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When an espadin is not “just” an espadin

File under things that have been weighing on my mind. So many times I have heard the following words – oh, it’s just an espadin. With the heavy focus on silvestres, and the more exotic the better, espadins have somehow become sidelined, forgotten, and well just plain ole maligned. This maguey of course makes up the bulk of what is in the market – almost 85% – so to make it out to be the industry’s merlot, well is just ridiculous.

So, on my most recent trek down to Oaxaca, I made it a point to try as many espadins as I could, really to remind myself of how utterly different and complex they are and how immensely talented those palenqueros are to get so much flavor and differentiation out of one kind of maguey – showcasing their true mastery in making mezcal.

This is how I found myself one night doing a tasting of “just” espadins at Mezcaloteca. The oh so knowledgeable and charming Andrea Hagan and I talked about some of the different ones they had and then she put together a pretty bold selection: an espadilla (wild espadin) fermented in leather, distilled in clay and from the Mizteca region, an espadin from the state of Guerrero, an añejo from 1998 (in glass the whole time) and a regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan. I really like how Mezcaloteca runs their tastings, and how they pair your palette and interest to the mezcals they have on hand rather than the pre-selected flights so many of us are used to.

I tasted through these in the order listed and of course found huge variety in flavors and strength. And that regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan, well, in this tasting order where it was last, it frankly wasn’t very interesting. So I spent the next half hour or so changing up the tasting order to see how i could get the most flavor out of each espadin. And what I found was by putting the one from Miahuatlan first, pretty much guaranteed it had a better showing no matter what followed in whatever order. And what made the añejo stand out? When it was third up. The two other mezcals were so bold in their flavors it didn’t matter which was second or last.

So, the lesson here – order of tasting is everything to get the most out of the mezcals, and perhaps even greater – an espadin is never “just” an espadin.

PS – I bought the one from Guerrero (Sanzekan) as I am trying to expand beyond my Oaxacafile focus.

Death by Ruta del Mezcal

It was a whirlwind of a Oaxaca trip – not so much in time but in all that was done in two very short and long weeks.

The pretext for the trip was a wedding – my first Spanish teacher in Oaxaca marrying her Danish love, and former classmate of mine. Despite already being married for four years (in Denmark) the shindig in Oaxaca was huge, fun and no less of a celebration. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Marisol and her introductions to her friends all those years ago, I am not sure my path in Oaxaca would have led me where it did (to mezcal).

From those crazy and late-nights beginning to the trip, everything just steam rolled through till the last day. My last trip to Oaxaca, in December of 2014 after a two year absence, was more family vacation, so sneaking in nights to the newest restaurant, mezcaleria, bar, etc was challenging. This trip I was flying solo and made the most out of it – from trekking out to pueblos, to hitting the new spots, to eating whatever and whenever I could. And of course to do this in the middle of the gorgeous and insane Guelaguetza, well, the sleep when I’m dead mantra seemed close to becoming a reality.

So overview thoughts before I start diving into these over the next couple of weeks.

  1. There has always been that fine line of parallel city existence between Oaxaca and San Francisco -two joined souls. And never did this seem more clear with the unbelievable gentrification that has happened in Oaxaca over the past three years. The money poured into welcoming tourists is quite obvious (wow that new airport, the newly paved roads – though still laden with topes, the new andador on Garcia Virgil…) The new mezcalerias – I think there are now 8 or 9 now? The prevalence of high end restaurants, cafes and their specialty roasted coffee, a cerviceria – your basic food hipster paradise.  It is quite overwhelming and with an incredible exchange rate (15.5 pesos to the dollar) well, heavenly, for me, not so great for the average Oaxacans who have been dealing with increasing wage inequality and inflation. Which leads to…
  2. Mezcal is expensive in Oaxaca. The new rules and regulations of both CRM (Comercam) and the government body that oversees business registration have created an interesting market in the city where pretty much everything now sold in bars, restaurants, stores has to be branded. The newly regulated industry has opened some pretty big doors for the middlemen who seem to be the ones getting rich. Now getting a decent copita means paying 30 pesos at the least all the way up to 200 pesos for rare stuff. Again, this is not so much a problem if you are either wealthy or a foreigner, but as an average Oaxacan well suddenly your mezcal is pretty damn expensive, unless you have a connection.
  3. The looming (or not) agave crisis and sustainability issue of the industry. The price of agave has come down, more agave is being grown, but still, it is a fragile balance and the slightest thing could throw the whole thing out of whack (another agave shortage/pricing issue in Jalisco where they have been known to use the Oaxacan agave sugars for fermentation; blight; economic shifts of pay, inflation, etc.) And of course the fact that there is no overseeing body regulating the cultivation, re-planting of wild agave, etc despite everyone talking about this for years, and well, you have a kind of mishmash or desmadre of a situation brewing.
  4. The growing influence of the European market on mezcal. It’s an easier market to enter for the most part, it’s educated when it comes to complex spirits, and of course, so much easier for travel as Oaxacans don’t need to jump through the demanding US Visa hoops.
  5. The growing visibility of women in the industry. Always a part of it, but now coming out of the shadows a bit as people/brands/cooperatives recognize the great marketing opportunities and stories to be told. Also there is the increasing independence you see as women become more educated and are waiting to have children, or have more control over when they have children.
  6. And perhaps finally, the increasing lack of transparency you see in the industry – ironically at the same time of increasing CRM regulations. These regulations have allowed for a greater disconnect between the mezcalero and the end consumer, creating even more of a market where the drinker, and sometimes even the head of the brand, really has no idea where the mezcal comes from.

