A Field Guide to the Agave Used For Mezcal

Agave angustifolia (Espadin)

A. karwinskii (Madrecuixe)

Mezcal is the precursor spirit to modern day tequila; it has been produced since the mid 16th century, and many distillers still use ancient techniques for much of it’s production. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from the Weber blue species of agave, mezcal is produced with multiple species that are either cultivated or foraged from the wild. Each individual species varies in flavor and aroma complexities depending on their specific region of growth, which are spread between the eight mezcal producing regions of Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.

A. capreata (Paplometl)

The laws that regulate the production of mezcal, known as NORMA, designate five species of agave that are used for its creation: Agave angustifolia (espadin), A. asperrima (maguey de cerro), A. weberi (maguey de mezcal), A. petatorum (tobala), and A. salmiana (maguey verde o mezcalero) — but it also states that any agave with the proper sugar content that grows within the eight regions of production can be used as well. There are over 200 known species of agave that grow within Mexico, and around 30 to 50 of them are believed to be used to produce mezcal.

A. marmorata (Tepextate)

The dominant species that is used is the A. angustifolia (espadin) species that makes up 90% of mezcal production. It is the genetic parent of the A. tequilana (weber blue) species that is used for tequila, and it shares some of the floral and tropical flavors of its offspring, which can vary depending on its region of growth. It is harvested at around nine years old, and it is both cultivated and grows wild throughout Mexico.

The more elusive bottlings of mezcal use wild species that fall into a category many producers are calling “vino de mezcal.” Most of these agaves that are used usually grow in hard to reach places or are semi-cultivated within certain regions. These agaves are also harvested much later in their growing cycle and can be up to 25 years old. As a result, they tend to be more complex in flavor and aroma. Some examples of these species are the A. marmorata (tepextate) that has tropical, floral, and spicy notes, the A. karwinskii (madrecuixe) that is vegetal, fruity, and herbaceous, and the A. capreata (paplometl) that is earthy, fruity, and meaty.

A. petatorum (Tobala)

A more easily found example of the wild species in the A. petatorum (tobala). Know to many as the “king of mezcals,” the tobala is described as being vibrant and complex with earthy, tropical, sweet, and spicy characteristics. This species grows at higher elevations (around 5000 ft), and prefers rocky canyons that have plenty of shade. It is much smaller in size than traditional agaves at a ratio of eight tobala to one normal sized agave, and it is harder to procure because it does not produce offspring on its own. Instead, this species relies on animals to spread its seeds, which makes its placement sporadic throughout each region.

There are many other wild agaves that are used in mezcal production, but a complete list doesn’t really exist. Some experts and connoisseurs have taken it upon themselves to try an create such a thing, but information is scarce. On the plus side, there is an increasing interest in mezcal here in the states, and we are now seeing more producers that use the wilder species taking the time to educate the drinker on what specific agave species are used and where they comes from.

With more than 1000 distilleries making mezcal throughout Mexico, you’ll find plenty of wonderful examples of espadin mezcal available, and companies such as Del Maguey, Wahaka, Mezcal Mayalen, Ilegal, El Jolgorio, Real Minero, Mezcales De Leyenda, and Mezcal Vago also have wonderful portfolios that include many of the wild growing species. Most of these producers can be found around the U.S., but be warned that the rarer the species, the higher the price tag.

All photos courtesy of Del Maguey and Sazerac.

How Patrón Turns Technology into Tequila

High-tech has finally made its way to the agave fields of Jalisco, where Patrón is working to leverage tech to bring drinkers around the world closer to the brand.

The first technology involves VR, in which Patrón showcases the company,and production facilities in virtual reality. Using a Samsung Gear VR Virtual Reality Headset with a Samsung Note 4, we were able to visually walk the paths through their agave fields, watch an enormous wheel made from volcanic rock crush the roasted piñas, and look down rows of the aging barrels stacked high. The VR technology lets you look  left and right…even turn back and look where you’ve been or up at the sunny sky above. The music adds to the experience, and we liked the little honey bee who guided us in. It was fun and, of course, we had to watch it several times to take it all in. Kudos to Patron for producing a marketing video that’s actually fun to watch.

