Review: Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila Blanco

Artisan tequila gets a leg up from Siembra Spirits, which takes a painstakingly traditional approach, blending tequila and mezcal production processes, to the creation of this new 100% blue agave tequila. Reportedly bringing together mezcaleros and tequileros for the first time in a century, creator David Suro hopes he is on to something new.

Mind you, this isn’t a simple blend of mezcal and tequila. This is something entirely different, a tequila untouched by machines during its production…

Creating Siembra Valles Ancestral goes beyond mere distilling: Suro and his team rely on hand maceration, fermentation in oak and distillation in pine to impart the flavors that vino mezcal de Tequila would have had 100 years ago, but they also produce the spirit using bat-pollinated(!) agave, harvested by carefully trained family farmers known as jimadores and roasted earthen pit ovens.

The distillation and production of Ancestral is an exercise in extraordinary care:

  • Hand-harvested agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in a hand-dug pit oven 6 feet deep for no less than 113 hours, where heat and smoke yield deeply flavorful fruits via methods that have not been used in tequila production for more than a century.

  • They are then hand macerated with wooden mallets to release just enough of their now perfectly roasted juices and distinctive agave flavor.

  • Bagasse fermentation takes place in oak and brick, and the distilled juice rests in demijohns capped the traditional way: with corn cobs that allow just enough oxygen to interact with the spirit as it stabilizes.

I hope you caught the part about the bat pollination. How many other spirits can claim that?

This is a fun and fascinating experience from start to finish, straddling the line between mezcal and tequila (though, to be honest, it’s got more in common with the former). The nose is lightly to moderately smoky, a bit sweet with honeyed notes, plus some tart lemon peel character. This all gets kicked up quite a bit when you dig into the body, which expands upon all of the above with notes of black pepper, bacon, cilantro, and a citrus note that is closer to lemongrass than lemon peel. This is all filtered through a haze of barbecue smoke, roasted meats, and charred mesquite — a lighter smoky touch than the typical mezcal but enough to spin the experience in a different and surprising direction.

All together, this turns out to be a difficult spirit to put down, a complex and exciting experience that makes you rethink the very nature of what tequila can be. Get some.

100.4 proof. Reviewed: Lot #2.

A / $120 / siembravalles.com

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.

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Del Maguey Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec Mezcal

del-maguey-sanpabloameyaltepec

Del Maguey hits this month with not one but two of its Single Village Mezcals – Wild Papalome and San Pablo Ameyaltepec. Let’s try both.

Del Maguey Wild Papalome Mezcal – A 100% agave papalome bottling from the Mixteca Alta region. A definitively sweeter style of mezcal, its barbecue-smoke nose layers in notes of citrus and pineapple — almost Hawaiian in style at times. On the palate the mezcal offers few surprises. kicking off with a rather sharp but gently sweet note, then segueing into gentle smoke that influences notes of orange peel, lemon, green banana, and some white wine character. It’s definitely on the quiet side for mezcal, but pleasant and pretty from start to finish. (For what it’s worth, my tasting notes have nothing in common with Del Maguey’s back label; your mileage may vary.) 90 proof. B+ / $100

Del Maguey San Pablo Ameyaltepec – Also 100% agave papalome, this mezcal is made from 12 to 18 year old plants grown in Ameyaltepec, in the Puebla region, where mezcal production was only recently given the OK. Here’s proof that terroir matters in mezcal — this is a much different spirit than the Wild Papalome, kicking off with a nose that is both leathery and smoky-spicy, with notes of dried flowers, almost evoking potpourri. The body is gentle to moderate in strength, and it offers numerous surprises, including notes of milk chocolate, orange flowers, smoked meats, and dried apple character. On the finish we find notes of bubble gum, gingerbread, and wispy smoke — which lingers on the back of the throat. Taken as a whole, it’s an exotic mezcal with an awful lot going on, but an awful lot that manages to come together in inspiring fashion. 94 proof. A- / $110

delmaguey.com

Review: Craneo Organic Mezcal

craneo-mezcalDavid Ravandi, the man behind 123 Tequila, has at long last stepped into the world of mezcal. Craneo is a 100% organic espadin mezcal that is harvested at 5600 feet in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca. Traditionally processed, it is bottled at slightly-above average proof, at 42% abv.

Classically structured on the nose, the mezcal offers aromas of sweet barbecue smoke character layered with hints of citrus. The palate is fairly traditional, though it dances on the tongue thanks to a light and silky body. Notes of orange and grapefruit peel, green banana, and spun sugar punctuate the modestly sweet smokiness, while the finish adds on hints of iodine and a touch of anise.

What is most striking about Craneo is how light on its feet it is. While many mezcals can be overpowering with their intense smokiness, Craneo is balanced and quite restrained. Some may see this lightness as a sign that this is intended as a “starter” mezcal, but ultimately I think its gentle body it adds a ton of versatility to an often difficult spirit — try it in a cocktail — while ensuring it can serve quite nicely as a less overbearing sipper, too. Definitely worth a look.

