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I'm not a fan of barrel-aged spirits in general, and maybe I'll never understand the appeal. I just don't draw the sensation of complexity from that side of the spectrum. I find a spirit far more complex and compelling when you have a base material that holds the age. (Think old vines vs new.) I'm far more interested in the agave plant that weathered eighteen years jutting out from the side of a mountain before being distilled, than the annual crop of corn or barley that is distilled, and over a number of years in barrel gains a patina of smoke and vanillin and now tastes like alcoholic caramel (broadest of broad strokes here). And even though the age of the agave is often given as a point of pride by mezcaleros/as and sales reps and sometimes is even listed on the bottle, I think (at least in the US market), many people haven't been conditioned to process that information as an important measure of quality. If we care about the influence and importance of vintage and terroir, how better to experience this than through a plant that has had its roots in the soils anywhere from six to twenty+ years, seen the good weather and the bad, outlasted the odds, may have even been around since you were in a totally different stage in your life? Old plants aside, it also definitely matters how the material is processed. The mezcaleros/as that we support at Chambers Street are stewards of their land, taking great care to keep planting for sustainability of future generations, and processing the agave with respect. Respect not just to tradition, but to produce a final spirit that is not only their livelihood, but is, in its most basic essence, a distillation of the land and plants and people and history all in one product. We are honored and delighted to have a vast collection of agave-based spirits available at the shop, and hope that if you have never taken the time to consider why these are such special bottles, that you read on for a very brief note on process, or if you're already familiar, do continue on to the tasting notes to learn more! Cari Bernard
Whether or not the agave (maguey) plants are wild (silvestre) or cultivated, they come down the same way: liberated from the earth, the leaves (pencas) are cut away from the precious center of the plant, known as the piña due to its resemblance to the fruit. There is no mechanization here, this is all done by hand. The traditional way to translate the potential sugars in the piñas to fermentable sugar is to roast in an earthen pit. Each mezcalero/a has their own methodology and recipe of mix of hardwoods, type of stone, how they stack the piñas, what they prefer to use to cover the pit-oven to keep the heat for the many days needed to cook through the tons of piñas. Each type of maguey has its own distinct flavor and sugar level, some will be destined to be distilled alone, others to join blends. Offered a taste cut from the heart of a roasted Espadín piña alongside the same cut from a maguey known locally (in Minas) as Cuishe, the difference is striking: one juicy with heady sweet flavors of fire-roasted pumpkin and maple syrup, the other bitter with bright acidity. Even just touching the pieces felt drastically different: their stickiness, the texture of the fibers, the variation of color...
Roasting takes until it's done, which can be over a week. After this the mezcalero/a decides if and how long the roasted piñas need to rest before being broken down, some waiting long enough for mold to begin populating the stacks. Some mezcaleros/as still crush their piñas by hand, with large heavy mallets or axes, others prefer animal-driven stone wheels (tahonas). Milling machines can also be used, but you won't see that much with this collection of producers. Each milling method brings a different final product to the fermentation, which is done with ambient yeast in a range of vessels including (but not limited to) stone tank, cowhide, wooden open-topped tina. The smell of fermenting agave fibers is at once delicate and intense, and hangs in the air. When fermentation is finished the liquid and fibers are distilled in (most commonly) a copper pot still or clay pot still which can be vastly different in size and style and have far more nuances than is pertinent to write about right now. Using a clay pot, it can take 8 days to finish a double distillation. During the distillation time the wood fires under the still must be tended and the distillate separated into parts taken to be blended into the final spirit. Two distillations are quite common, and most spirits are proofed with heads (puntas) and tails (colas). Sometimes a palenque has space and time to rest the spirits before bottling, in really unique conditions sometimes part of a batch can be saved for years (but not in barrel!), for later release.