Up next is the Patrón Cocktail Lab, which uses Amazon Alexa (Amazon’s virtual assistant web app which interacts and responds to voice commands) and powers the Amazon Echo. Patron uses Alexa to help you narrow down the thousands of cocktail possibilities into something that fits that evening’s mood. By answering a few basic questions about what you like, Alexa recommends, and provides recipes for, drinks tailored just for you. You can save them for future reference if you like. It’s a fun way to interact with your guests at a party by letting them tell Alexa their likes and selecting the perfect cocktail, though you may have to try it more than once if you’re missing ingredients. If you don’t have any devices with Alexa, you can still access the Patrón Cocktail Lab from their website.

Does Glass Shape Affect the Way a Whiskey Tastes?

A common question we get here at Drinkhacker is whether glass shape actually matters; does it really change the taste of your drink of choice? In order to get to the bottom of this, we decided to have a small whiskey tasting, to try out a single whiskey in three differently-shaped glasses and see how it fared in each. The whiskey chosen for the experiment was High West’s Yippee Ki-Yay, and the glasses were: an ordinary rocks glass, a stemless cocktail glass, and a Glencairn whisky glass. As you can see above, each glass has a different shape and mouth width, so if glasses really do matter when it comes to taste, we should see (or rather, smell and taste) some differences. Each pour of whiskey was left to sit for 20 minutes to open up in the glass, then nosed and tasted. Feel free to get out a few glasses and try this experiment along with us.

The Rocks Glass

Nose: The first, most overwhelming scent we got from the rocks glass was ethanol fumes. The alcohol was in full force and pretty much drowned out anything else that might be lurking underneath, though a light undercurrent of butterscotch could be found hidden under all that alcohol. Given more time, some of this likely would have burned off, but after 20 minutes it was still overpowering.

Palate: The fumes are still there and still strong, though there are some savory notes hidden underneath. A taste of olives, lumberyard wood, and a little salt all floated to the tongue, but it was still hard to get through that initial blaze. Yippee Ki-Yay isn’t especially high in alcohol content, but the glass really amplified the alcohol that was there.

The Cocktail Glass

Nose: The nose on the cocktail glass was much more alluring than what we got from the rocks glass. Typical whiskey butterscotch and caramel, along with a light floral scent, likely from the vermouth barrels used to finish the whiskey. If we were blindfolded, this would have come across as a totally different whiskey than the one in the rocks glass.

Palate: The savory notes found in the rocks glass are still there, but much more pronounced without all that alcohol keeping them held down. Salt and balsamic, fresh olives, bitter amaro, and some black coffee. Yippee Ki-Yay is wearing that vermouth barrel on its sleeve, because in the cocktail glass this drinks like a unique aperitif.

The Glencairn Glass

Nose: Surprisingly, the traditional whiskey notes from the cocktail glass were mostly gone. They were replaced by cloves, cinnamon, and above all else, coffee. In the Glencairn glass, the whiskey comes across like a spiced black coffee, unique for a whiskey. Our initial thought was that the Glencairn glass’s narrow mouth might keep the fumes trapped like the rocks glass, but after 20 minutes that didn’t seem to be the case.

Palate: The palate bears out what the nose promised, with a rich black coffee rush, though it’s tempered by the same vermouth notes that the cocktail glass offered. The amaro notes are more pronounced when blended with the coffee, which give Yippee Ki-Yay a more bitter taste than in the cocktail glass.

Conclusions

So what does all this mean? Clearly glass shape impacts taste quite a bit, but why? A lot of it has to do with the shape of the mouth of the glass: the Glencairn especially is built almost like a wine glass, and when you take a drink, you can’t help but get your nose right in the glass, which will amplify what your tastebuds are getting. The straight sides of the rocks glass leave nowhere for the fumes to go, so it takes longer for them to burn off, whereas the wide mouth of the cocktail glass will let you get underneath the alcohol much more quickly. The wide mouth helps get your nose in the right position as well, much like the Glencairn glass.

So there you have it, a brief but hopefully informative foray into what those innocuous glasses can do to your favorite tipple. If you try this experiment yourself, let us know in the comments how it goes!

