Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Mezcals: Minero and Pechuga

Wow, it seems like forever I've been trying to get this post written. Every time I start it just gets too long, too involved, with way too much information. So I'm going to take a direct method. I've poured myself a touch of both Minero and Pechuga. I started to say, "of each mezcal," but that would be incorrect. The two are both expressions of the same mezcal. They are both imported by Del Maguey Mezcal who brings a number of mezcals from different villages around Oaxaca. They are all outstanding, world class spirits.

Ok, a few basics so all readers are up to speed. Mezcal is the generic name for any distillate produced from any agave. Mezcal is produced from about 120 different varieties of agave in many different regions in Mexico. Tequila is a name-controlled region around Jalisco and must be made from the Weber 'Blue' Agave native to that region. Thus, all tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

By far the most mezcal is produced from agave grown in the mountains around Oaxaca. Much of the mezcal is produced in artisanal fashion with the starchy stems (called pinas which can weigh up to 125 lbs) roasted in earthen pits over hot rocks which have been heated in oak fires. The pits are covered with moist fiber from the plants, or in some villages banana leaves. The pinas are typically roasted for 3-5 days. They are then covered and allowed to sit to absorb yeasts before being crushed by large stones turned by mules or tractors. The pulp is mixed with water and allowed to ferment. It is then slowly distilled. The resulting mezcal has a characteristic smoky flavor.

Minero is made is the true artisenal fashion. The mezcal is double distilled in clay pots with bamboo tubing.  Pechuga is a third distillation that takes place when the fruits ripen on the trees. 75 liters of Minero is placed in the still along with 25 pounds of wild mountain apples and plums, red plaintains, pineapple, a handful of almonds and a few pounds of rice. Over the liquid is hung a washed and skinned (but still on the carcass) chicken breast. The vapors pass over the chicken breast before condensation. They say the chicken serves to take the edge off the fruit flavors. Production is exremely limited. Just 350 bottles of the current 2007 vintage was released in February 2008.

Late one Saturday night (Sunday morning), after a long day at the State Fair of Texas, I sat down with my son Travis to do some serious analytic tasting. The mezcals were accompanied by toasted pine nuts dusted with heirloom Chimayo red chile.

The Minero shows an initial aromatic hit of smokiness which is followed by complex notes of banana, honey, citrus, some weird alkaloid herbal shit with refined 'jet fuel' aromatics providing a long finish with a steely minerality. It is very difficult to find words for the complex set of flavors encountered when the thick, viscous liquid coats the tongue. A kaleidoscope of flavors emerge from the initial smokiness as the mezcal is rolled around the mouth. Bitter lemon zest, resin, herbs and alkaloids are followed by smoky honey with hard rocks and pepper on the long desolate finish.

My sister Mary is a professional food writer. When she first encountered Minero she wrote the following:  "This mezcal was a whole new kind of tasting experience for me: it was almost entirely olfactory. Maybe this is how a lizard “tastes,” by just flicking its tongue. As well as savoring a sip every few minutes, I stuck my nose in the glass and just inhaled every few minutes. The aroma was a lot more complex than anything my tongue’s taste bud receptors were designed to recognize. It had a "flavor" designed more for the limbic brain than the mouth. Other extremely volatile drinks (armagnac, cognac, old whiskey) have at least one or two comfortingly identifiable taste connections--sweet, acid, bitter. This mezcal had cut all the kite strings attached to the usual contents of the sensory memory bank. And I tend to think that’s part of the enchantment."

I had to look up limbic. "The limbic system includes the areas in the brain involved in emotion, motivation and emotional association with memory. It influences formation of memory by integrating emotions with stored memories of physical sensations." The limbic system is descended from the olfactory bulb of the brain and provides an evolutionary basis for the union of emotion, smell and memory.

So, to make Pechuga they take the intense complex flavors of Minero, add all the fruit, nuts and rice, and run the vapors over a chicken. What the hell do you get from that?

The aroma features a much milder smokiness followed by buttery, yeasty, liquified bananas reminiscent of the 'Elvis fried PBJ + Banana Sandwich' we had eaten earlier at the Fair. Fine fruity alcoholic aromatics reminiscent of a super-refined European Eau de Vie float to the forefront. The complex herbal aromas that dominated the Minero are still present, but are lurking beneath the fruit and cool refreshing notes of fresh aloe vera. One has the sensation of being very lost in a very rich and complex thing. Navigation is difficult.

Amazing viscous textures coat the palate like a lip balm. Notes of honey, complex fruits and smoke emerge in that order. The overall impression is that of the finest, cleanest, richest silver agave you could imagine. The rich spirit is tender and delicious like the best roast chicken. The finish is extremely long and complex with dark, bitter undercurrents of raw chocolate and black pepper intertwined with smoky honey.

In conclusion:  Where the Minero leaves you alone on a desolate but contemplative metaphysical plain, Pechuga wraps you in a safe, warm spiritual place, safe from any storm
Difficult to find, but worth the search. We occasionally have them at Sigel's, but they don't last long!

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