Shaken or Stirred: Which Makes the Best Martini?

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

-Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

Like a manhattan or an old fashioned, a martini is on its surface a simple drink to make: dry vermouth, gin (traditionally) or vodka (modern), and an olive as garnish. But a martini is something special; it’s lodged in the popular imagination, through no small fault of the man quoted above, Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond. Whether through Fleming’s novels or film adaptations featuring Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, or countless others, if there’s one thing the average person knows about James Bond, it’s his preference of martini: shaken, not stirred.

The question is: Why? Does shaking vs. stirring change the taste of the martini? And if so, which is better? Naturally for this question we decided to hold a tasting to see how a martini fares when shaken or when stirred. For this tasting, we went with two gin martinis, made with Bombay, one shaken and one stirred.

Stirred Martini

Nose: The nose of a martini is a lovely thing, subtle and herbal and bitter. The stirred martini had notes of pine, bitter orange peel, and juniper — not too overpowering. The aroma of the vermouth was almost indistinct, and served mostly to highlight the aromas of the gin.

Palate: The initial taste of the stirred martini was briny, lightly acidic sea salt from the vermouth. Then came the gin, with the promise of the nose being borne out by juniper, bitter citrus peel, and a light Christmas-tree pine. Gin can be a tough thing for an alcohol novice to wrap their heads around, but a martini is a good, aromatic, interesting way to try something new.

Shaken Martini

Nose: The nose of the shaken martini was similar to the stirred martini, if perhaps a bit more piney. The decision of shaking or stirring didn’t seem to factor much into the nose.

Palate: Here’s where things get radically different. To start, the shaken martini was much colder, as a result of the gin being shaken up with the ice. (Many shaken martinis will even have ice chips in the drink, which some drinkers consider offensive.) The chill of the drink translated over to the taste, which was light and very, very subtle, almost to the point of not tasting like much of anything at all. There were slight notes of juniper and peel and pine, but they were buried beneath a watery simplicity. As the martini warmed up, the flavor became a bit stronger, but it was still more jumbled and indistinct than the stirred martini was.

Conclusions

So why did the drinks turn out this way? A lot of it has to do with the cold: Like a glass of white wine, it’s easy to over-chill a martini by shaking it, and the primary result of a too-cold martini is that it becomes much more thin and tasteless. This is compounded by the fact that shaking introduces more water into the drink via melted ice; a stirred martini will be a bit stronger, and thus more flavorful. As well, gin is a sensitive spirit and vigorous shaking has the result of muddling its taste. (There’s much talk of “bruising the vermouth” if you shake a martini, but it’s the gin that has the bigger problem.) All in all: A stirred martini is indeed more interesting and flavorful than a shaken one.

If there’s not much to recommend a shaken martini over a stirred one, then why does James Bond order them? The answer is twofold: first of all, Bond is the ultimate bad boy, and that extends to his choice in drinks. He doesn’t follow our rules, and from his first appearance in Casino Royale back in 1953, he was a man that blazed his own path. If society tells us to stir our martinis, of course Bond is going to be the type of guy who drinks them shaken. The other reason is more mundane. Look at his recipe again. In addition to the gin and vermouth, Bond requests a measure of vodka, making it a drink that he named The Vesper, after that book’s femme fatale. Vodka is a much heartier spirit than gin is, and if you’re drinking a vodka martini, shaking might actually be good for it, since vodka is best when it’s ice cold. Of course, given that Bond is drinking a martini with both gin and vodka in it, perhaps he just prefers a weaker drink with some water in the mix.

So that’s another taste test done, and another curious corner of the history of spirits explored. If you feel like trying this experiment yourself, let us know in the comments which style you prefer, and why!

Life in a Post-Bourbon World: Predicting the Next Big Thing in Booze

It’s no secret that bourbon has been the It Spirit for a good few years now. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how pretty much no one saw it coming. One needs to only look at the vast amount of supply shortages today to see just how unprepared most of the market was. Here’s a fun exercise. Go into your local store and ask them if they have any Weller, Eagle Rare, or even Very Old Barton. Their thousand yard stare, coupled with the nervous tick in the corner of their eye will tell you all you need to know about the current state of things.

