For the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, mezcal is certainly having its day and few brands more so than the independent, highly coveted and respectfully authentic Corte Vetusto. With expressions claiming accolades such as Gold and Best in Category at the American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits (2019) as well as both Gold Outstanding and the Mezcal Trophy at IWSC (2017), Corte Vetusto is a small brand making huge waves within the world of agave.
Artisanal by tradition, nature and process, mezcal has a long and profoundly personal history, with recipes and techniques passed down through generations and neighbouring regions’ products tastings dramatically different from one another. Unlike tequila, which must be made from Weber Blue Agave, mezcal is produced from a variety of different agaves (some 30 species, with an innumerable amount of sub-strains, all of which pick up unique terroir-based flavours from their surrounding). Add to this the fact that artisanal mezcal is made in small batches using time-honoured (read: incredible but inefficient) methods, and it becomes clear that the production of mezcal dances between the lines of science and art.
Who and What?
Corte Vetusto’s Founder, David Shepherd, tells us how he started the company in 2017 after a long love affair with agave:
“I grew up in Mexico City until I was seven, so I was exposed to Mexican food and culture made a lasting impression on me. My parents continue to live there, so it has always been second home. I was sipping good quality tequila when most of my friends would be shooting the low-end stuff and I loved the challenge of helping change their perceptions. I fell in love with Mezcal on first sip at a restaurant in Mexico City called Nico’s, nearly 10 years ago. I felt it combined everything I loved about single-malt whisky and great tequila. It took about seven years to pluck up the courage to start my own brand, but here we are.”
Corte Vetusto is one of the UK brands honouring mezcal’s history and people whilst bringing it into the present and to a whole new audience. It’s range of single-origin, unaged, artisanal mezcals have been handcrafted in small batches by fourth generation Maestro Mezcalero, Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz, and are distilled to proof strength using century-old techniques.
The name translates as “Ancient Cut” and has a dual meaning – the cutting of the agave plant and the “cut” that is taken by the distiller to separate the spirit. “Vetusto” is also the old Spanish word of “ancient”, which reflects the fact that mezcal is the oldest spirit in the Americas.
What makes Corte Vetusto Different?
Mezcal is no longer perceived as just a cheap and nasty “poor man’s”, or a shot not to be taken seriously. The perception of it is changing and Corte Vetusto is amongst those spearheading its well-deserved rise. David Shepherd wants mezcal to be seen as a genuine sipping alternative to singe malt whisky and, with the superior quality of all Corte Vetusto’s products and their very reasonable pricing (remember that, unlike malted barley which is cheap and readily accessible, some agave plants take 35 years to grow and have to be carried down on horseback from a mountain), this dream is already starting to be realised.
How is it Made?
Juan and his assistant, Juan Carlos, select ripe, fully matured agave from the mountains and – after cutting away the leaves to expose the piña (“heart” of the plant used to make mezcal) – bring these down to the Palenque (distillery).
The piña are split into smaller pieces – some species are huge and can weigh up to 350kg – and placed into the conical earthern pit oven “horno” for roasting. The horno itself is lined with volcanic stones, which absorb and maintain heat, whilst local hard woods are burned in the centre of the pit, imparting smoky flavour to the cooking agave. River stones are placed over this, followed by basago (agave fibres) from the previous distillations to prevent the piña from burning and producing a bitter tasting mezcal. Finally, the agave is covered with a tarp and soil to seal them in for a three-five day slow-roasting. The process converts the natural starches into sugars that can then be fermented to produce alcohol.
Once cooled, the tender agave is slowly crushed using a traditional “tahona” milling stone pulled along by Payaso the horse! The basago and sweet juices that are created are then transferred to open-topped, wooden vats along with local spring water.
Wild airbourne yeast that are unique to the Palenque convert the sugars to alcohol over one-two weeks and also impart their unique flavour to the liquid. This liquid and leftover fibres in turn are transferred to the wood-fired copper or clay pot stills, where they are twice-distilled. Cuts are taken until Juan Carlos is happy with the product’s taste and ABV, before the final Joven (unaged) mezcal is bottled.
Tasting Notes: Corte Vetusto Mezcal Range Review
Made from a carefully selected mixture of eight-ten-year-old cultivated and some wild agave, Corte Vetusto Espadin is double-distilled in 250 litre copper pot stills. The expression also took “Gold Outstanding” and the “Mezcal Trophy” at the 2017 IWSC.
Flambéed banana sundae, smoke, wood, black pepper, green olives and green bell peppers. There is a nose of cooked caramelised agave but vegetable and smoked fibres are detected first.
Freshly made caramel brittle and cooked agave create a beautiful backdrop for vegetal, notes and herbaceous mountain thyme to build on. Pine resin and gentle minerality pair with a creamy mouthfeel to create one of the best Espadins we’ve ever tasted.
Neat. All Corte Vetusto mezcals are perfect for slow sipping and open up over time, developing more flavour and making you fall deeper in love with them with every sip.
£59.22. Buy it online at Master of Malt here
This Tobala is made from 100% wild agave that is fully matured after 10-14 years. It is double-distilled, first in a 250 litre copper pot still and then in a small 70 litre ancestral clay pot still to imbue the spirit with both crisp and bright elements as well as earthy and complex notes.
Very green and herbal: lemon verbena, sage and thyme are amongst the bouquet. Fresh coastal air and a mineral salinity dance with citrus pith and zest. Smoke swirls through the nostrils around all of this.
Caramel and cooked agave sweetness hit the tip of the tongue before washing to the back and returning as pepper and cold smoke. There is a strong black pepper flavour without much of the prickly. Juicy yet tart green apple finish the palate off.
Neat and savoured.
£97.95. Buy online at Master of Malt here
This is Corte Vetusto’s second limited edition Joven Ensamble bottling and is a true premium mezcal. Made using an ensemble of 10-35-year-old Espadin, Madrecuishe and Tobala agave that has been double-distilled in both copper and ancestral clay pot stills, this tiny batch of 162 bottles stands testament to Maestro Mezcalero Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz’s skill. The Ensamble II was also recently awarded “Gold” and “Best in Category” at the 2019 American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits.
Smoked agave, aromatic wood, pine resin, raw corn, malt, grass, cold caramel and floral perfume.
Wow! The seductive smoke that greets the palate demurely tapers off, heading to the back and allowing the delicious, thick and richly roasted agave flavour to take centre stage. The agave brings with it pepper, spice, thyme, oregano and a touch of anise, before candy floss and toffee apple leave the drinker with a giggle of decadence. What a stunner!
Neat and savoured.
£98.18. There are precious few of these bottlings left! Buy yours now at Master of Malt here