How to Use Infused Ice to Upgrade Your Cocktails

Anise Infused Ice

Infused ice is a fun way to add flavor to your drinks and add an eye-pleasing touch. To make infused ice, start by using distilled water to mitigate cloudiness. Add any fruit or spice (such as whole star anise, cardamom pods, or cinnamon stick pieces) to water in a pan and boil for a few minutes. This will infuse the ice with the flavor of the additive and also blanch fruits like strawberries, pineapples, and cranberries enough for them to be safely frozen. It’s the same process for preparing fruit to be put into gelatin. Cool the water. Then place a piece of the boiled fruit or a chunk of the spice used to flavor the water in each section of an ice tray. Fill the tray with the cooled water and freeze. Be aware that some spices like cloves, cinnamon, and anise may turn the water brown. The flavor is still packed inside.

Next use the ice in any beverage—alcoholic or not—in which you want to add that fruit or spice flavoring. For example: Throw a few strawberry or raspberry infused ice cubes in an iced tea for a nice fruit flavor which intensifies as the ice melts. Consider using a cinnamon, nutmeg, or anise cube in a rocks glass with your favorite whiskey. The trick is to not overdo the number or intensity of the ice cubes or the spices can become overwhelming.

Want to give it a try? Here are two professional cocktails from Stoli’s Elit Vodka that use infused ice which will give you an idea of how to be creative with the stuff.

Frozen TerrainFrozen Terrain
Created by Whitney Morrow, Beverage Director at Drumbar, Chicago
1 part Elit Vodka
½ part St. George Terroir Gin
¾ part Lillet Blanc
¼ part pear liqueur
1 cinnamon ice cube

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a rocks glass over a 2” x 2” cinnamon ice cube. To make the cinnamon ice cube: place 7 sticks of cinnamon into 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Place into large format ice tray with one sprig of rosemary and a thinly sliced piece of pear. Freeze.

Tickled PinkTickled Pink
Created by Ashtin Berry, Bartender at Ace Hotel Nola, New Orleans
¾ part Elit Vodka
½ part cranberry syrup (equal parts cranberry juice and sugar, cooked on low to thicken into syrup)
¼ part lemon
2 dashes orange bitters
champagne or club soda

Shake all ingredients with cranberry infused ice (made from cranberry juice) and strain into a coupe or flute. Top with bubbles (either champagne or club soda) and add a couple of cranberries and an orange twist.

What’s the Difference Between Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz?

So you’re browsing the wine aisle at your favorite store, you have a pretty good handle on what a Cabernet Sauvignon is, and what a Pinot Noir is, but there’s always a group of red wines you’ve never quite gotten a handle on: Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz. What do these wines taste like, what are the differences between the three, are they named after a grape, like Cabernet, or are they a blend, like Meritage?

To start with, Syrah and Shiraz are exactly the same, just different names for the same grape. It’s called Shiraz in Australia, and Syrah in most other parts of the world, though a few California wineries like Coppola buck this trend and call their bottlings Shiraz. Shiraz is also the name of an ancient city in Iran where some of the oldest wine ever discovered was found, and it’s thought that the grape may have originated in this region. Legend has it that the grape was brought to the Rhône valley in France by the ancient Greek Phocaeans, or perhaps by French crusaders, though of course we have no way of knowing for certain, and it could just be a natural French grape with a lot of mystery around its origin.

In France, Syrah is usually blended with grapes like Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault to make wines we call Rhône blends, like Côtes-du-Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whereas in other countries like the United States, Australia, or Spain, Syrah is just as often blended with a variety of other grapes or simply bottled on its own. Syrah wines are typically lighter than a bold Cabernet, but heavier than a Pinot, with a more extracted fruitiness that can be similar to Zinfandel. Depending on the climate and the bottling, Syrah can be a fruit bomb, all blackberry and raspberry, or it can be a peppery, spicy, tannic, and often smoky powerhouse, designed to be cellared for years. Try Syrah as an alternative to either Cabernet or Zinfandel, with rich foods like barbecue that won’t be outdone by the wine’s body.

So what is Petite Sirah, then? It’s not yet another name for Syrah/Shiraz, but is in fact a totally different grape. While Syrah’s origins are shrouded in ancient mystery, we know exactly who is responsible for Petite Sirah, and when; the grape was bred by a Frenchman named Durif in the mid-1800s and was mostly planted in the United States, where it was incorrectly labelled as Syrah for decades. Despite its minuscule-sounding name, Petite Sirah is one of the biggest, boldest grapes available, with massive tannins protecting gobs of blackberry, chocolate, plums, and pepper. Drinkers used to the biggest, boldest California Cabernets will love Petite Sirah, though unlike Cabernet and Syrah, Petite Sirah doesn’t age exceptionally well and should be consumed within a couple years of its vintage. For a food pairing, you’ll want a meal as big and bold as the wine; barbecue beef and pork is still a good choice, and stuffed peppers or heavy cheeses make good pairings with Petite Sirah, as well. One of the major uses of Petite Sirah is as a blending grape, particularly with Zinfandel; a huge number of California Zinfandels contain up to 10 percent Petite Sirah in them.

