Interest in artisanal agave and sugar cane spirits have been on the rise over the past few years, with tequila and mezcal taking centre stage, closely followed by the revitalised reputation of rum. With this in mind, industry trio Alex Wolpert (Founder of East London Liquor Company) and Sager + Wilde’s Michael Sager and Marcis Dzelzainis, have come together to launch El Destilado’s first collection of thirteen such spirits. We attend the unveiling of the brand at Michael and Marcis’ FARE Bar + Canteen.
Born out of time spent travelling across Latin America, El Destilado realises the team’s shared desire to curate a collection of small batch spirits that express the terroir of the unusual places and independent producers they encountered. Every single spirit has a unique story behind it, such as Aguardiente de Panela being made by the last distiller left in a tiny, high altitude village where only seven people speak the language. Produced from ‘panela’ – a partially refined sugar made from boiled down fresh cane juice – and fermented in pine tanks, Marcis tells us how they drove four hours to reach this remote spot and source the mere 160 bottles of this spirit that will ever be made. He says that, whilst there is no way for them to keep the language alive, they are hoping to tell the village’s story through their spirit.
Michael chimes in:
“El Destilado agave spirits cannot be replicated. They’re really scarce and you can’t scale this. They’re made from wild agave, which takes ten years to ripen and grow on rocky soil in remote locations. You have to carry huge, cactus-like things growing on a 45-degree slope for two hours on a donkey, before you can chop it and bake it in a pre-Hispanic oven for five-days, and even then, the yield once pressed and fermented, is ten to one.”
Alex goes on to explain how they are shipping spirits that would never normally leave their villages, let alone Mexico, in whatever container the producer puts them in. This is not an easy process as the spirits do not belong to a recognised certification such as ‘mezcal’ or ‘rum’, bringing with it further tax and shipping challenges. However, Alex states that “the liquids are just so wonderful that [they] decided to own the fact that they can’t be certified” and just call them ‘agave spirits’ and ‘sugar cane spirits’. This has proven enough for people who love booze to be interested in them.
Continuing to work directly with small producers, El Destilado’s diverse range of spirits will continue to grow, after recent trips to explore pineapple, banana and orange distillates in Colombia and beyond. Michael admits that, on sending out their first newsletter announcing the brand, even close friends called them “insane” to be launching such a large range. Undeterred, he simply states that they are unaware that batches are between 70 and 420 bottles, and that the very nature of the collection is at once ephemeral and ever-evolving.
It is no wonder that the rarity of El Destilado’s spirits mean that they fit into the luxury category, fetching prices from £35 to £120 per 500ml bottle, however, the sheer uniqueness of the offering means that they are well-worth this price tag, and we can’t wait to see what the next El Destilado collection holds (see our tasting notes for the first collection below). Whilst we were lucky enough to sip the wares neat – an experience that we recommend whole-heartedly – Alex surprises us my encouraging the use of the spirits in cocktails:
“They’re all hard to get spirits but we’re all bartenders by trade so we want people to use them, and enjoy them. The two sugar cane spirits work brilliantly in Daiquiris and the Bicuixe has an amazing smoked watermelon flavour that works brilliantly with soda water.”
Tasting Notes: El Destilado – First Collection
Agave Distillates (Non-D.O. mezcal)
Sierra Negra (A. Americana)
Mezcalero: Alberto Martinez | Santa Catarina Albarradas, Oaxaca | 70 bottles
Supremely complex and with a smell reminiscent of church intense, chewed up bark is added to start the fermentation process of this unusual spirit. There is an earthy minerality on the palate that combines with tobacco, leather, resulting in a full mouthfeel and a seemingly unending finish.
Tobaziche (A. Karwinski)
Mezcalero: Pedro Pascual Hernandez Arrellanes | Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca | 100 bottles
Made by 72-year-old distiller, Tio Pedro Pascual Hernandez Arrellanes, who has been making mezcal for over 50 years, this is a wonderfully dry and nutty spirit that is made without the use of mechanic mills, as is the custom in Santa Catarina Minas.
Barril – Espadin (73% Barril – 27% Espadin)
Mezcalero: Rene Parada Barriga | Zimatlan de Alvarez, Oaxaca |100 bottles
Just 45-minutes away from Tio Pedros’ Palenque, Done Rene Barriga has his considerably larger Palenque. This batch has been co-roasted and fermented with Espadin, which often takes a backseat to other agave varieties when blended together in an ensemble. Barril agave gives the spirit a rounder, sweeter and more vegetal flavour than other varieties would.
Pechuga de Ameyaltepec (Azul, Papalote Y Pizorra)
Mezcalero: Delfino Tobon | San Pablo Ameyaltepec | 100 bottles
This unusual distiller distils using dry ingredients that make up the traditional dish, mole, hanging them in the condensing chamber of the rather bizarre 3-plate copper-stainless steel still, that he made himself. The resulting spirit has a mineral and bright, young green smell with a gentle smoke and a sweetness that prickles the tongue.