These are spirits to be savored and sipped to truly enjoy the complexity and to appreciate the time and handwork required. I never tire of sitting alone or with friends, marveling over the different expressions of these incredible plants, and toast to the future of the people and the land that make them possible! CB
**As with all spirits offers, we cannot ship out of state. These bottles are available for in store pick-up, delivery in New York City, or shipping within NY state.**
Alberto Martinez's palenque is located in the high elevation town of Santa Catarina Albarradas, Oaxaca. A mix of Sierra Negra (A. americana) and Tobalá (A. potatorum), the piñas are roasted in an earthen oven with Encino oak (hardwood) and river rocks for seven days. The roasted piñas are broken down by Alberto and his son-in-law Reynaldo with very heavy mallets. At around 6500 feet above sea level, nights get so cool that fermentation can slow or become stuck. To help bolster the natural microbiome of enzymes and yeast, Alberto adds the mashed up bark of the Tepehuaje tree to the stone fermentation tank along with spring water (they also ferment some batches in cowhide). Distillation is twice through clay pot stills also cooled by spring water from the mountain. Alcohol is 47%ABV and batch size is 90L (~120 btls).* I'm already a big fan of Alberto's Sierra Negra (made both in stone tank and cowhide), so it was really fun to try this expression. I expected more richness from the Tobalá, but this spirit has some really nice high tones, kiwi skin and lemongrass, pickled watermelon rind, bright green plum, mint and roses on the palate. Cari Bernard *tech notes courtesy of Cinco Sentidos website
'Tío' Pedro Hernandez Arellanes is a maestro mezcalero, with over fifty years of distilling under his belt. After many of those years working for other distilleries, he was able to build his own palenque 'La Esperanza' adjacent to his house in Santa Catarina Minas. His clay pot stills are lined with shaggy 'bagasse' (post-distillation agave fiber); opposite to the stills are his open-top pine fermentation tinas. Near where the roasted piñas rest, a trough (known as a canoe) is carved into the floor, to hold the piñas as they are crushed by large, very heavy, mallets. Pedro does have a tiny mechanical shredder, but prefers not to use it because he isn't impressed by the resulting spirit. Cultivated Espadín (A. angustafolia) is hand-harvested and cut down to roast in earthen oven. After roasting, the piñas are crushed by mallet and the fibers are mixed with well water to ferment in the tina. Distillation is twice through clay pot still. Proofed to 49% with tails, this batch of Espadín yielded 66L (~88 btls). We were able to taste a recently distilled batch of Espadín when we visited Pedro and his wife Andrea in September of this year and were impressed by the already complex (if a bit rowdy) spirit and could tell it had a bright future ahead. The batch in NY has had time to settle into this complexity. Banana skin and nut brittle, chilis in vinegar, banana, dark chocolate, balanced by a green grass and bright minerality. Fantastic! Cari Bernard
'Verde' can sometimes be a name that references a plant's physical characteristics rather than a specific species of maguey (agave), one also sees this with the names 'Largo', 'Cenizo', 'Amarillo' et. al. In this case, we are talking about Mexicano Verde, or Agave rhodacantha. Victor and Emanuel Ramos are a father-son team of mezcaleros in northern Miahuatlán, a little more than a two-hour drive south from Oaxaca de Juárez. The piñas are hand harvested, cut, and roasted for six days in an earthen pit fueled with a mix of Encino Oak, Alder, and Mesquite wood. After a week of resting, the piñas are then ground by ox-drawn tahona (stone wheel). The crushed agave fibers are then mixed with well water and ferment spontaneously in open-top Cypress tinas for about a week. Two-times distilled in copper alembic stills with refrescadera, proofed to 52% ABV with heads and tails. 256 bottles in this batch, rested in glass since May 2018*, we welcome this delicious spirit to NY with open copitas! Redolent with sweet spice and fresh florals on the nose, the palate is punchy and powerful mixing bright lime juice, savory carrot peels, pumpkin, and creamy custard on the lengthy finish. Cari Bernard *tech info courtesy of Mal/Bien website
