Pierde Alma offers celestial mexcal – for a price
Oaxaca Yankie director Jonathan Barbieri obsessive purist, makes labels from agave pulp
“I call this Vitamin M”
Amid the cornucopia of 500 or so booths and counters at the bustling New York Times Travel show at Javits this weekend, representing everything interesting in destinations from peaceful, eco friendly Costa Rica to Turkey, now the thriving alternative to Greece, we stumbled at the end on a suitable finale to the workday – a counter with bottles of pure, transparent liquid being imbibed by a small but merry crowd of samplers who seemed impressively satisfied by the very small amount of the liquid they were offered in clear plastic water cups.
The taste test turned out to be administered by Laura Gonzales and Philippe Petalas, the young reps of an idealistic company called Pierde Almas which produces what might just be the finest mexcal in the universe, a liquid of innocent transparency but fiery nature (it hovers around 48% alcohol in strength) prepared from high altitude agave with excruciating discrimination and care in Oaxaca, the center for mexcal, which is a refined, superior form of tequila.
This elixir of the Gods is thought to have been first produced by the Conquistadores when their original hard drink supplies ran out, since there is no record of it earlier. They married the copper distillation machine (one they had inherited from Persia via the Moors when Queen Elizabeth of Spain kicked those Arab conquerors out) with the local sacred plant agave. Essentially the still consists of a vessel with a sealed top in which boiled or fermented vapor passes through a tube over to a second, cooler vessel in which it condenses and collects.
Into this “alembic” or still they fed baked hearts of maguey, which is a species of agave, the sacred plant of the local culture, and the result was mexcal, a word drawn from “ovenbaked agave”. Its effect is so beneficial that an Oaxacan saying has it that “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well).
No comparison with tequila
Mexcal is not tequila, it seems, far from it. Tequila is a form of mexcal produced by the blue agave plant, primarily from the city of Tequila, according to the man behind Perde Almas, Jonathan Barbieri, its tall, square jawed Director who went to live in Oaxaca and fell in love with mezcal. “It’s thanks to mexcal that I speak what little Spanish I do!” he said, popping up alongside Laura and Phillippe to emphasize that, unlike his purist brew, tequila involves “cutting corners and adulterating the drink with flavors, additives such as glycerins to make it go down smoother, deodorants and caramel, which are all in tequila.”
His expensive bottles form six different varieties drawn from agave under the names Espadin, Dobadaan, Tobala, Tobaziche, Pechuga, and Conejo, of which the third and fourth are from wild agave rodocanthus and kawinski. Using these agaves and only these agaves they are double or even treble distilled in a copper alembic and naturally fermented in pinewood tubs in the village of San Baltazar Chichi, which is 6000 feet high up, “which results in cold and slow fermentation and an acidic fruitiness,” Barbieri enthused.
We tried the wild agave Tobala, $115 a bottle at any one of nearly fifty outlets stocking this pricey novelty in Manhattan, ranging from reBar to the Blue Donkey Bar to the Rosarito Fish Shack. It tasted a little smoky and put us in mind of fuel for a swinging lantern, but the fifty per cent alcohol had no unpleasant bitter kick to spoil the discreet flavor (described poetically in the brochure as “floral”, “green” with “anis” and the “smell of heath after a rain), and our gulp went down very smoothly, and kept our capillaries dancing quietly for several hours afterwards, we would find.
We then raised the stakes and tried the second to top of the line Tobaziche, $120 a bottle in Manhattan. It is also made from wild agave brought down from the mountains by burro (trucks cannot go where it grows). The taste is promised in the brochure as strong tones of agave flesh laced with aromatic woods, with traces of quince and anis fading to floral and wet clay, but we can’t say we immediately detected these subtleties. It just seemed as smokily interesting and not so very different to us, but we can imagine a connoisseur would know better. The effect was certainly equally pleasant – it warmed the heart without interfering with cogitation in the slightest, as far as we could tell. Since our photos did all turn out as well as we thought, however, this may have been an illusion. As the Oaxaca saying implies, fine mexcal does raise one’s confidence considerably.
Standards, not standardization
The top of the line Conejo, with “the saddle of a rabbit” added to the avocado and fruit hung in the path of the distilled juice, according to Laura, didn’t seem to be on offer, sadly enough, possibly because it is high priced at $300. Only eighty bottles are produced a season, said Barbieri. This prize mexcal is distilled two or three times over avocado with seasonal fruits as well as the rabbit’s saddle.
Unlike other mexcal Pierde Almas is aged in pine not whisky barrels, and even the labels are handmade from the maguey pulp and other fibers in use since pre Columbian times, including coyuche, cornhusk, banaleaf.
The company is driven by the honest idealism of a purist who disdains the lowering of standards involved in large volume commerce. Tequila used to be a good mexcal 150 years ago, Barbieri informed us, but now it is a very different grade despite all the propaganda which supports its sales after all the corner cutting and adulteration. “It is like Wunderbread compared with farm bread,” he says, “like tortillas made from the true process where the corn is soaked in lime overnight until it is soft and then ground up, compared with commercial tortilla mix from which they remove all the proteins to make corn oil before they use it for tortillas.”
“Or you could say it is as different as organic coffee from Nescafe, from instant coffee”, he suggested. What kind of hangover was in prospect, we asked. “There is no hangover!” he assured us. “You get up ready to populate the world!” If this effect is reliable, we told him, that would make it better than Viagara, which is only effective about half the time, according to studies.