Beyond Mezcal: Spirits from Mexico

Whiskey, Gin, and More

When you think of Mexico and booze, you think of tequila, beer and mezcal. But a few weeks ago I attended a tasting at Astor Center and learned about some outstanding mezcal but also about a mezcal based gin and whiskey distilled from ancestral (heirloom) corn.

The company conducting the tastings was Pierdre Almas from Oaxaca. The company, the people running it, and their business model are most unusual.

 

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The people

I was invited to the tasting by Yira Vallejo, who I’ve known for many years. Yira’s title, Director of Social Projects, hints at the uniqueness of Pierdre Almas, but it doesn’t really capture her capabilities and expertise. I first met her when she was sales director at Genesis Beverage Brands.

Yira and jonathan

Genesis is the wholesale division of MHW, Ltd. and serves as the “incubator” and test marketer for fledgling brands in the NY and NJ markets. While Genesis gets a mixed reaction as to effectiveness, I never met anyone who didn’t think Yira was top of the game and the shining light of the operation.

In 2014, she went home to Oaxaca, met Jonathan Barbieri, the founder of Pierdre Almas, and joined the company. Jonathan is an American who moved to Oaxaca some thirty years ago, set aside his career as an artist and founded the company and the Palenque in which the company operates. (A Palenque is the physical space where the mezcal is produced with the machinery, animals, people, and equipment.)

Jonathan is passionate about mezcal. In an interview with LatinLover blog, he had this to say:

Mezcal isn’t only something you drink: it’s a spiritual drink. It is a spirit and it means culture. Mezcal takes you on a journey where you get to know the families that have been producing it for centuries. It gives people unity and a sense of belonging because it is present in all of life’s events. Tradition isn’t something you get out of a drawer every year, traditions are lived every day.

By the way, the name Pierdre Almas, literarily means “one who loses your soul.” It’s the name of a cantina where the cantinero (barman) was known as Pierdre Almas. The cantina was so unusual that Jonathan adopted the name for his company.

Pierdre Almas

Yira and Jonathan describe their company (and its mission) as a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. That’s not marketing hype, they mean it. The company is committed to the families and villages that produce their mezcal and partner with them to assist in local sports, health and wellness, and education. As to their environmental responsibility, they are actively involved in a wild agave reforestation campaign, among other efforts.

From a business standpoint, Pierdre Almas is committed to innovation. It is the first brand to designate the agave species on its label; to bottle mezcal at its original proof; to produce the first gin in the world called Mezcal Gin, gin distilled with 9 botanicals on a base of mezcal.

Oh, and let’s not forget about that whiskey.

The Mezcal Products

Let’s start with their mezcals. In case you’re wondering about the differences between mezcal and tequila, here is a simple explanation. You’ll also find a 60 second video from Liquor.com here.

In brief, there is one sentence commonly referred to, that describes the difference: “All tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.”

I tasted two of Pierdre Almas’ offerings. One was a 2015 Espadín from San Luis del Río, Oaxaca. Espadin is the dominant agave in 20160523-NYC_Whiskey-8Oaxaca. It grows everywhere, is pest resistant and has a high yield. I found this to be smooth, somewhat sweet, and with a strong floral aroma.

The other Mezcal was a 2015 Wild Tepextate, also from Oaxaca. I thought this was more intense but definitely a pleasant sipping mezcal.

Gin

The product is called Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals, Mezcal Gin. First created in 2012. Here’s how Jonathan describes the process:

I began by macerating the nine legendary gin botanicals in a very good double-distilled Espadín Mezcal, and then rectified it (a third distillation). The result was a “fusionary first”. A true meeting of flavors…

I found it to be a most pleasant variation of gin. Men’s Journal summed it up nicely: “This is the rare gin you’ll first want to sip neat to appreciate.”

Whiskey

Their newest innovation is Ancestral Corn Whiskey from Mexico. It is made the old fashioned way in a small copper pot alembic and double distilled. The mash bill includes a selection of red, black, and yellow heirloom corn.

There are 60 distinct varieties of corn native to Mexico and more than half of them originated and still thrive in the state of Oaxaca. Many of the varieties date back over 6,000 years.

About now you’re thinking—Mexican Moonshine? Well, yes and no.

Here’s how Liquor.com described the taste:

…the Ancestral Corn Whiskey has a remarkably savory cornbread-like aroma and flavor, plus a subtle smokiness reminiscent of mezcal. In other words, it’s unlike most American-made corn whiskies on the market right now.

I totally agree.

There’s another facet to this story.

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It involves the fact that Pierdre Almas is a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. So, the whiskey project is meant to support small farmers and create an economic incentive to continue to grow their heritage corn. In their own words:

The state of Oaxaca—known as one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the hemisphere—stands on the front-line of resistance against monocropping and the industrialization of corn. The Ancestral Corn Whiskey project is intended to create an economic stimulus that will drive future cultivation of native corn in Mexico.