It was an amazing trip, as always, and no matter how many times I have been there, no matter how much time I have spent, each trip reveals something completely new – can we say mole amarillo with conejo?

Guelaguetza dancers

Guelaguetza dancers

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Feria del Mezcal

Feria del Mezcal

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Quick look – Mezcal Vago tasting in Oaxaca

Had the chance to meet up with Judah Kupor yesterday and taste though the whole Vago line at his tasting room/office/bottling facility in San Felipe del Agua. Pretty amazing stuff, especially when you are able to do it side by side and really get a sense of the flavors that are being pulled out by the mezcaleros. Stretched out several hours (important when you are looking at 12-15 mezcals), the conversation rambled over tons of topics including the controversial ones of adding water (distilling to ABV vs playing with colas, puntas and yes, water), sustainability around the agaves, wood, just how many mezcaleros to work with under a brand, fair pay, challenging the mezcaleros to move beyond their flavor comfort  zone and tradition, and well, you get the picture of a wonderful long afternoon. At some point I’ll be able to go through the notes and put those ramblings to paper.

But the mezcal – if you haven’t already had the chance to give it a try, they produce some pretty incredible stuff and are playing around with some new ones as well. Tasting some Espadins side by side – from their very first batch on, it is quite the trajectory of flavor. For anyone who ever says, oh, that is just an Espadin, well shame, because the variety and complexity of this maguey is pretty extreme.

Three Tobalas

Three Tobalas

Also tasting side by side three Tobalas was also pretty interesting and again pointed to how much is determined by terrior, water, and distillation and storing – clay/copper/glass.

It is impossible to name stand outs – Madrecuixe, Tepestate, Mexicano, Sierra Negra (with 10% Espadin) – all compete equally and really just depend on the personal palette of the drinker. Me, I still want to go for the Elote every time because nothing quite puts the flavor memory of Mexico into a bottle quite like that one, and presents equally the vital role both maiz and maguey play in life down here.

I am looking forward to a trek out to Candelaria Yegole next week to see the full operation and of course what further hours of conversation will unveil.

A “wild” tasting

I had a chance to check out the Maestros del Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca. It was completely focused on wild agaves (silvestres) and included a collection of live plants. There were some pretty amazing mezcals from small producers – from varieties we do not see, or rarely see, in the US. I had a Sierra Negra that blew my socks off, a Chato from the Siera Sur, and a truly sublime wild Espadin from the Sola de Vega region. None of these are CRM (COMERCAM) certified, and unless the producers work with someone who has money and is looking to develop a brand, it is unlikely most of them will be certified. There was also the chance to try maguey tortillas which had a lovely sweet flavor to them.

A little bit of a surprise was how many more women were present on the producer side, which is really exciting to see as this is a tough barrier to crack – more on this later as it is a focus of my trip here to Oaxaca.

I had a wedding to go to later in the day so I was trying to be as moderate in tasting as I could be – pretty damn near impossible when presented with so many different varieties of magueys and flavors. At some point someone will need to figure out the pricing issue – small bottles were selling for 50-100 pesos, larger bottles for 150-250 pesos. For rare silvestres, that just doesn’t seem like enough and certainly doesn’t include the hours of labor of the palenqueros.

It was a great kick off for the mezcal adventures to come over the next couple of weeks.