Related through marriage to the Ramos family, Felipe and Ageo Cortes also live and work in the town of Mengoli de Morelos, Miahuatlán, Oax. Arroqueño (Agave americana) is (as the name would intuit) a species of maguey that can be found favoring the rocky terrain of and around the sierras. Here they can grow quite large and often past the ripe old age of twenty years before being ready for harvest. They have also been adapted slowly to cultivation, started in nursery before being transplanted to the wild terrain, to be checked on for decades, crossing generations of maestro mezcaleros to the care of their sons and daughters. The Arroqueño piñas are roasted in smaller (5 & 9-ton capacity) earthen pits fueled by a mix of Encino Oak, Alder, and Mesquite wood. After the roast comes a rest of 5-7 days before the piñas are crushed by ox-drawn tahona. Fermentation is spontaneous and lasts 3-8 days in open-topped Cypress tinas. Twice-distilled in a copper alembic still with refrescadera. Proofed with heads and tails to a final ABV of 51.6%. Batch size is 254 bottles, rested in glass since May 2018*. Even though the flavors and smells can vary widely, I've always found a robust intensity to the Arroqueños I've had the pleasure to taste, and this is no exception. A nose of burnt sugar, cooked milk, salted toffee, and a savory dark mineral molasses headiness, with a hint of mesquite wood-smoke, the palate is bold and follows suit with creamy milk chocolate, butterscotch, dried apricots, dates and cinnamon. Cari Bernard *tech info courtesy of Mal/Bien website
Our second offering from father-son duo Felipe and Ageo Cortes is their Tepextate (Agave marmorata). Sometimes spelled 'Tepeztate', this maguey can also grow quite large in size, not unlike Arroqueño it also prefers rocky soils and also can live for upwards of twenty+ years in the wild before reaching maturity. The leaves (pencas) of the plant can have a marbled quality, this being the characteristic from which the species name takes its inspiration. The piñas roast for 8-10 days in earthen pit with the same mix of woods as the Arroqueño (Alder, Encino Oak, Mesquite), but there is no resting of the Tepextate piñas, they are crushed by stone tahona and spontaneously ferment in open-top Cypress tina for 3-8 days mixed with well water. Distillation is also two times, using their copper alembic still w/refrescadera. Proofed to 50.2% ABV with the heads and tails, this batch made 266 bottles and the spirit has been glass-rested since April 2018*. Dark green cucumber skin, a field of tall grasses (fresh and dried) and pine trees, cinnamon bark on the nose, the palate leads with green banana, green peppercorn, green pear skin, leather, cucumber seed, bitter parsnip, and green melon. Cari Bernard *tech info courtesy of Mal/Bien website
The brand Farolito comes from batches selected by Ulises Torrentera, owner of the legendary In Situ Mezcaleria in Oaxaca City. This batch is distilled by mezcalero Virgilio Ramirez in the town of Santa Maria Ixcatlan. The papalometl (agave potatorum) was crushed by hand, fermented in bovine leather vats, and distilled twice in clay stills. The natural sweetness and concentration of sugars from the agave is beautifully contrasted with an underlying savory characteristic. Vivid tropical fruit is coupled with herbs, earthiness and umami. The palate is rich, viscous and mouth-coating. A very intriguing mezcal, and one you want to spend some time with. A great introduction of the In Situ range to the New York market. Oskar Kostecki
Mezcalosfera is the export name for batches of mezcal coming from another legendary bar in Oaxaca City, Mezcaloteca. While In Situ can be a bit raucous, Mezcaloteca is a library, dedicated to careful study and exploration. The incredibly well curated flights take you on journeys across the agave landscape of Mexico. Occasionally some of the batches bought by Mezcaloteca will be released for export, and that's how this bottle made it to our shelves. Distilled by Margarito Cortes in Miahuatlan, this is a quite individual marriage of agave espadin distilled with mangos and habanero chilies on the second run. A wonderful combination! All the roasted tropical fruit and hot rock minerality of espadin is accentuated by the flavor of mango and lifted with a very real spice and heat component from the chilies. Truly idiosyncratic, yet delicious! Oskar Kostecki
We’ve been huge fans of everything Real Minero does for a few years now. The quality of distillate, as well as the thoughtfulness and respect for the environs and cultural conditions of Oaxaca sets this palenque apart. This tiny batch (only 49 liters produced) was made by the late Don Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza in February-March of 2016. Sierrudo is agave americana, and a cousin of arroqueño, and sierra negra. They are huge, often weighing up to a thousand pounds, and take 20 years to mature. Though this mezcal has rested for almost 3 years, it still feels very young, very intense. Lots of tropical fruit, with an incredibly floral nose, the palate reveals more savory notes of cedar, pine, and cocoa nibs. There is also a citrus/citrus zest element. The intensity and length on the palate is quite stunning. I tasted a bottle that was just opened, but I can see this mezcal getting better and better with some time in bottle, or after its been open for a while. Oskar Kostecki
The clay pot shows incredibly well in this particular batch, not overbearing but present, and harmoniously integrated. Savory notes of hazelnuts, raw cacao, and barbecue mesh with sweeter hints of dried apricots, raisins, brown sugar, and cocoa butter. I also find mint, dried oregano and wet gravel. During the Real Minero fiesta, in between all the dancing bodies, pounding music, and smell of charred meat, this was the bottle I found myself most often reaching for. Oskar Kostecki