Reports and predictions of the “bourbon bubble” bursting have so far been premature. It seems that—at least for now—for every one person who tires of the hunt, there are ten more ready and willing to take their place in line for the latest limited release. I’m not here to predict when that will end, because it’s already proven to be a pointless exercise. However, what can be a fun prediction is guessing what will follow bourbon as the almighty “next big thing.” So let’s take a look at a few spirits, and the reasons why they will — or won’t — usurp bourbon’s place at the top of the hype pedestal. For each of these four, we’re also including the all-important “Van Winkle Factor” — wherein we ask whether there is a singular product which will drive said hype train and become the bane of existence to liquor store employees everywhere.

1. Rum

For years now, rum has been talked about over and over again as being the next big spirit.

Why it Will Succeed:

Rum has a lot of crossover appeal to the bourbon fan. Many rums share a lot of the same flavor components with bourbon — vanilla, caramel, and good old-fashioned barrel spice — though with a slightly softer and sweeter side rum has the potential to appeal to an even broader audience. I have myself, and have heard many others refer to it as “summertime whiskey,” a product which delivers a lot of the same flavor notes but without the warming heat of whiskey. It’s easy and delicious. Plus, the rebirth of tiki drinks and island culture has pushed the importance of specific rum types into the minds of consumers everywhere.

Why it Won’t:

First and foremost, rum has an issue with age statements. Countries like Jamaica and Barbados require an age statement consistent with what most U.S. consumers understand, the age on the label is representative of the youngest spirit in the blend. But rum comes from so many places beyond those two countries, and in those countries age stating is much more vague. Two brands that represent this better than most are Ron Zacapa and Zaya. Ron Zacapa uses a solera aging system which puts a vague average of “23” on their entry level bottle. Zaya recently changed their bottles from saying “12 years” to now indicating that it is now a blend of 12 aged rums. It’s a clever switch of phrasing that makes marketing departments proud but makes many consumers roll their eyes. Also, and here is the obvious, rum has been talked about as the next big thing for quite a while and hasn’t really taken off. Maybe rum’s popularity as it is now is just where it is going to be. Maybe we have already reached peak rum and we are just fooling ourselves that it is going to keep growing.

Van Winkle Effect:

Does rum have that one big bottle? The one which people will wait in line for, the one which will inspire countless Instagram posts with jealous responses? It just might. The Caroni Rum Distillery has been closed or 15 years. Bottles still pop up from time to time from independent bottlers. This may be more of a correlation to a bottle of A.H. Hirsch than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but bottles of this rum seem to pop up and disappear quite quickly.

2. Mezcal

Why It Will Succeed:

Tequila’s funky, and smoky, compadre has been king of the mixology world for a couple years now. Not since the concept of “pre-Prohibition” have we seen such an obvious inspiration for so many new bars. In one Chicago neighborhood alone, I can count at least three new mezcal specific bars that have opened up in the last year. Yet it persists. A few weeks ago my social media feed was full of one friend’s picture of a mezcal flight, another drinking a mezcal old fashioned, and another commenting on the addition of a new bar a block from their apartment. All of this is without mentioning that mezcal has sotol and raicilla, new Mexican spirits, to bolster its rise in the same way that rye whiskey did for bourbon.

Why It Won’t:

The barrier of entry to mezcal knowledge is quite difficult for even the more advanced drinker. The variation on types of plants mezcal can use and the 8 different regions where they can all come from can create a dizzying combination of recipes and styles. While this is a wonderful thing for adventurous drinkers, it limits the amount of direct bottle to bottle comparison and debate over what is the best, which was a key component to the rise of bourbon. While mezcal may be the current king of the cocktail world, that hasn’t quite yet translated over into bottle sales.

Van Winkle Effect:

Del Maguey’s Single Village series seems to be the obvious choice here. They were among the first to push mezcal as something more than just the thing with the worm or scorpion in the bottom of the bottle. Also they fully embraced the extra funk that is the pechuga style of hanging a chicken carcass in the still for some extra gameyness. To be honest though, mezcal is the current and future king of the cocktail world, but it will have a hard time transitioning into actual off-premise consumer sales.