Maguey tortillas

Maguey tortillas

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

Los Borrachos – throwing a mezcal tasting when #lovewins

It takes some cojones to throw a mezcal tasting in San Francisco during the annual SF Pride celebration. Add to that the historic Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, a Giants home game, and the farewell Grateful Dead concert, and you are looking at truly committed mezcal lovers who made their way through mayhem to taste some really new and exciting mezcals, paired with great eats.

Erick Rodriguez and Adrian Vazquez, Los Borrachos, put together this tasting event at Bartlett Hall to showcase traditional mezcals. In addition to brands already in the market like Wahaka, Tosba, Del Maguey, Don Amado, Alipus,  and Mezcalero there were some new bottles from the Heavy Metl fold – Rey Campero, Mezcaloteca, and Real Minero – which will soon be imported to the United States as well as fresh bottles from Erick’s Almamezcalera label. Totally new to the market and making their debut were Mezcal Los Gentiles and Chaneque.

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How you pace yourself at events like these is the big question. I go for tiny tastes. I also try to focus on mezcals I’ve never had first and see how it goes from there.

Erick Rodriguez of Almamezcalera

Erick Rodriguez of Almamezcalera

My first stop was with Almamezcalera. Erick was pouring three new mezcals all distilled with spices and herbs and made from espadilla, a wild espadin, and distilled in clay and wood. I will not call these “healthy” mezcals, as I think mezcal holds medicinal properties period. I started with the Cilantro and Hoja Santa which was incredibly herbaceous (of course) and vaguely anis like. At 54% it was big, spicy and smooth. Next up was the mezcal distilled with ramos – considered a cleansing herb – and at 61% it was surprisingly non-alcoholic, very green and herbaceous. It felt more medicinal in the same way that Fernet does. Last up was the cinnamon and cacao, also at 61%, which was neither sweet nor perfumey which was what I was expecting and why I tasted it last. All three of these mezcals would work great as both aperitivos and digestivos.

IMG_3831

Next up was Chaneque, a major reason I braved the insanity to come to the tasting. I had tried their madrecuishe once in Oaxaca and was intrigued. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, owner of Chaneque, had the whole lineup, and a couple of special mezcals under the table. I rolled through the 59% Coyote from Matatlan; the Mexicano from Sola de Vega (surprisingly musky and not the usual hot sweetness I’ve come to expect from Mexicanos); a 52% 8yr aged (in glass) Espadin from Zoquitlan which blew my socks off with its thickness and richness, and proof of why an Espadin should never be considered pedestrian; a very dry and mineral 52% Tepestate from Sola de Vega that had a strong bite in its finish; and finally a 47% Tobala from Matatlan that had the perfect sweet finish to it. Chaneque should be in the market in a couple of months with the Espadin, Madrecuishe, and Tobala.

Clase Azul Cenizo Mezcal

Clase Azul Cenizo Mezcal

The 49% Mexicano from Los Gentiles was very subtle and had the lovely sweetness you get with this maguey. I saved their collaborative project from Clase Azul – a 44% Cenizo from Durango – for last. This project is an experiment with only 6,000 liters produced (a drop in the bucket for this tequila brand). Created with the idea of economic development and jobs – it is part reforestation/cultivation of a wild agave, part art project with is ceramic black bottles, and beaded tops, and a price point of $225.

Creme de Poblano soup from Mayahuel

Creme de Poblano soup from Mayahuel

Thankfully among all the mezcal was some pretty delicious food from Lolo, Uno Dos Tacos, Colibri, Mosto, and Mayahuel in Sacramento which wins the prize for most dedication to come all the way to SF in the midst of the traffic nightmare. And their creme of poblano chile soup – delicious. For me the true treat was the delicious drunken cake from Polvorón Panaderia in Hayward – course textured, moist and only slightly sweet. And their Tres Leches is the bomb. If you can’t get to Hayward, don’t worry, you can get the cake at Uno Dos Tacos.

Pastry from Polvorón

Pastry from Polvorón

 

 

 

Penca

All the pencas shorn from a piña at the Tosba farm.

All the pencas shorn from a piña at the Tosba farm.

Penca is one of those fantastic wandering words in Spanish that has picked up a number of connotations. In the mezcal world it means the leaf of an agave plan. Pencas come up all the time when talking about mezcal because you have to cut them off in order to get to that starchy core, the piña, without which you wouldn’t have any mezcal. But literally it translates as “main rib” in a botanical sense and is used to describe the ribbing in vegetables like cabbage and spinach. In Mexico it’s also used to describe the pad of a prickly pear cactus. In Chile it’s used for “prick,” and I don’t mean to prick your finger… In Spain it can mean big nose or a chicken’s rear end, the area colorfully known as a “parson’s nose” in Oxford English.