They also see it as a way to keep GMO corn out of Mexico.

At present, there is a limited supply of the whiskey and it’s in limited distribution in the test markets of Chicago, New York, and WHiskey 375 nuevaSan Francisco. Here are some of the places in NYC in which you can find it: Astor Wines, Toloache, Tacuba, and Leyenda

Jonathan is also expecting to set some aside for aging but, as you can imagine, it will be some time before that’s available.

At roughly $50 for a 375ml, it isn’t cheap. But, then again, worthwhile projects seldom are.

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F. Paul Pacult

The Whiskey Authority—In More Ways Than One.

I first met Paul Pacult in the early 90s when I was running marketing for Seagram Americas. He and Gary Regan whiskey-authority1invited me on their radio show to discuss Single Malts and The Glenlivet. Over the years I’ve come to admire his passion for the spirits and wine industries.

I consider him to be among the top experts in the business. Consequently it’s not a surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to attend his first The Whiskey Authority (TWA) session in New York. Before I go into that, for those of you who don’t know him or of him, here’s a brief background.

Writer, educator, journalist, consultant, and more

In a 2006 article, Forbes described him as “America’s foremost spirits authority.”  His F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal (which I read avidly) is considered a top notch and independent source of reviews and ratings. He has also been a journalist writing for such publications as The New York Times and scores of magazines.

F-Paul-Pacult-256x300What I find most interesting is his consulting and educational training practice. In fact, when I was managing the introduction of a Mongolian vodka a few years ago, I turned to Paul for an evaluation of the brand’s taste profile and its strengths and weaknesses versus competition. What I learned was extremely helpful.

While there are many wine and spirits tasting competitions out there (I often think too many), Paul’s Ultimate Spirits Challenge and Ultimate Wine Challenge, are, in my view, the best and most meaningful. (Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about the spirits competition.)

A number of years ago, Paul launched The Rum Authority, described as “a series of seminars dedicated to demonstrating Rum’s universal appeal to both the novice and expert alike.” Which brings me to his newest endeavor, The Whiskey Authority (TWA).

The Whiskey Authority sessions

The inaugural session I attended was fascinating and well worthwhile. Here I am with none-of-your-business number of years in the industry, worked for the biggest and best (as an employee or consultant), and “been there

The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC
The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC

and done that” knowledge and understanding of booze. Well, I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I learned a great deal in the few hours I spent at the seminar.

First and foremost, Paul is an outstanding speaker/lecturer and very entertaining as he educates his audience about a serious and often confusing subject. The audience at the seminar is primarily bartenders (the critical consumer influencer these days) with a smattering of distributor sales reps and (ahem) one or two bloggers.

The session begins with a fun-filled and informative talk about whiskey including the critical elements and their role, all laced with amusing and engaging stories based on Paul’s 30+ years in the industry. Each of the products presented were first given the “nose test” then two blind taste tests. It was particularly fun to try and guess which brand was being tasted, before Paul revealed the brand.

Brand members support TWA and there were 12 brands to taste. Sue Woodley, Paul’s wife/partner, told me they had more than 15 wanting to participate but they felt that was too many for one session.

The session had whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. I asked Paul why he did that rather than concentrate on one particular country. His answer makes good sense to me:

“The guiding mission of TWA is to erase the conflicting and confusing information about whiskey categories, so Fiveit’s necessary to showcase whiskeys from around the world. In this case in 2016, we feature whiskeys from three nations in various subcategories to draw explicit differences. In the future we hope to have whiskeys from Canada, Japan, India, etc.”

I also asked Paul about the sponsors and why they participate. His answers were not surprising. TWA provides an opportunity for brand’s to have their story told to leading bartenders in important markets; to have their brand blind taste tested on “a level playing field” to highlight their virtues in a friendly environment; and, to be part of a program that’s purely educational.

I think it’s more than that. It’s all about Paul Pacult, an acknowledged and unbiased expert, who gives the presentation greater seriousness and credibility.

The brands that participated included Chivas, Michter’s, Highspire, Aberlour, Johnnie Walker, Redbreast (the one I fell in love with), among others.

* * *

In addition to the session in NYC, there was one in DC and one coming up on June 20th in San Francisco. Three more are in the planning stage for this year. But, they are by invitation only.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a showcase and opportunity that should not be missed by either large or small brands.

Hey Paul, where were you when I needed you? I would have had as many Seagram brands as you could accommodate at your sessions.

Yours Truly hard at work
Yours Truly hard at work
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Malfy Gin

Your views on gin are about to change

I’ve always found gin to be a fascinating category. While some will tell you that gin is really flavored vodka, don’t Malfy_Bottle_Fbelieve them. From my standpoint, flavored vodkas are based on added flavorings that, while not artificial, often taste that way to me. Gin is made with juniper berries, of course, and other botanicals as part of the distillation process. Some gins fall into the citrus camp but most use exotic spices and herbs.

