Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Origins of Pechuga, Pierde Almas, & Mezcal de Conejo

I've found the perfect Mezcal for celebrating Easter, the Pierde Almas Mezcal de Conejo. Why is it so perfect? Because this unique Mezcal is made with a wild, cottontail rabbit. Anyone for some liquid bunny?

Mezcal is a distilled spirit from the agave plant and for some background information on it, please check out some of my prior Mezcal articles, including Rant: 400 Rabbits Say "Drink More Mezcal"Mezcal Bars in the Boston AreaMezcal & Beyond, and Amuleto Mexican Table, Mezcal Vago & "A Slap To The Face." Tequila gets loads of publicity but Mezcal too often gets ignored and needs additional promotion. It is more than worthy of your attention, being complex and intriguing, and often made by more traditional methods.

There is a special variety of Mezcal known as Pechuga, a flavored version that often is made with some type of meat. The Spanish term "pechuga" basically translates as "breast" and generally refers to a "chicken breast." This type of Mezcal likely acquired its name as chicken breasts were probably the first meats used to produce it. Currently, you'll find versions of Pechuga made from a variety of animals, including turkey, deer, goat, cow, pig, rabbit and even iguana.

To make Pechuga, a Mezcal is commonly distilled for a third time with a raw piece of meat suspended inside the still. In addition, various fruits, herbs, nuts, grains and/or spices are added into the still. The specific recipe of that melange of ingredients will vary from mezcalero to mezcalero and as there is no legal definition for Pechuga, the recipes can be quite diverse. The heat of the still will cook the meat and the vapors will pass through and into the meat. Sometimes, a few mezcaleros will conduct this process during the second distillation instead of adding a third.

How does the meat affect the taste of the Mezcal? Some claim the meat helps to mellow and soften the Mezcal, and others state it gives the Mezcal a fuller body. If you taste a Pechuga, you probably won't be able to identify the specific type of meat that was used, but will likely detect more savory notes, and possibly even some gamier elements.

Pechuga is sometimes referred to as a harvest Mezcal as it is commonly produced during November to January, when the wild fruits are ripe, such as apples, plums, red plantains, pineapples, and more. It is also usually produced from Espadin agave, one of the most common, hearty and least expensive agaves used to make Mezcal. Placing all of the various ingredients into the Mezcal will tend to overwhelm any subtlety of the agave so it would make little sense to use some of the rarer agave varieties to make Pechuga. Pechuga is often drank at various celebrations and holidays.

The origins of Pechuga are murky, both its date of origin as well as the reasons behind its initial creation. When I initially surveyed the current information about Pechuga, there was some evidence that it reached back at least to the 1930s as there were bottles labeled Pechuga from this decade. As for printed evidence, the earliest, as stated by Ron Cooper of Del Maguey Mezcal, appeared to be a book from the 1950s which mentioned a Pechuga made from baby goat breast that was added during the second distillation. It seemed likely that Pechuga originated before the 1930s, but the evidence was lacking.

Until now.

My own research has to the discovery of printed evidence of Pechuga extending back to 1864, meaning it is at least 150 years old. In addition, I've located multiple other printed references to Pechuga, ranging from 1864 to 1904, which provide more insight into this unique type of Mezcal. Since I originally published this article, I've revised and expanded it once and now have returned to revise and expand it again, as I've uncovered additional evidence.

It is possible that continued research might lead me to revise and expand this article in the future as well. Despite my fascinating discoveries, there are still significant questions remaining about the history of Pechuga. Additional research is certainly needed to address the unknowns and I strongly suspect there is more to find out there.  

As I conducted my initial research to write this article on Pechuga, I was quite surprised when I discovered a newspaper from 1901 that mentioned Pechuga. As far as I was aware, that appeared to be the oldest known printed reference to Pechuga. That newly uncovered information meant Pechuga was at least 116 years old and probably even older. I also felt that it could be a starting point for additional research on the history of Pechuga.

