Move over, Tequila and Mezcal

100% Agave Spirits Made in India

Back in 2014, I wrote a number of articles about Desmond Nazareth and his Agave India products, as well as how agave made its way to India. (See articles here and here.) Recently, I learned that Desmond has joined forces with Martin Grassl, the founder of Porfidio tequila.

Here is how their joint venture is described on Old Town Liquor’s website.

The joint venture was created out of the mutual respect of two entrepreneurs of disparate backgrounds but with similar creative minds. They shared a profound admiration for a botanical wonder, the “tree of marvels” as the Spanish Conquistadors called the agave when they encountered it in Mexico.

The product is called SINGLE AGAVE® 100% AGAVE AMERICANA EDITION (Code Name: S3xA). It’s not made in Mexico but in southern India— the Deccan Plateau, a geographical area where the agaves grow. As the story goes… the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains. The Agave Americana is the producer’s way of celebrating that 100-year-old event by distilling the wild plants.

I spoke with Desmond Nazareth or DesmondJi, as his brand is called, and here are excerpts from the interview.

BB: How did your relationship with Martin Grassl and Porfidio come about? How did you and he meet?

DN: The relationship was born out of respect for each other’s achievements and each other’s product quality. Martin noticed articles about Indian agave spirits appearing around 2012 in the Mexican press and contacted me.

It was both Martin’s and my opinion that agave spirits— be it tequila, mezcal or other— are unique precisely because of the botanical uniqueness of the agave plant (“the inulin factor”), the true and only star of the equation, not because they are Mexican-made.

The idea, of course, is not new, as it simply mimics what Baron Rothschild did for the world of wines 50 years ago by creating the first non-French wines in Chile and Napa.  It was revolutionary idea at the time.

Both Martin and I strongly feel that Indian agave spirits, made in our craft distillery (India’s first), should be viewed in the same league as Mexican agave spirits like mezcal, by nature of being made from naturally grown and foraged agave plants, as opposed to plantation-grown agave plants. The fact that my products are made from 100% Agave Americana, rather than 100% Blue Agave, takes our premium products intentionally beyond tequila, along the lines of Mexico’s finest mezcals.

BB: This is a special edition product, how is it different from your other Agave brands?

DN: It differs in terms of product formulation from our other agave spirits products. Certain adjustments were made to the hydrolysis, fermentation and distillation process to create a product which is more attuned towards international taste profile preferences, rather than India’s domestic preferences. For this first special edition, a traditional process of heat hydrolysis has been used, the oven cooking method.

BB: Can you discuss the nature of the business relationship between the two companies?

DN: Single-Agave 100% Agave Americana is a joint venture product between DesmondJi and Porfidio. It forms part of Martin Grassl’s brainchild “world series” of non-Mexican made agave spirits, such as agave spirits made from Agave Cocuy (Venezuela), Agave Australis (Australia) and Agave Karoo (Africa). Agave spirits can be made wherever agave is grown, same as high quality wine can be made wherever appropriate grapes are grown. France certainly never liked the idea of the coming into existence of wines from Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Mendoza, I guess it could not be helped, as it is the natural progression of things.

Agave India is essentially the ‘field-to-bottle’ producer of Indian craft spirits and Porfidio is a premium global co-branding and marketing partner We jointly decide what is an appropriate craft offering for the global market.

BB: Where do you see this joint venture going in the future?

The idea is to expand quickly into super-premium barrel aged expressions Indian Agave spirits, similar to Mexican Reposados and Añejos.  Ours is a step-by-step approach, with the Blanco-style expression simply a starting point.

BB: Tell us more about the story behind the idea— “the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains.”

DN: There are two happenstances which brought about the existence of Indian agave spirits. For one, the general nature of the so-called Colombian Exchange, by which the agave, among many other plants and animals, “went international.” In addition, the Agave Americana arrived in India as a cost-effective means of fencing off the British rails to protect its trains from killing or maiming animals.

While the British probably single-mindedly aimed at protecting their financial assets— their trains—the concept of this fencing idea was equally a culturally-sensitive decision by the British Crown in protecting India’s free-roaming Holy Cows, one of our spiritual and cultural assets.

So, the “agave solution” was embraced by the colonizers and the colonized, as benefiting both. Neither “them” nor “us” grasped the true dimension of this pivotal fencing decision as the Mesoamerica-sourced Agave Americana proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on Southern India’s fertile soils, the Deccan Plateau Highlands. Why the Empire chose the Agave Americana towards such purpose—used in Mexico to produce some of the finest Mezcal—rather than any other variety, is a mystery still to be fully uncovered by botanical historians. Whatever the reason for the choice, it unquestionably benefited us.

BB: Other than in the US are there other countries where you’re working together?

DN: The US is the world’s biggest market for agave spirits. So, we thought it a good idea to do the initial special edition product launch in the US. Our next target market is Japan and China, based on Porfidio’s existing distribution platforms in these countries.

Thank you, Desmond.

Indian Agave Americana
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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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