3. Armagnac

Why It Will Succeed:

There is an old adage which states that all old punk singers become country singers. In the same way, all old whiskey drinkers become Armagnac drinkers. It turns out that while Cognac has been all the rage, it has had a southern neighbor which has offered more value for the money all along. While both Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, the big difference lies in the use of the Baco and Colombard grapes. Baco is a big deal in terms of difference, it is a grape variety which can only be grown in the Armagnac region and can only be used for distillation. Also, Cognac opts for double distillation while Armagnac goes for single. Just think of Armagnac as Cognac’s rustic cousin. Only in this regard “rustic” means that bottles can be packed with complex and wonderful flavor.

Why It Won’t:

It certainly doesn’t help that the average consumer still has a hard time understanding what Armagnac is. Couple that with the fact that the TV. show Chopped recently referred to Armagnac as an “apple brandy” and you get the idea of the hill this delightful spirit needs to climb.

Van Winkle Effect:

There are stores you can walk into where you can buy a Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac which was distilled in 1865. Those types of stocks are extremely rare and should instantly spark the attention of any collector. Outside of that you have producers like Chateau de Laubade and Darroze, which have lots to offer that will happily turn heads.

4. Irish Whiskey

Why It Will Succeed:

Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world over the last few years — mainly because its sales started off so small. What has been a predominantly homogenized category is currently exploding with new offerings. Look no further than the style of single pot still Irish whiskey for a style of whiskey that is unique to the country that started it all. As well, there is no shortage of Jameson drinkers that are looking for something more premium and more unique. For ages all of your Irish whiskey came from one of four distilleries: Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills, and Kilbeggan. Since 2014 there are now 32 running and proposed distilleries in Ireland.

Why It Won’t:

Irish whiskey has a slight image problem. There are many consumers who have for very long looked at it as predominantly for shots. To many whiskey drinkers it can be seen as plain and boring. The heavy influx of new distilleries and producers putting out new and varying products is already starting to combat these attitudes, but it remains more a question of when change will take place.

Van Winkle Effect:

One need look no further than the relative disappearance from shelves of the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve to see how stocks of older Irish whiskey are becoming squeezed. Releases like the Redbreast Lustau Edition and the Midleton Barry Crocket Edition are helping keep the hype chatter up.

In Conclusion:

Here is the thing with bourbon. Seemingly every major bourbon distillery is expanding in some form, be it actual distilling space or simply just more warehouses to store more barrels. According to some reports, companies like Beam-Suntory are filling almost 500,000 barrels a year, which to us means only one important thing, the big producers don’t see an immediate end in Bourbon’s expansion. In fact they are looking forward to numbers that only continue to grow. And as younger distilleries across the country are able to start bringing new and more mature products to the market the demand will be there.

So yes, maybe it is poor form to say that the next big thing after bourbon is bourbon. But I’m OK with that. Because if it’s something else it will probably be mezcal, or rum, or Armagnac, or Irish whiskey.

Should You Let Your Whisky Breathe?

So now everyone knows that the shape of a glass can radically change the taste of the spirit inside it, right? But are there any other ways to improve the taste of your favorite beverage even further? What about letting your whiskey aerate before drinking, like we do with tannic wines? Does whiskey “open up” the way wine does after exposure to air?

In order to determine if aeration has any noticeable effect on the taste of whiskey, we’ve done another taste test experiment: This time we’ve let the same whiskey sit for three different lengths of time, to compare and contrast how much effect time spent in glass before consumption had on what’s inside. The whisky chosen for this experiment was Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask, and the glassware used was three Glencairn whisky glasses. We let one glass sit for ten minutes before tasting, one for five minutes, and one for no time at all. How did the whiskey fare in each glass? Read on to find out.

No Resting Time in Glass

Nose: Light, sweet, enticing aromas of honey, white sugar, and white flowers. Balvenie is always a favorite at Drinkhacker HQ for good reason; this is simple but wonderful stuff.