While Syrah and Shiraz are identical outside of the vineyard where the grape was grown, Syrah and Petite Sirah are quite different, despite both being generally bold, fruit-forward wines. Syrah is very versatile and can be used to make outstanding blends, whereas Petite Sirah is a good choice for a bold Cab lover looking for something new.

What’s the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Even if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the world of spirits, Cognac can come across as opaque. It can be hard to tell where Cognac fits into the broader spectrum of spirits, and that’s even before you’re introduced to Armagnac, Cognac’s lesser-known sister spirit. So what are you actually getting when you buy a bottle of Cognac or Armagnac, and what’s the difference between the two? Read on.

To start with, both Cognac and Armagnac are both varieties of French brandy. To be reductive, brandy is distilled wine (just like whiskey is distilled beer). Though you can also make brandy out of other fruits, “properly” it’s made from grapes, and this is the case for both Cognac and Armagnac.

Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. Cognac is mostly made from three major varietals of grapes that you rarely see in wine: Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard, as well as smaller percentages of a few other grapes like Sémillon. These grapes, if fermented, would make a wine that is extremely acidic and often unpalatable, but when distilled makes for a spirit that is unparalleled in aging and blending potential. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are regulated in size and shape by the French government. Once distilled, Cognac is stored in French oak barrels to age. All Cognacs are blends of various barrels, and each individual Cognac in a blend is referred to as eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’ The age statement on a bottle of Cognac is an indication of how old the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is, and for really exclusive bottles, the other Cognacs in a blend can be over a hundred years old. Cognac doesn’t usually carry direct age statements like a bottle of whiskey, however; Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.

Armagnac is brandy made in the Armagnac region in Gascony, further south than Cognac. Armagnac uses Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard grapes like Cognac does, with the addition of Baco blanc, a grape that outside of Armagnac isn’t used for much of anything. Instead of Cognac’s copper pot stills, Armagnac is typically distilled in column stills similar to American bourbons,, Armagnac is only distilled once instead of twice in the case of Cognac. The single distillation and the column still combine to make Armagnac generally a more aromatic and brooding spirit than Cognac, perhaps a better entry into French brandies for someone used to bourbons. Armagnac uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages don’t match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight. Also important for the imbiber more conscious about how much they’re spending on alcohol, as Armagnac isn’t as well-known outside of Europe, old Armagnac tends to be cheaper than similarly-aged Cognac.

So to summarize, Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills, and Armagnac is distilled once in column stills, and the grapes used can be a bit different. Ready to go use your new knowledge and pick up a few bottles? Try some of our favorite Cognacs, like Gilles Brisson VSOP or Martell Blue Swift, or Armagnacs like Chateau du Tarquiet or Marquis de Montesquiou!

From Barrel To Bottle: How Wood Aging Impacts Whiskey

When you contemplate any barrel-aged spirit there are many flavors and aromas that will confuse and astound your palate. Look at any review of these products and you will get my point. A lot of the characteristics you experience come from the internal chemical and biological attributes of the wood itself. Many distillers attribute around 40% to 80% of the overall characteristics experienced in whiskies, provided it hasn’t been influenced by other means, are produced by the interaction of the spirit with the wood. To understand how the wood does this, you have to delve into the inner workings of the tree.

The main structure of a barrel is composed of multiple staves that are cut from the heartwood of a tree. There are two internal structures inside the plant’s cell wall known as hemicellulose and lignin that influence the character of the spirit. Hemicellulose is made up of organic compounds and numerous sugars that are soluble in alcohol, and with the application of heat will produce color and caramel notes. Lignin is a source of Methoxy phenols, such as vanillin and syringol. These are naturally occurring organic compounds and they change with the help of heat and acidity, creating the smoky vanilla flavors and aromas in the spirit.