In the Saturday, January 5, 1901 edition of The Oasis, an Arizona newspaper, they published an article, Mescal Making, though the author of the article was not identified. The article discussed the Mezcal being produced in the Sahuaripa district of the Sonora state in Mexico, stating the area was "...noted far and wide for the excellence and quality of the mescal there produced,..."

There was a further explanation of how Mezcal was produced, including information on its quality levels, which mentioned Pechuga. “Of the finished liquor there are three qualities determined by the number of distillations to which subjected. The product of the first distillation is called “vino,” and is the cheapest grade of mescal. The “vino” when subjected to a second distillation loses about thirty per cent in weight and then is known as “Bacanora.” This is a much finer and more expensive liquor than the “vino.” In the third distillation the “Bacanora” loses another thirty per cent, by weight, of the “vino” and the product, known as “pechuga,” is a very fine and costly liquor, within reach of the purses of the wealthy only. It is a soft, smooth liquor, having all the strength of the “vino,” contained within forty per cent of its weight but losing none of its fiery qualities and pungent taste.”

It is important to note that this article didn't specifically mention that Pechuga was made with meat, but it was stated to be produced from a third distillation. Did the author misunderstand the actual nature of Pechuga? Or did the term Pechuga once only refer to a higher quality of Mezcal? It doesn't seem logical that this Pechuga didn't include meat. Why else refer to it by a name meaning "breast," especially "chicken breast?"  There doesn't appear to be any other historical evidence that the term Pechuga was ever used for anything but Mezcal flavored with meat. I think it is probably most likely the author made a mistake, an omission error, failing to mention the addition of meat in Pechuga.

We also see that Pechuga was very expensive, and tasted soft and smooth, though still possessing the fiery character of Mezcal. This article also raises the question about whether Pechuga might have originated in the Sahuaripa district or not. We can pinpoint the presence of Pechuga there at least 116 years ago. At the very least, this article provides a lead for further research, that maybe more evidence could be found in this district. It was certainly fascinating to find such an old reference to Pechuga, though I didn't know at that time that I would soon find an even older reference.

Before I get there though, I should mention that on Saturday, May 24, 1902, The Oasis published a second article, Mezcal Manufacture, mentioning Pechuga. However, the article was simply an expanded version of their prior article, using much of the same information, and didn't add anything new about Pechuga.

Though this was an intriguing find, pushing back the known origins of Pechuga, I didn't stop my research, using this new information as a springboard. My continued efforts paid off and I made another compelling discovery, finding a printed reference to Pechuga in a book from 1891! What made this even more interesting was that the reference was very clear that the creation of Pechuga included the addition of a chicken.

The book, El Maguey. Memoria sobre el cultivo y beneficio de sus productosby Jose C. Segura, was published in Mexico in 1891. Jose Segura (1846-1906) was an agronomist engineer and a professor at the National School of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, having written several other books and numerous articles. This book, published in Spanish, discussed the many uses of the agave plant, including its use in making Pulque and Mezcal. It is probably worth a deeper examination as it may contain other intriguing information about agave, Pulque, Mezcal and more. It would also help if there were an English translation.

There is a passage in this book that references the term Pechuga: “El primer producto que se obtiene y que se llama vino ordinario, sufre una segunda destilacion, que pro duce el vino refino, que se expende en el comercio con un grado de 46° (Gay Lussac). Las primeras porcio nes que pasan en esta segunda destilacion, toman el nombre de flor primera, segunda, etc. Hay un vino que - rectifican añadiéndole gallina y no recuerdo qué otras cosas bien poco volátiles, que llaman vino de pechuga, el cual lo preparan solamente para regalo."

This passage mentions "vino de pechuga," which is made by adding chicken and other unstated ingredients. It is also noted that this Pechuga was prepared only for a gift. However, after a closer examination of the book and additional research, I learned that Mr. Segura did not actually author that passage, but was quoting a prior writer, D. Manuel Payno. And Mr. Payno's original article containing that passage is from 1864, pushing back the calendar on Pechuga even more.