Palate: There’s a very brief rush of bitterness that fades almost instantly, leaving a sugary sweetness that lingers on the tongue. This is almost certainly because of the rum barrels that the whisky is aged in, making this an easy choice for those just getting in to trying whisky.

Five Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: The honey is still there front and center, but it is now flanked with richer sugar tastes: butterscotch, a standard for whiskies, and the rum barrel comes through this time with a nuanced taste of coconut. Just nosing it, this is far more enticing and interesting than the initial pour.

Palate: Surprisingly, not much different from the initial pour. Though the nose had evolved, the palate remains loaded up with soft sweetness, though perhaps it comes across as a bit more subtle than the first pour. The taste buds at the tip of the tongue are fired up, and the whisky lingers on the tongue for some time.

Ten Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: We can see a clear line drawn from the first pour to the last: Each pour deepens and enriches the aroma found in the glass. The honey here is rich and sumptuous, the butterscotch is decadent, and the coconut has been replaced by a general tropical fruit scent; subtle, sweet papaya and mango waft through the senses.

Palate: And yet again, on the palate it’s mostly the same story. It’s more subtle still — soft and lightly sweet, not overpowering. Easy to drink and tasty, Balvenie remains a whisky that both novices and aficionados can appreciate, but the core flavor has remained surprisingly consistent over the course of the tasting.

Conclusion

So what can we infer from all of this? Clearly it seems from this simple test that while aeration has an effect on whisky, it’s not as dramatic a change as if it were applied to, say, a heavy, tannic cabernet. The taste of the whisky remained surprisingly consistent from pour to pour; in fact if anything the whisky got lighter and more subtle with time. Where the changes occurred were in the nose, where the aromas got deeper and richer as time went on, and new scents floated up to the top of the glass.

All of this is likely because two contradictory things are happening in the glass as time passes: first, alcohol is evaporating from the glass, as we saw in the glassware taste test. This allows you to more readily access the aromas that are initially hidden by the ethanol fumes (though as we have seen, the right piece of glassware cuts these fumes pretty heavily just to start). Secondly, the water in the whisky is evaporating as well, which actually concentrates the remaining flavors left behind. In just ten minutes, neither of these phenomena are terribly significant in terms of the abv of what’s left in the glass, but clearly the shifting amounts of alcohol in the whisky and the free vapor in the glass open up subtle changes in taste — and more pronounced changes in aroma. These effects would likely be even more dramatic in a higher-proof alcohol, so if our article on bonded whiskey inspired you to pick up a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100 Proof, trying this experiment with that whiskey will likely produce interesting, potentially exciting results.

To sum up the experiment, letting whisky breathe isn’t as essential as letting wine breathe, but you will find detectable changes on the nose and palate as you let your drink aerate. Hopefully these findings will help you enjoy your preferred whisky even more, and if you decide to do the experiment yourself, let us know in the comments!

A Brief History of India Pale Ale

Though sours and goses have been making strong headway into the craft market recently, IPAs remain kings of the mountain. High in alcohol, swelling with hops, both tart and bitter, there’s a lot to like about the crisp, bracing taste of a good craft IPA. But whether you’re a dedicated hop-head who can recite the IBUs of any given beer, or a more casual fan of the pine and citrus taste of a good IPA, you might wonder where the name “India Pale Ale” actually came from. Everyone knows what a pale ale is, of course, but what does this beer, which is the hallmark of American craft brew more than anything else, have to do with India?

Ale is one of the oldest styles of beer, with references being found in ancient archaeological sites in modern-day Iraq. But there are few cultures that are as synonymous with ale as the English. By the time of the various pagan conquests of England by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, the meadhall with its mead and its ale was firmly entrenched in the culture of the English. In addition to ale, another thing the English were once fond of was colonizing, in order to grow what was once the mightiest empire in the world. The British East India Company began running operations in India in the 1750s, and from the 1850s to the 1940s the British crown laid claim to the whole subcontinent. Throughout this almost 200-year stretch of British rule, both the government and the army of India were both filled with Englishmen.