But back to the mezcal world! Pencas occupy a big role in Mexican culture because they have been used in an incredible variety of roles. Today most are left in the fields as compost but historically they’ve been used for all their fibrous goodness. Their tips have thorns so those were used as sewing needles, fishing hooks, ornaments, and additions to weapons. The fibers of the pencas are so strong and long that they were frequently used as thread. The whole leaf is also really strong so it was occasionally used as a building material for a roof or siding. Dried they are also a fuel for fires. Still today some mezcaleros use them to fire their stills, thus completing some cosmic cycle.

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

Maestros del Mezcal: Bringing the makers into the process

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

I recently chatted with Rion Toal about the Civil Association of Maestros del Mezcal. The organization was founded by Abel Alcántara to provide a platform for mezcaleros who are cut out of or estranged from the entire certification and branding process. They are moving a variety of directions, most recently in creating public platforms for the mezcaleros, but they are also working on reforestation efforts and investigating distribution platforms for mezcaleros.

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Maestros del Mezcal sponsored its first even this past December in Oaxaca and things went well enough that they have another coming up July 12th in the Panuelito, right next to Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. They plan an exhibit of endangered magueys, discussions of reforestation strategies, a special dinner, sales of rare mezcals, and the opportunity to meet mezcaleros from very remote areas of Oaxaca. They are also planning a national meeting of mezcaleros in Acapulco later this summer. That meeting is still in the planning stages so we will update as we hear more.

In the interim Rion kindly translated a conversation with the organization’s founder and president Abel Alcántara that ranges from how, and why, he started the organization to where it’s going and the state of mezcaleros in today’s world

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara

How did you start this organization and what was your impetus for launching it?

I studied sociology and I have always been interested in social problems, in particular regarding organizing people. I have helped create organizations for supply, production and consumption and my grandfather was a mezcal producer and marketer in my native Guanajuato.

I understand that you started it in Guerrero, can you tell me how that came about?

20 years ago I was a coordinator of Priority Zones for Sedesol in Guerrero. At that time I helped create an organization of traditional mezcal producers in the mountains of Guerrero. Timber, marijuana, opium poppies, and maguey and mezcal are the principle products of this region. Mezcal, for its tradition, history, uniqueness, and quality is a flagship product of the area, so I decided to focus my work on organizing mezcal producers.

What are the organization’s goals today? Do you have longer term goals that you’d like to start addressing soon?

Most outsiders simply look to market the distillate. Maestros del Mezcal is aimed at driving the organization of the producers. We focus on making a sustainable comercial project that includes the interests of all participants, the encouragement and recognition of the producers, recognition of their history, and protecting and managing wild maguey.

What are the biggest problems facing the mezcal industry today?

Shortage of cultivated maguey, disappearance of, and extreme pressure on, some wild magueyes, and combustibles [trees], lack of resources to improve palenques and certify producers.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native  karwinski variations.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native karwinski variations.

What are the biggest opportunities?

Building confidence in the producers’ business and their product. Recognition of mezcal as a fine distillate by the middle and upper classes in Mexico and abroad.

What do you think of the current NOM 70 proposal?

It is an improvement on the former definitions, we have always pushed for a distinction between traditionally and industrially produced mezcal. I do believe that it can be improved upon, above all by clarifying that COMERCAM cannot define or regulate the quality of mezcal; it is only an instrument that promotes and insures compliance with the standard. COMERCAM can be reformed, change and improve.

What’s your approach to certifying small producers in COMERCAM so that they can export?

Convincing the producers as to the benefits of certification and the NOM, and that their product will be sold legally beyond their region and at a better price. Explaining to the producers that they will not be taxed until their product is being sold legally (i.e. until they are seeing revenue). Convincing the federal and state governments to support this emblematic distillate that creates jobs and resources for the indigenous and marginalized populations.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal's first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal’s first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

What are their biggest challenges in getting certified?

The lack of economic resources that the producers have and the lack of information that reaches their communities.

What are their biggest challenges in reaching the Mexican and North American markets?

Economic challenges: The producers cannot afford to dabble in the whole process from production to marketing. They need investors and partners and not just people who buy their mezcal. They need financial resources to improve the process and preserve the traditional and artisanal characteristics, and partners to market their product, with all that this implies.

Given the great interest in mezcal globally, are you seeing younger people working in distilleries?

