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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How an Olive Launched a Brand

The Ketel One Story

Nolet, the distillery behind the vodka, recently celebrated its 325th anniversary and is run by the 11th generation of the Nolet family. While they rightfully take pride and recognition for this accomplishment, the real credit for the success of Ketel One (partially owned by Diageo) belongs elsewhere.

The distillery has been around since 1691 but they’ve only been producing Ketel One vodka since 1983. And, that’s where our story begins.

David van de Velde

I first met Dave back in 2010 when I started writing this blog. Here is that story. But, there is much more to the launch of Ketel One than I realized at the time I wrote that article.

David van de Velde
David van de Velde

In recognition of the sustained growth of the brand—reportedly selling at 2.1 million cases and the fifth largest import—and given the 325th anniversary, I contacted Dave to get more of the back story. Specifically, what were the most important elements in successfully launching the brand?

Before I get into that, here’s a brief historical context.

Vodka’s growth spurt began in the mid 1980s. The market was dominated by domestic brands (Smirnoff, Skyy was beginning its ascent, and others). Based on a number of factors, Absolut led the charge of the imports and became the poster child for vodka. Suddenly, two other market imports entered the fray with price points much higher than Absolut. One, Grey Goose, had a range of things going for it (name, packaging, country of origin, and the Sidney Frank team). The other had Carl Nolet Sr. and his belief in the ingenuity and business skills of David van de Velde.

The Challenge

The relationship with Carl Nolet, Sr. started with a handshake, a 20-foot container of Ketel One (litres and no 750ml bottles) worth around $20,000. Dave put up around $250,000 and no salary for two years. The US operation started in Dave’s garage in Sebastopol, CA under Luctor International, his licensed import company.

The obstacles were clear and considerable: Limited resources and going up against some powerful competition.

I was head of US marketing for Seagram at the time, and as mentioned in the earlier blog post, all I kept hearing about was this upstart brand and it’s appeal to bartenders and retailers. We paid some limited attention, but often Goliath doesn’t take action until David has made it too late.

How the brand was launched

Three elements became the focus of the launch of Ketel One:

1. An emphasis on the bartender and enlisting them as brand ambassadors.

2. Convincing the trade (sales reps and bartenders) of the taste superiority of the brand.

3. A very unique promotion and value added piece at point of sale in off premise stores.

The Bartender

Dave and Ketel One were not the first to recognize the power of the person behind the bar in influencing brand IMG_0490choice. But he did it in a most unusual way and with the help of technology. The most common approach to sway the views of bar and restaurant people—then and now—is face to face with brand ambassadors, sales reps, other bartenders, special tasting, events, and so on. But what do you do if you can’t afford this approach?

In Dave’s case, he told the Ketel One story on VHS video (this is before DVD) and mailed copies to the top bars, stores, restaurants, hotels, etc. He reports that, in his estimation, the videos were viewed by around 20% of those who received it, and that it created ambassadors on its own.

All I can tell you is that wherever I asked about Ketel One, a bartender or food and beverage manager would wave a copy of the video or tell me about it. While we take such actions for granted today, it was ahead of its time.

The Smell and Taste Test

At the heart of the Ketel One story was it’s clean, smooth taste, based on its unique (at the time) distillation process. How do you get this message across?

For Grey Goose, it was the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI) taste test showing Grey Goose on top of its competitors with a score of 96.

For Ketel One, here’s how Dave describes their program:

“We trained the distributor sales reps to do a “Smell and Taste Test” with the trade. That consisted of asking the storeowner or bartender to smell and taste a sample of his or her own favorite vodka. But, of course, when the alcohol touches the taste buds there is a numbing effect. So the next sample—which was Ketel One—with the nose and mouth taste buds numbed, tasted a lot smoother.”

The “trick” as he puts it, worked very well.

{For another clever/tricky sales taste test see the posting called Salesman in Winter.}

About That Olive…

Actually it wasn’t an olive, it just looks like one. It’s called a TomOlive and is a small green pickled tomato. “For a TomOlives_Aasmall company in the startup mode, it was extremely difficult to get Point-of-Sale (POS) materials into a store…so we decided to do something very unique,” Dave recalled.

It happened this way. Dave received a phone call at home from a stranger, who he assumed was a stockbroker, but turned out to be someone in the movie business. The man told him, “Find TomOlives, make a Ketel One martini with it, and you’ll have discovered the ultimate martini.” Dave tried it and it was indeed sensational.

(Having bought some recently on Amazon and tried them with vodka, I can attest to the fact that they taste great. In fact, we sometimes, add TomOlives to a salad to add a bit of a kick. But I digress.)

photoA week later, Dave was on his way to Alma, Arkansas to meet with the producer of the TomOlive. The next thing you know, he buys the annual production and co-packs it with Ketel One. Some of the Nolet people were “aghast” and said, “we’re not in the fruit business!” But he did it anyway and came up with a terrific marketing program that had bars, stores and consumers clamoring for Ketel One and TomOlives. It became the darling of the sales force.

I know this for a fact, because after telling me about the video, people would add, “and why don’t you have those olives?”

The punch line to the story is twofold. David van de Velde never found out the identity of the mysterious caller with the idea for TomOlives. Second, Diageo no longer uses the exclusive Ketel One TomOlive program. Sounds like an opportunity for another brand, if you ask me.

Oh, by the way, according to Dave, Diageo had the opportunity to own a chunk—if not all—of Ketel One in the early days but let it go by. When they finally got around to a significant investment, it had gone from millions to billions.

He’s Still At It

Power Assist Golf - StrikerOne

Finally, Dave continues to be motivated by the notion, “Find a Hole and Fill it.” He and some colleagues have invented The Striker-One™ Smart Golf Club. It is designed for golfers who can’t play anymore because of injury, disability, age or any number of reasons. You can learn more at info@PowerAssistGolf.com. Or contact me and I’ll put you in touch with David van de Velde.

A remarkable man with a thirst for ingenuity and creativity.

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