All of these Englishmen pined for English beer of course, but the brewers back on the British Isles were having trouble getting their beer to last on what was a six-month voyage from London to Kolkata, then known as Calcutta. The solution was hit upon by a London brewer called Hodgson, who formulated a strong, heavily-hopped ale in hopes that the hops and the high alcohol content would serve as preservatives and keep the beer drinkable for longer. The plan worked better than anyone could have guessed, and soon India was importing strong, hoppy ales by the literal boatload.

Though IPA was of course immensely popular in India, the strong, hoppy quality didn’t develop a following at home, and with the advent of refrigeration and faster transportation methods, standard English ales could then survive the trek to India. These original IPAs, for the most part, faded away… for a time. Leave it then to the American craft brewers in the 1970s to pick up the style as they searched for an unusual type of beer that could help them stand out from the crowd. These American IPAs became the alcohol- and hop-monsters that we know and love today, no longer developed for preservation reasons but just for their taste. In a funny turn of events it was then the English brewers who began copying American IPAs to fill a niche market at home that just kept getting bigger and bigger.

So when you crack open a bottle of Bear Republic Hop Shovel or something similar, you’re drinking a beer with a history that has crossed oceans, crafted from the influence of three different nations. Talk about a glass of history!

The Debate Over Whiskey Age Statements: A Drinkhacker Conversation

The age statement — the practice of putting the amount of time a spirit spends in the barrel — continues to be one of the most talked-about issues in the booze business. Long a staple of the whiskey world, where age statements have been a badge of honor and a matter of distillers’ pride for decades, the practice of putting a number on the label is rapidly falling out of favor. Why? Mainly because distilleries are short on old stock, so producing age-statemented whisky is harder and harder. This has led to the discontinuation of many longtime whiskeys with an age statement and their replacement with a No Age Statement (NAS) alternative… usually at a similar price.

Is the rise of NAS a good thing or a bad? Writer Robert Lublin and Editor in Chief Christopher Null engage in a debate over the issue as they attempt to suss out what’s really going on in the wild world of NAS, and whether or not “age matters” after all.

RL: Should whiskeys list their age on the bottle? I don’t think this is a simple question. When you pick up a single malt scotch, for instance, the age statement lets you know that the whisky you are about to drink spent at least that many years in the barrel after distillation. This might seem like a reasonable request to make of distilleries that are asking consumers to pay a high price for old scotch, but remember that age statements do not actually tell you the age of the whisky you are about to drink. They only tell you the minimum age of the whisky. An excellent Glendronach 15 Years Old includes older whisky inside.

The problem? Due to lack of stock, the whisky has been discontinued for the next three years until stocks can age appropriately. Will it be the same whisky when it is re-released? Not likely. The age statement on the new scotch will be identical to the old, but one can guess that the whisky in the bottle won’t have older stock in it and will ultimately taste very different. My conclusion? Age statements can be misleading.

CN: Age statements can be misleading, but not having an age statement can be even more misleading, can’t it? Taking your example even further, if we remove all age statements from that Glendronach, we don’t even have the safeguard of knowing the whisky in the bottle is at least 15 years old. NAS Glendronach would surely taste much different than whatever the new Glendronach 15 tastes like, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t the age statement provide some level of assurance that the consumer is getting what he expects?

RL: Yes, but sometimes having age statements would be even more misleading than excluding them. Consider some of the best NAS whiskies on the market today. One of my favorite peated drams is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, which blends Ardbeg aged in sherry casks for extended periods of time with Ardbeg 10 Years Old. With an age statement, this is simply 10 year old scotch, a detail that does no justice to the whisky’s complex, smoky, fruity flavor profile. If age statements were required on bottles, this excellent dram would simply, and confusingly, tout a 10 year old statement. Uigeadail costs more for good reason.

CN: That is actually my point. My biggest problem with the removal of age statements is less about flavor profiles and more about the way whisky is sold. Age statements originally came into vogue mainly as a marketing tool, to convince consumers that, in no uncertain terms, “older was better” and better was more expensive. Until recently, Ballentine’s slogan was “Age matters.”

Now the industry has done a 180. Age abruptly doesn’t matter any more. Taste matters. To some extent that’s true, but modern food science can make anything taste good, can’t it? “Age doesn’t matter” encourages shortcuts. It rejects tradition and chases after the lowest common denominator at the highest possible price, and it shrouds the whisky in the bottle in a veil of secrecy.