Papalome (A. Angustifolia)
Mezcalero: Amando Alvarez | Santa Maria Ixcatlan, Oaxaca | 102 bottles
Funky as all hell, hand-mashed with wooden mallets and fermented in rawhide, this is a truly unusual bottling where the distiller has gone deep into those almost cheese-like, plastic-y and intensely odd congeners that come from the tails of the spirit distillation process. Whilst this all may sound unpleasant, it is far from that and definitely one that any curious booze nerd will enjoy sampling.
Espadilla (A. Angustifolia)
Mezcalero: Luis Sandoval Dolores | San Juan Bautista Jayacatlán, Oaxaca | 110 bottles
Highly mineral-y and smooth with a lanolin aroma, the taste is very much of the clay it is distilled in, coupled with a condensed sweetness. Fatty and oily on the palate, the taste stops dead at one point with unexpected abruptness.
Mezcalero: Atenogenes Garcia | San Isidro, Oaxaca | 180 bottles
A nice pine-y and fresh green nose. Fuller on the palate with notes of coffee grounds, butterscotch, peanut butter, and a certain salinity that comes from the hard water drawn from the well in the area.
Pichomel (A. Marmorata)
Mezcalero: Atelo Ramirez | Reyes Metzontla, Puebla | 200 bottles
The only mezcal from Reyes to make it to Europe, precisely because the producer is the only one in town, and he only makes 1 – 2 batch per year. Atelo hand-mashes his agave with a giant wooden hammer and distils in a crazy hybrid still, where he uses a stainless steel drum for the boiling chamber, a clay hat on top, and a copper coil to condense through.
The aroma is that of firewood smoke with a deep, confected fruit and vegetal sweetness. Entirely incredible and not like any spirit we’ve ever had before, the taste is freshly fruity with engulfing smoke that rolls gently along the soft palate. Incredible unusual and complex, this is a true standout.
Tobala (A. Potatorum)
Mezcalero: Berta Vasquez | San Baltazar, Oaxaca | 300 bottles
Made completely from wild-harvested Tobalá agaves that is low in sugar, the yield is only 1 litre per plant. Maestra Mezcalera Berta Vasquez is famous within Mexico and to mezcal-lovers internationally, but has yet to export any mezcal to the EU, so this is a unique opportunity to try her wares.
Very light with a distinct sweetness, the spirit is beautifully smooth with a very youthful, fresh, green taste that lingers lightly on the palate.
Bicuixe – Madrecuixe (Bicuixe Madrecuixe)
Mezcalero: Atenogenes Garcia | San Isidro, Oaxaca | 400 bottles
Bicuixe are wild-harvested whilst Madrecuixe are cultivated, taking between 12 and 15 years to reach maturity. Often known for being green, tannic and dry, this blend has an incredible sweet, vegetal smell and a light, almost meaty smokiness to it. The taste is very dry with a lot of minerality and peanut skin nuttiness. Green pine, cucumber and watermelon rind are also present.
Pechuga de Mole Poblano (Espadilla, A. Angustifolia)
Mezcalero: Marcelo Luna | Zoyatla, Puebla | 420 bottles
Different to all other pechugas on the market, Marcelo Luna and his son Leonardo make the savory Pechuga de Mole Poblano by adding cooked chicken and a mole sauce made of chocolate, apples, bananas, chile mulato, chile ancho, cinnamon, cumin, peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds to the first distillate prior to the second run.
The final liquid is utterly amazing with aromas that give a hint to the taste. The initial, smooth flavour washes quickly over the tongue, followed by a secondary rich, chocolate and spice fullness with lingering body and viscous mouthfeel. At once sweet, savoury and spicy, this is an unmatchable spirit.
Sugar Cane Distillates (Aguardiente)
Aguardiente de Panela (Saccharum Officinarum)
Maestro: Delfino Cruz | San Pablo Ameyaltepec, Puebla | 160 bottles
Made by the father of the mezcalero who makes Pechuga de Papalote, this is panela (a partially refined sugar made from boiled down fresh cane juice) fermented in pine tanks with spring water and distilled once through the same crazy still system used in the Pechuga de Papalote.
The taste is similar to rhum agricole – sweet and vegetal – but has an added earthy depth and smoothness that soothes the palate.
Aguardiente de Cana (Saccharum Officinarum)
Maestro: Edgar Gonzalez | San Cristobal Lachirioag, Oaxaca | 400 bottles
Made by Edgar Gonzalez, maestro mezcalero behind a brand called Tosba, high up in the hills of the Sierra Norte. Fresh cane is fermented before being double-distilled in copper. The spirit produced is full of fresh cane flavour with a funky brine character that is not dissimilar to olive juice.