84 proof.

(Note: If the tasting notes on the Craneo Mezcal website seem familiar, that’s because they were adapted from an earlier version of this review, based on a preliminary sample tasted earlier this year. This review has been updated based on the final, shipping version.)

A- / $60 / mezcalcraneo.com

Review: 3 Mezcals from Craft Distillers – Alipus Ensamble, Mezcalero #16, and Mezcalero Special #2

mez_spec_no2

Craft Distillers has doubled down on mezcal, and it imports both the Alipus and Mezcalero lines of mezcal. Alipus is generally available, but the Mezcalero line is a series of limited production releases, numbered in sequence. 1 through 14 are now sold out; you can still get 15 and 16, the latter of which is reviewed below, along with a new “special bottling” of Mezcalero.

Let’s dig in to all three.

Mezcal Alipus San Andres Ensamble  – The first blended Alipus (all the others being single-village bottlings), Ensamble is a blend of 20% wild bicuishe agave harvested at 5300 feet plus 80% traditional espadin. It’s hard to miss the powerful sweetness here, coming across like honey for starters and almost maple syrupy at times. The smoke grows from there. What is palpable on the nose is well-integrated into the palate, where it takes on a fruitlike character not unlike sherried Islay Scotch. This, however, goes too far, pushing overripe fruit elements that culminate in a somewhat saccharine mishmosh of flavors that hit strong citrus notes before diving into a finish of salt spray and cigar smoke. A bit scattered on the whole. 94.4 proof. B / $65

Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel –  Angel takes semi-wild madrecuishe (agave karwinskii) from a 5200-foote high soil and turns it into this, an elegant and truly gorgeous mezcal. The nose is restrained and citrus-focused, with clear notes of lemon and grapefruit. The palate weaves gentle smoke into the picture, meandering from wood fires to clean citrus and back again. The body is modest but fulfilling, the finish clean and lightly sweet, with just a hint of that sour citrus juice squeezed on top. So easygoing, it’s hard to put down — and a perfect example of what quality mezcal should be. 94.2 proof. A / $96

Mezcalero Special Bottling Release #2 – A higher-end, even more limited production. This release comprises “552 liters distilled in October and November of 2012 by Don Valente Angel from semi-wild Dobadaan (agave rhodacantha). It was harvested from a south-facing slope of a hill known as Loma de la Mojonera comprised of sandy, ferriferous soil at 5350 feet of elevation. The agaves were wood-fire roasted in a stone horno, shredder-crushed, fermented with wild yeasts, double distilled using artisan methods on a 200-liter copper potstill, and bottled in March of 2016. 736 bottles produced.” To clarify, this is tank-rested (not barrel-aged) for over three years before bottling. The results are impressive. This is a soft, seductive mezcal that starts slow and builds to a crescendo, kicking off on the nose with gentle notes of black pepper, simple smoky notes, and a basic citrus character. The palate follows suit, dialed way back at first with just a short, simple sweetness, some orange peel, and pepper. From there, it builds up to quite a hefty, mouth-filling body, rolling in notes of mint, gunpowder, apple, and campfire smoke. The mezcal goes out not with a whimper but with a bang, finishing sharply and scorching the back of the throat. Exciting stuff, and fun to explore. 97.52 proof. A- / $135

craftdistillers.com

Review: Creyente Mezcal Joven

Creyente_v6_F

This new joven mezcal is a blend of two 100% Espadin agave mezcals from different regions of Oaxaca (Tlacolula and Yautepec). It’s fitting, because the product is a parternship of two longtime mezcaleros – Pedro Mateo and Mijail Zarate – who have tinkered with classical distillation processes to come up with Creyente (Spanish for “believer”). Per the press release: “In separate distilleries, they begin by removing the pencas (leaves) and roasting the piñas (hearts) using an artisanal method with mesquite wood in a horno cónico de pierdra (stone oven) for three days. The roasted piñas are ground by hand using a molino de piedra (stone mill) to extract their succulent syrups, fermented in wooden barrels, then distilled in small copper stills. Finally, following distillation, the two mezcals are cut with natural spring water, blended with each other, and together they become Creyente.”

The crystal clear Creyente offers a classically smoky nose, studded with notes of lemon zest, black pepper, and overripe fruit. On the palate, more smoke leads to a relatively fruit-heavy body, lightly oily with notes of black pepper, furniture polish, and sweetened cereal. The finish sticks to the palate (and the ribs), with overtones of petrol, licorice, and smoky forest fire. Altogether it’s a rather classic, and surprisingly straightforward, mezcal, despite it’s unorthodox production.

80 proof.

B+ / $50 / no website

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