiritsLadrón Blanco, Reposado, & AñejoSanta Cruz, CAAgave juice
St. George Spirits? Alameda, CARoasted piñas
Genius Liquids? Austin, TXTexan Sotol: Dasylirion Texanum plants from W US 90. (silvestre). Pot stilled twice.
Westland DistilleryTukwilla ReposadoSeattle, WAPartial April Fools joke but 65 bottles were distilled from agave syrup and released in their tasting room. Agave syrup.
State 38 DistillingBlanco, Reposado, & AñejoGolden, CO