What also make the category fascinating to me are the attitudes and opinions drinkers have about gin. Here are the five things I’ve heard most about gin.

1. Not everybody likes gin

Many of the consumers I’ve spoken with over the years seem to have a love or hate relationship with gin. The haters will tell you that they dislike the taste and blame it on the juniper and, as some have told me, those awful botanicals.

2. There are vodka drinkers and there are gin drinkers and neither the twain shall meet

3. The origin of gin is widely and strongly believed to have originated in the Netherlands with Great Britain playing the major role in its growth over the years.

4. Gin is to be either consumed in a cocktail or with tonic, and never on the rocks.

5. Gin as a category is not growing.

So, with these beliefs and opinions in mind, let’s take a close look at Malfy Gin.

An Unusual Gin from Italy

14770953_lIf you’ve ever been to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, you know about the beautiful scenery, the great food and those amazing lemons. Those lemons are at the core of Malfy Gin.

The Vergnano family distills Malfy Gin in a family run distillery in Moncalieri, Italy.  Although the spirit is infused with Italian juniper and five other botanicals it is the infusion of the famous Italian Coastal lemons, that give Malfy Gin it’s unusually fresh and zesty aroma. It clearly is not a traditional, juniper-heavy gin.

The gin is imported by Biggar & Leith (more about them in a moment) and is the “first luxury Italian gin” in the 12477426_lUSA. In fact the product carries the GQDI™ designation, which stands for Gin di Qualità Distillato in Italia.

Not only is the gin from Italy, but according to Biggar & Leith, “We were researching the history of gin – and there it was, staring us in the face; gin was invented in Italy – long before the British or Dutch.” I have found other references to Italy as the birthplace of gin, including here and here.

In addition, I emailed Gary (gaz) Regan (The Bartender’s Gin Compendium, The Joy of Mixology, The Negroni and more) and asked him about the origin of gin and Italy. He tends to agree and points out that the distillation of beverage alcohol began at the University of Salerno, Italy, circa 1050 – 1150, and juniper grows in abundance in that area. Since monks/students were seeking the “water of life,” it makes sense that they would add herbs to their distillates, so a juniper infused spirit would also makes sense.

The Product

Malfy Enjoying the ViewI found Malfy Gin Con Limone to be delicious, versatile and appealing to both gin drinkers and those who are not regular consumers in that category. I’m partial to Negronis and they refer to the Malfy version as the real Negroni—Italian gin, Italian vermouth and, of course, Campari. The Gin & Tonic was extraordinary with the prominent lemon taste and especially when enhanced by a slice of lemon (Italian, Meyer or California).

I also think that Malfy on the rocks was the most enjoyable way to appreciate the taste. Who says gin is only for cocktails?

Oh, and vodka fans I asked to try Malfy, enjoyed it very much. A crossover product, whereby vodka lovers enjoy gin? What is this world coming to?

About Biggar & Leith

Elwyn picThe company was founded by Elwyn Gladstone, a well-known spirits industry executive, most recently head of marketing at Proximo Spirits, and prior to that head of new brands at William Grant and Sons. Elwyn has been instrumental in the development and launch of such brands as Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, Kraken Rum, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and a host of others.

Here’s how he describes the company he founded and their first imported brand:

“Biggar & Leith owns a small portfolio of fine spirits from established, family-owned distilleries who are dedicated to innovation and quality. We search the globe for brands whose bottles transmit the personality and stories of the people who make them.”

The name Biggar & Leith comes from his great-great-great-great Grandfather, Thomas Gladstone. He left his home in Biggar, Scotland in 1746 for the port of Leith, near Edinburgh where he apprenticed and then started his own wine and spirits business. (It might also interest you to know that another ancestor of Elwyn’s is William Gladstone, the four time Prime Minister of Great Britain.)

If I know Elwyn, he’s already found the distillery and product that likely will come next.

The Score Card

I said at the outset that Malfy Gin would change your opinions and views about gin, so let’s tally the score.

1. While not everyone likes the taste of gin, I’ve found that gin rejecters, like Malfy. More than they thought they would.

2. The brand appeals to both vodka and gin drinkers.

3. The Dutch and the British may have made gin and genever famous, but I believe its origin was in Italy.

4. You can drink your gin any way you like, but I’ll have it on the rocks with a slice of citrus (usually grapefruit).

5. The gin category has two major components—domestic and imported. The former is declining. Across the board, small batch, crafted gins, both US made and imported are the growth engines for the category.

* * *

Malfy Gin sells for roughly $30 for a 750ML. It has only recently gone on sale so you might not be able to find it right away. But, trust me, you’re gonna love it.

I think my friend Elwyn Gladstone has a winner on his hands.

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