In the Boletin de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografia y Estadisticathere was a lengthy article, Memoria Sobre El Maguey Mexicano Y Sus Diversos Productos, written by D. Manuel Payno (1864). The article contained the above passage on Pechuga which Mr. Seguara included in his book. Unfortunately, Mr. Payno didn't include anything else in his article about Pechuga, though we now know Pechuga existed in Mexico over 150 years ago. This is now the oldest known printed evidence of Pechuga.

Returning to Mr. Segura's 1891 book, there was another reference to Pechuga, one which appeared directly attributable to him, but it used a different term. He wrote "Dos clases de Mezcal se conocen en el Sur de Mexico: el mezcal de cabezas, que es el que se obtiene destilacion del liquidoen donde se han puestoa fermentar las cabezas, y el que llama de sustancia, que es el que se obtiene distilando el jugo fermentado de las cabezas con carne de gallina cocida, o patas de ternera. Tambien acostumbran en algunas partes, aromatizar el mezcal, destilandolo sobre cascaras de fruta."

He referred to it as mezcal of sustancia, substance, which is made with chicken or legs of veal. There was also a mention that sometimes fruit peels are added to the mezcal. This was not the only work to use a different term for Pechuga. For example, published in 1882, the Memoria de la Primera Exposicion Industrial De Queretaro, y Lista de los objetos presentados en la misma (Memory of the first exhibition industry of Queretaro and list of objects presented), written by Celestino Diaz, mentioned this term a couple times.

The first mention was of "mezcal de sustancia, que los Srs. Becerill y Ordonez fabrican en San Angel." There was another mention, noting that mezcal de sustancia won a first class award at the Exposition. Interestingly, there was also a reference to "Pechuga Naranjado," which won a first class award too.

In addition, the Diccionario de Aztequismos: ó sea, Catálogo de las palabras del idioma Nahuatl, Azteca ó Mexicano, introducidas al idioma Castellano bajo diversas formas, written in 1904 by Cecilio A. Robelo provided a list of various types of Mezcal. It defined "Mezcal de sustancia" as "el que se obtiene destilando el jugo fermentado de las cabezas con carne de gallina cocida, o patas de ternera." That is essentially the same language as used by Mr. Segura.

Beside these discoveries, I also found multiple other references to Pechuga from 1872-1901, which add to our understanding, as well as raise additional questions, of this unique type of Mezcal.

A Colorado newspaper, Out West (November 21, 1872), provided a travelogue, written by Rosa Del Monte, who journeyed with a group to various parts of Mexico. At the Hacienda de Quesaria, the group had breakfast, checked out their sugar mill and were amazed by "chicken wine." As the passage states: “But the most remarkable product of the estate is “Chicken Wine.” As any-one may imagine, we greeted the member of the party who made the discovery with shouts of derision, but he stuck to his statement, and soon a bottle with “Vino de Pechuga” (the breast of a chicken) on the label was produced. We tasted the decoction, and found it very bad rum, with no perceptible taste of feathers. Three barrels, worth $36 the barrel, are made daily, and two chickens are boiled in every four gallons of the wine. Such is the fact—but the reason why remains a mystery to this day.”

This is an interesting passage and the writer might have been confused as to the actual method of production of the Pechuga. This was likely created with Mezcal and not wine, as Pechuga is sometimes referred to as "vino de Pechuga," despite no actual wine being involved. It is also surprising that this Pechuga is allegedly made every day.

In the Mexican newspaper El Padre Cobos (November 6, 1873), there is a brief mention of "Vino de Pechuga," which is made in Tequila, that will soon be available for sale: "Gran Lecheria! En la calle de la Alcaiceria entre los numeros 27 y 28 se vende leche pura garantizada desde las cinco de la manana adelante y chocolate superior de varias clases, al estilo de Guadalajara. Proximamente se recibera de esa ciudad un abudante surtido de vino de Pechuga febrido in Tequila, Frijol garbancillo y Cigarros de la Conchita y el Buen Gusto todo legitimo y a precios comodos."