Throughout the wood, there are four broad components that further influence the spirit; tannins, lactones/trans-lactones, phenolics, and acids. Tannins produce an astringent, mouth drying characteristic that creates structure. Lactones/trans-lactones create coconut, clove, and butterscotch flavors and aromas. Phenolics and acids create over 400 different flavor and aromatic compounds including Ethyl syringate (tobacco and fig), Ethyl ferulate (spice and cinnamon), Ethyl vanillate (burnt, smoky and vanilla), and Methyl salicylate, which gives off minty wintergreen notes. These components also help to create the aromatic differences found in various wood varietals. Some examples include American white oak (Quercus alba), which has aromas of vanilla, coconut, pine, cherry, and spice. European oak (Quercus robur) has aromas of dried fruit, clove, raisin, and orange peel, and Japanese oak (Quercus mongolica) has intense, perfumed notes of spice and sandalwood. All of these properties are enriched and balanced during a curing process, where the cut oak is seasoned in the elements for 1 to 3 years before use. This helps with reducing astringency in the tannins, and allows for airborne bacteria and fungi to collect and grow. These organisms help breakdown complex carbohydrates in the wood, making it easier for further chemical reactions to take place inside the barrel.

After the curing process, the wood is shaped into staves and the main body of the barrel is built, from there it is toasted and charred. This application of heat effectively changes the outer structure of the staves, and chemically changes the sugars in the wood. Toasting affects the wood in two ways; oak tannins are degraded, giving color to the spirit, and the lignin degrades, producing vanilla flavor and aroma. Charring changes things a bit further, the hemicellulose is broken down into ten simple sugars, which then caramelize into what’s known as the “red layer,” creating flavors and aromas of caramel and chocolate.

Once the spirit is in the barrel, chemical and environmental reactions begin to shape the final product. Fluctuations in temperature expand and contract the barrel, forcing the alcohol in and out of the wood, extracting flavor congeners and sweetness. During this time the alcohol passes through a thin carbon filter on the inner surface of the barrel created during the charring process, this smooths out the spirit by absorbing aldehydes and sulfur compounds. As the temperature reaches higher levels it causes the evaporation of around 3% to 10% of the liquid yearly — the famous “angel’s share.” Humidity levels during this process influence the loss of liquid and effect the alcohol percentage. Higher humidity causes alcohol to evaporate more readily than water, and decreases the level of alcohol over time. In lower humidity the water is first to evaporate, causing an increase in alcohol percentage.

After evaporation has occurred the headspace created in the barrel is replaced by oxygen. This enters the barrel through pores in the wood and dissolves into solution with the spirit, this forms esters, aldehydes and acids that create fruity, nutty and vanilla flavors. At this point in maturation the flavors and aromas continue to concentrate in the reduced volume of spirit. During this period the spirit’s natural characteristics start to diminish, and the complex flavors and aromas of the wood start to take over; this is controlled by the length of maturation, climate and the size of the barrel. Typically, you will see barrels that range from the standard american 53 gallon barrel, all the way up to the 132 gallon sherry butt. The spirits matured in these larger barrels tend to take longer to appreciate in complexity because of the higher volume of liquid and the larger vessel. Aging in smaller barrels allows for more play between spirit and wood, due to an increased surface to volume ratio. In these small barrels, characteristics of the wood such as a darker color and oaky vanilla flavor and aroma are more readily infused in a shorter period, but the uptake of other components such as tannins which can quickly overpower the spirit is also accelerated.

The use of smaller barrels has been popularized within craft distillation because of their ability to produce a richly flavored and colorful product in a shorter period. A lot of these products can be quite vibrant and complex, yet some experts argue against their ability to create a well aged spirit. They propose that the longer periods of maturation are integral to the formation of flavor and aromatic compounds. While there is some validity in that statement, many aged craft spirits on the market today have shown great promise and continue to gain in popularity.

The act of aging spirits in wooden barrels has been a tradition for a long time, and has inspired some of the most sought after bottles in the history of alcohol production. The complexities brought forth from the interaction between spirit and wood will continue to astound and perplex the senses, creating a want for more experimentation. We are now seeing a multitude of new techniques being applied in wood aging: Different types of wood, re-use of barrels, and experimental maturation processes continue to create varied and expressive end products. Because of this, it is essential to educate yourself on the inner workings of wood, allowing for a greater understanding of what you are experiencing. Although this only scratches the surface of how wood influences alcohol, I hope it makes things a little easier the next time you pour a dram.

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