It has slowed down migration out of the towns. Some young people are beginning to feel proud of their parents and the mezcal they produce more so than they have in the past. They engage more in the process and after studying or working abroad many have returned to make and market mezcal. Being a mezcal producer now has a greater status, especially among the new generations, than it has in the past.

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.

An agave spirits club comes to San Francisco

Healthy Spirits' agave spirits selection.

Healthy Spirits’ agave spirits selection.

Recently I’ve noticed a veritable stockpile of agave spirits at Healthy Spirits which resides in a rather unique location, the corner where the Castro, Duboce Triangle, and, stretching the imagination, Western Addition meet. It is renown for a wide beer selection, a huge whisky line up, and its hummus. But now agave spirits? What gives?

In the past month or so the collection got very organized in a corner of the store and, one day, a sign went up announcing an agave spirits club. I got in touch with the power that is at Healthy Spirits to survey the contours of this new club experience. The man in charge is Eli Rodriguez who you may recognize from the tequila scene.  His family owns Mi Casa Tequila, one of the better tequilas around, and to my knowledge, the only one from Michoacan to be imported to the United States. Like many of us Eli is an equal opportunity agave spirit aficionado so he’s bringing that interest to the corner of Healthy Spirits.

They already stock a fantastic variety of tequilas, sotols, and mezcals ranging from the usual suspects to specials like Wahaka’s vegan pechugas and Mezcal Marqués, a rarity from Guanajuato. The club is designed to feature stranger bottles for aficionados and Eli has great ambitions to eventually make some very rare offerings. He’s already fast out of the blocks with the first month’s selection, the Venus Spirits Ladrón Agave Spirit distilled in Santa Cruz. To catch up on the details of this American agave spirit take a look at my profile of Sean Venus and the Ladrón idea here. Eli has his own interview and musings on Ladrón as part of a hand out for the Healthy Spirits Agave Club, ask him for it.

The mechanics of the club are straightforward; one bottle per month at an average price of $80. Members also get 10% the monthly selection so that they can stock up on favorites and 10% everything else in the store which, I can testify from personal experience, is quite valuable. You can sign up at either Healthy Spirits location, the other is on Clement St. Eli promises a web site devoted to the club soon that will make sign up “even easier for anyone.”

 

Waiter, is that a ham in my mezcal? Tasting notes from the Del Maguey Iberico

The Del Maguey Ibérico on the ABV bar.

The Del Maguey Ibérico on the ABV bar.

No doubt you’ve already heard about the Del Maguey Ibérico. It’s a collaboration between Del Maguey and star chef José Andrés to make a pechuga out of jamon iberico. It received ample coverage, if ever something screamed marketing stunt, this was it.

That and its price tag of $200 per bottle are the reasons it took Susan and me so long to give it a taste. A normal two ounce pour makes it quite an investment, but recently Susan and I descended on ABV, Ryan Fitzgerald’s tautly run agave bar and bistro kitchen right as they opened at 2PM on a Monday. I admit that I was the first through the door but I was closely followed by a cluster of people. Fortunately San Franciscan drinking culture is alive and well.

ABV is far more than just an agave outlet. The whole place is run with great sensibility with a trio of wines on tap including the amazing Scholium Project red and a bunch of Moonlight brews on tap. Dive into their menu, especially the Pimento Cheese Burger which is a real highlight and the extraordinary kimchee fritter.

And ABV is one of the ideal places to sample something like this because they don’t only offer that big two ounce pour, they also offer the perfectly reasonable (indeed it should be standard) one ounce pour which at $15 for the Ibérico is entirely doable. Our great Peruvian bartender Enrique gave us a pour in a clay copita and away we went.

Suffice to say that it’s a huge surprise.

Del Maguey Iberico Pechuga
49% ABV
Lot SCM 135
NOM O41X
Santa Catarina Minas
Clay still

A copita full of the Del Maguey Ibérico.

A copita full of the Del Maguey Ibérico.

It has a very sweet nose, neither of us got any smoke.

The body is extraordinarily light, some sweetness but completely unexpected, none of that typical agave sweetness nor the oil that I associate with pechugas. The cured meat obviously changes the pechuga equation dramatically. You’d be hard pressed to call this out as 49% alcohol, because the flavor, body, and every other indicator don’t point in that direction. The lean body make it a great pick for sipping alone.

The finish is dusty, leathery and endures long past your last taste.

Yet another argument for experimentation in mezcal.

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. [If you’re interested in purchasing a bottle email your inquiry here.]

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.

Anyone interested in purchasing a bottle should contact Mike via email.