Another newspaper, La Patria (March 31, 1878), noted Jesus Flores won a prize at an exposition for his "vino de Pechuga." Unfortunately, the article didn't provide any additional details about this winning Pechuga but now we see that Pechuga was sometimes entered into competitions.

In La Patria (February 1, 1879), there is an advertisement from a seller, Nicolas Andrade, of Tequila and Pechuga. The ad lists the prices, in Mexican dollars, for various containers, from a cup to a barrel. It is interesting to see that Pechuga generally cost twice as much as Tequila. A cup of "Grande Tequila" costs $0.03 while a cup of Pechuga cost $0.06. A bottle of Tequila cost $0.37 while a bottle of Pechuga cost $1.00. A Jar of Tequila cost $3.50 while a Jar of Pechuga cost $7.00. A Barrel of Tequila cost $25.00 but there wasn't a price for Pechuga by the barrel.

More prices were provided by the El Municipio Libre (April 3, 1879), in an advertisement by a liquor store. Mescal de Tierra Caliente cost $1.50 for a bottle and $20.00 for a Box (though there is no indication how much the box contains). Tequila Superior cost $3.00 for a bottle and $40.00 for a Box. And "Legitimate" Pechuga costs $7.00 for a bottle and $90.00 for a box. These prices are higher than the other advertisement though Pechuga is still the most expensive. What is also curious is that this ad states its Pechuga is "legitimate," raising the question whether some people were selling fake Pechuga. Maybe that is why the other seller's prices were so cheap.

In 1880, Mariano Barcena presented a study to the Secretary of Development, La 2. Exposicion de “Las Clases Productoras” y descripcion de la ciudad de Guadalajara. There was a list under the heading, Bebidas Azucaradas y Otras, which included a number of Pechuga references, usually as "vino de Pechuga." There were also references to “vino de Pechuga y almendrado” (Pechuga and Nuts), “Pechuga Almendrado,” and “Pechuga Naranjado” (Orange Pechuga). These terms seem to indicate the additional ingredients added to the base Pechuga. It raises the question then whether originally Pechuga only contained chicken, or another meat, and not the fruits, nuts, and such known to be used to create later versions of Pechuga. This study also mentioned that Sr. D. Carlos G. Sancho presented a "very good" Pechuga.

The book Estudio quimico-industrial de los varios productos del maguey mexicano y analisis quimico del aguamiel y el pulque (Chemical-industrial study of various products of Mexican maguey and chemical analysis of aguamiel and pulque) was written by José G. Lobato and published in January 1884. One of its passages is: "El estado de Zacatecas posee varios distritos mezcaleros; pero entre ellos el de Pinos es muy notable por las plantaciones y cultivo de sius magueyeras, que producen much mezcal, alcohol de primera y segunda clase, llamdos chorrera el primero, y pechuga el sugundo. Esta misma denominacion se les aplica en San Luis Potoso, Guanajuato, Queretaro y otros Estados."

This passage mentions that the Mexican state of Zacatecas, located north of Jalisco, has several Mezcal producing districts and that the Pinos district is notable. This district is best known for two classes of Mezcal, Chorrera and Pechuga. It continues noting that this also applies to other Mexican states, including San Luis Potoso, Guanajuato, and Queretaro, indicating the prevalence of Pechuga Mezcal.

Another passage goes into some additional detail, "El mezcal de pechuga de San Luis Potosí, de Pinos en Zacatecas, de Tequila en Jalisco, etc., es un alcohol muy aromático, muy sápido, muy carminativo, debido esto al aceite esencial del maguey, al ácido agávico y á la agavina encontrada por el Sr. Fernandez en 1876, con moti vo del análisis que exprofeso ejecutó, comisiónado por el Ayuntamiento de Guanajuato con motivo del envenena miento de este alcohol por el plomo."

