Biochemist by training, Iván Saldaña’s approach to the creation of his Montelobos mezcal is different from most. Fusing the ancient practices of the mezcalero craft with a highly academic and methodical pursuit of perfection, Montelobos dances between history and modernity in a way few other mezcals have mastered.
Billy’s Bar at The Curtain Hotel & Members’ Club is tonight filled with patiently waiting agave nuts who have come to Shoreditch to hear about Montelobos from its founder, Dr Iván Saldaña. An imposing figure with a reserved manner, Ivan stands guard over a table laid out with the full Montelobos range, fielding the odd pre-presentation question with short and simple answers. Precise and without frills, it is clear that he is a scientist who gives precedence to substance over showmanship.
After receiving the nod to begin, he leaves his post and strides over to a large banner emblazoned with the Montelobos wolf, that will act as the backdrop to his talk.
The Nerdy Stuff
“Plants are more fascinating to study than animals” Ivan states as way of an introduction to his passionate study of plants that grow in extreme environments. “These organisms cannot move so when calamity comes, they need to find solutions from the inside out.”
He goes on to tell us how agave is very closely related to asparagus and artichokes, with the two-three percentage difference in the make-up allowing the agave to withstand super high temperatures and long periods of time without water. What he found in his studies at the University of Sussex was that the complex flavours we find in mezcal are the same chemicals the plant creates to protect itself from parasites and other threats. These include plant proteins that are converted into esters through the process of making mezcal and are tasted as anise, vanilla, citrus, green and floral notes.
Interestingly, agave has found a way to change its sugars structures into something that cannot be digested by those in the desert who would otherwise try and eat it for sustenance. These therefore need to be broken down before they can be used, which is why we cook agave to make mezcal. The cooking of the agave piña causes the plant proteins to combine with the sugars, releasing a whole host of other powerful flavours that we recognise in mezcal. Both the smoke from the wood used in the horno ovens where the agave is roasted, and the airborne yeast causing wild fermentation also add to the character of the spirit.
“These, are the four pillars of mezcal” concludes Ivan with growing gusto.
“Everything found in mezcal is derived from the raw material and the basic processes with which it is created. As a spirit coming out of a still, there is nothing more complex than mezcal.”
Balancing Science and Craft
Whilst a lot of Ivan’s knowledge is portrayed in a scientific manner, his respect for and love of agave and the craft of the mezcalore can be felt. This is why, since 2011 when he started the brand, he has been working hand-in-hand with a family who has been making mezcal for generations, have been fully certified as organic and who make mezcal in the traditional manner.
He talks with good humour about Mo, one of the people he works with, who is very religious and adamant that everything they do must be kosher. This is particularly tricky when it comes to their Pechuga, which is distilled with a turkey breast hung in the still. They bring a Rabbi from Israel over to prepare the meat, hang it and turning on the fire. The Rabbi must be present for the whole process to ensure it is certified as kosher. “It doesn’t make it taste better”, Ivan jokes who is not religious, “but it is important to Mo. Our Pechuga is probably the only one ever made that is kosher.”
It becomes clear that the care and dedication Ivan puts into the science is matched by the importance he gives to the people and artisanal nature of mezcal. With this in mind, we joyfully reach for our glasses and begin the long awaited tasting…
Tasting Notes: Montelobos Mezcal
A 100% unaged, organic mezcal made by two collaborating families in Oaxaca. Ivan’s goal for this was to have equal levels of flavour involvement from the “four pillars” – green agave, cooked agave, smoke and wild fermentation.
Ends of a bonfire or a cold extinguished match. Roasted agave vegetal sweetness and fresh jalapeños.
A Werther’s Original sweetness is the first takeaway, followed by a green freshness, chilli chocolate, cinnamon and nut. The smoke is absent at first but then comes rushing up through the throat and up to the front of the mouth. The flavours are long-lasting with nail varnish congeners stopping this Espadin from being overly sweet.
Great in a cocktail.
£44.95. Buy it online from The Whisky Exchange here.
A mixture of three different agaves from Puebla – Cupreata (55%), Espadin (35%) and Tobalá (10%). The higher temperature and more arid conditions of the area affect the agaves and create different flavours.
Roasted agave, citrus, smoke and cheesy element.
Very different! A bizarre thick, milkiness coats the tongue with lots of vegetal, brine-y and savoury notes. White grape skin, pink pepper and mountain herbs are present whilst the caramel character is relegated to the background.
Drink neat and savour the weirdly contradictory flavours that somehow work wonderfully together.
£58.99. Buy it online at Master of Malt here.
Made from 100% cultivated Tobalá, this unaged mezcal is produced in Puebla. This tobalá agave has been much more environmentally stressed than most others of its species due to its site of growth, giving the mezcal a unique flavour.
Basil, mint, lemon, green pepper.
Entirely different from the nose. Macadamia nut, fig, minerality, smoke and green notes come to the front with earthy truffle and a touch of liquorice completing the palate. The higher ABV is coating as opposed to harsh and is kept in check by an undercurrent caramel.
£76.95. Buy it online at Master of Malt here.
Pechuga is an expression of mezcal famously made in Oaxaca towards the end of the Summer to celebrate the Day of the Dead and Christmas. Montelobos Espadin is distilled with a turkey breast (prepared by a Rabbi), seasonal fruits and spices. The Pechuga is produced from a third distillation with the turkey and is imbued with the meticulously selected spices and fruits. It may not be veggie but it is kosher and damn delicious!
Orange peel, nutmeg, pepper, chocolate.
Incredible!!!!! Thick on the palate with chocolate and innumerable spices and herbs. Caramel, toffee and maple syrup make up a complex sweetness with wood, fruitcake, squash, dried mango, mint and eucalyptus among the many flavour highlights that can be picked out. A complete and utter treat.
Drink neat and enjoy slowly with friends or family in true festive spirit.
£106.95 and worth every penny! Buy it online at Master of Malt here.