RL: It is frustrating to be reminded that for all of its history and artisan craftsmanship, scotch is an industry driven by a bottom line. The marketing slogan “Age matters” did more to drive up prices and demand for older stock than it did to make a statement regarding taste or quality. The whole issue is made more complicated by the amazing, high end whiskies that are being produced today in far less time than previously was needed. Bruichladdich’s Octomore series demonstrates that outstanding scotch can be made in roughly 6 years. As one who appreciates the time and artistry that goes into making great whisky, I want as much information as possible, but times are changing and age statements will probably never again carry the importance they once did.

CN: I think whiskies like Octomore are the exception, not the rule. In fact, one could argue that Octomore is a shining example of the gimmickry I mentioned: Ultra-peated whisky can be released young because the peat overpowers anything the barrel can do. The last thing I would hope for is that distilleries will start boosting the amount of peated malt they use simply because they know that if they do they can release an even younger spirit. Alas, I worry that is a calculus that is being carefully undertaken across Islay right now.

I am happy at least, as you allude, that Bruichladdich is at least somewhat transparent about what’s in the bottle. Octomore doesn’t have an age statement, but they aren’t hiding the fact that what’s inside is pretty young. I’m less thrilled about whiskies like Talisker Storm and Macallan Rare Cask, a $300 NAS whisky. What goes into these whiskies is not just unstated, it is purposefully opaque so as to make a consumer value calculation much more difficult. I like the way Macallan Rare tastes, but I just can’t justify spending $300 for it without knowing what’s inside. It would be like buying a car without knowing what kind of engine it has. I just want to know. I’m not alone in feeling that if that kind of information isn’t made available, then the whisky is less valuable to me.

RL: I find Talisker Storm to be very reasonably priced (roughly the same as Talisker 10 Years Old) and do not mind the absence of an age statement as the quality of the product speaks for itself. But I take your point regarding Macallan Rare Cask, which, I must admit, I have not yet tried specifically because it costs too much to purchase without some idea of what I am buying. One of the problems regarding age statements lies in EU regulations which state that a whisky must either (a) list the age of the youngest whiskey appearing in the bottle, or (b) post no age statement at all. There is good reason for these regulations. If distilleries were free to list the age of all of the whiskies appearing in a bottle, they could choose to include a negligible amount of very old whiskey and list it as an ingredient, thereby misleading the consumer. The downside is a pair of options that may be well intentioned but limit the information available to the consumer. In the current system, it makes sense to exclude an age statement if one of the components is considerably younger than the others.

A third choice has been recommended by the people at Compass Box who blend whiskies to create their scotch. They would like to be able to provide “Full Disclosure” — and have actually been penalized by regulators when they have provided it. This option, should it become law, would permit bottles and advertising to list the age of all of the whiskies included in a scotch, but would require that they list the exact percentage (to a decimal point!) of each and every component. I would like to see Full Disclosure become a legal option for scotch, but I am very curious to know how many distillers and blenders would choose it.

CN: Perhaps more than you’d think. “Transparency” as a business concept has legs, and companies that embrace it (whether in spirits or otherwise) are gaining traction. For example, when restaurants use open kitchen layouts, where cooks and customers can see each other, customer satisfaction is 17% higher. Look at the rise of companies making it easy to talk to the brand via social media, disclosing where they source their products, or even revealing everyone’s salary. All of these have been associated with higher satisfaction — and bigger sales. For its part, Compass Box sells out of seemingly everything!

My prediction is that eventually the market will swing back the other way, particularly as stocks of older whiskies become more available once again and age statements are less of a hardship. Consumers — particularly Millennials hitting their 30s in the next decade and who are branching out from bourbon to scotch — will want more information about their booze, and that in turn may get marketers thinking the same way they did decades ago: Put an age statement on the label and we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the market, which by then will probably be fully embracing NAS. Age statements will again become a point of differentiation. And suddenly, age might matter again. I mean, until it doesn’t anymore.

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.

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