It is stated that the Pechuga of San Luis Potosí, the Pinos in Zacatecas, and Tequila in Jalisco, are very aromatic and full-bodied. Strangely, it's also stated that these mezcals are "carminativo," which translates as carminative, meaning they can induce or prevent flatulence. Mezcal has long been said to cure many ailments, but mentioning its carminative properties along with it being aromatic and full-bodied seems to be a strange combination. The passage also mentions that these qualities are considered to be due to the essential oil of the maguey plant, agavic acid and its agavina (natural sugars).

The El Correo de San Luis (May 19, 1885) presented an ad, noting its low prices, for "Vino de Pechuga Almendrado," which is stated to be "propio para las senoras por su suavidad y buen gusto," ("suitable for ladies for its softness and good taste"). This is the first reference I've seen that refers to women as a specific demographic for Pechuga. Is it only because nuts were added to this Pechuga? This reference seems to raise more questions than it answers.

In El Agricultor Mexicano (June 1, 1901), there was a passage "En el estado de Zacatecas, que cuenta con mucho distritos mezcaleros, el mas notable es el de Pinos que produce un alcohol supremo, y que es de dos clases, la de primera se llama "chorrera" y "pechuga" la de segunda." It mentioned the Mexican state of Zacatecas, located north of Jalisco, which had many Mezcal producing districts and the Pinos district was considered the best. The Pinos district was best known for two types of Mezcal, Chorrera and Pechuga.

It is abundantly clear now that Pechuga wasn't a 20th century invention, but extends back at least to 1864, over 150 years ago. These are fascinating finds, and I hope that it might lead to even more such discoveries in the future.
Though Pechuga is rare, it can be found in the U.S. market, primarily due to the work of Ron Cooper of Del Maguey. Around 1999, Cooper, after a few years of fighting the bureaucracy, was the first to bring Pechuga into the U.S. market. Currently, they sell two Pechugas, one made with chicken and the other with Iberico ham. Since then, a number of other Mezcal producers, including El Jolgorio (using a guajolote, a creole turkey rooster ), Wahaka (one also using a guajolote and another which is a vegan version), and Fidencio (using chicken breast). As Pechuga is made in small batches, it tends to be very pricey, and you can expect to pay $100-$300 a bottle.

Pierde Almas, a Mezcal producer which considers itself to be a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company, also produces a version of Pechuga. Made in the village of San Baltazar Chichicapam and created by Master Distiller Jonathan Barbieri, this Mezcal de Conejo (about $300) is produced from Espadin Mezcal with local heirloom fruits, herbs, nuts (including apples, pineapples, almonds, pecans, citrus blossoms and anise) and the saddle of a wild, Cottontail rabbit. The fruit, herbs, nuts and rabbit are added during a third distillation in a copper pot still.

I recently tasted this Mezcal de Conejo at Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain, one of a handful of Mezcal Bars in the Boston area (and they have over 25 Mezcals on their list). A small tasting cup of the Conejo is $18.50 while a larger cup is $36. I was immediately struck by the anise notes in this Mezcal and then I could detect the ripe fruit flavors, especially pineapple, a mild smokiness, and a touch of a more wild and gamey element. It was complex and intriguing, a unique melange of flavors which should please any Mezcal lover. You wouldn't know this Mezcal was made with rabbit, but it still would make for an interesting addition to your Easter dinner. Or just drop by Tres Gatos to sample this unique Mezcal.

Have you tasted Pechuga? If so, what were your thoughts?

(Please be advised that my recent experience at Tres Gatos was comped, without any obligation to write a review or say anything specific about my experience. )

(Please also be advised that this article was revised/expanded on April 21, 2017, adding new information to the section on the origins of Pechuga.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love this research. Can I reference your work in the revised edition of my book Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! ? I am working on it now and this is amazing information you have unearthed on the history of pechuga! If you can email me at for some direct dialogue, that would be great! Best,