Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals: The First Mezcal-Gin

"I exercise strong self-control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast."
--W.C. Fields

I'm very particular about gin as I dislike those with an overly strong juniper taste, far too piney for my preferences, and they sometimes remind me of cheap aftershave. I feel that the other botanicals get lost in those gins, vastly dominated by the juniper. I much prefer gin which has a more balanced melange of botanicals. A couple of my favorites include the Barrel-Aged Tom Cat Gins from Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, Vermont and Aviation Gin from House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon.

Recently, I learned of a unique Mezcal-Gin, said to possess a more balanced blend of nine botanicals, and I knew I needed to taste it. I love Mezcal so was curious how the gin botanicals would affect the taste. And the more I learned about this unique spirit, the more I was intrigued.

"I've tried Buddhism, Scientology, Numerology, Transcendental Meditation, Qabbala, t'ai chi, feng shui and Deepak Chopra but I find straight gin works best."
--Phyllis Diller

Pierde Almas is a Mezcal producer devoted to being a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. I recently wrote about their fascinating and delicious Mezcal de Conejo, a Pechuga made with wild rabbit, and they make a variety of other Mezcals too. After some experimentation, that started back in 2011, Master Distiller Jonathan Barbieri invented Mezcal-Gin, aka Ginebra de Agave, a Gin which uses Mezcal as its base spirit. This intriguing creation is now bottled and sold as Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals.

With assistance from Maestro Mezcalero Gregorio Velasco, production of the +9 Botanicals begins using the Pierde Almas Espadín Mezcal as its base. This Mezcal is made very traditionally, with natural fermentation in wooden vats and relying upon wild yeasts. After undergoing a double distillation, the Mezcal undergoes a third distillation, this time with the addition of nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, star anise, fennel seed, orange peel, cassia bark, angelica root, orris root, and nutmeg. Currently, all of those botanicals are sourced within Mexico, which is also a source of pride for the distillery. That certainly makes it much more of a local spirit. This third distillation occurs in a 100-liter copper pot alembic and they only produce about 200 liters per bottling.

"The Greek physician Galen, writing in the second century AD, said that juniper berries “cleanse the liver and kidneys, and they evidently thin any thick and viscous juices, and for this reason they are mixed in health medicines.” This certainly suggests a mixture of juniper berries and alcohol, although that, too, would have tasted nothing like the superb gins we drink today."
--The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

I obtained my bottle of Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals ($94.99) at Astor Wine & Spirits in New York City. The label notes that this is a Joven Mezcal (basically unaged), with a 45% ABV, and it is #443 of only 720 bottles. At the bottom of the label, it has the phrase "Otra vez esta maldita felicidad" which translates as "Again this damn happiness." I can understand why this Mezcal would bring on happiness. However, what you won't see on the label is that it is a Gin. Why is that so?

The answer to that question needs to start with another question, whether +9 Botanicals is legally a Gin in the U.S. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 27: Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Part 5--Labeling and Advertising of Distilled Products, you have to consult Subpart C--Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, section 5.22(c) which states: “Gin” is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof."

As it meets these qualifications, the +9 Botanicals could legally be labeled as a Gin so you would expect that the label would state that it was a Gin. However, there is a secondary issue which must be considered. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) doesn't permit producers to put multiple categories on a spirit's label. Thus, Pierde Almas had to make the decision whether to label the +9 Botanicals as a Mezcal or a Gin. They were not permitted to include both categories, even if their spirit qualified as both. Jonathan told me that they ultimately decided to keep it in the domain of Mezcal which certainly makes sense as it then fits well within the rest of their Mezcal portfolio.

"The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire."
--Winston Churchill

Would the +9 Botanicals be too juniper heavy? That was certainly my concern but I was reassured by Jonathan Barbieri that wasn't his intent. He explained to me, "I'm not a fan of the lonely juniper berry soprano, singing way out in front about all that pine tar and turpentne. I wanted to bring up the chorus - like the "slave song" in Verdi's Nabucco. So, all of those Mediterranean spices and oriental botanicals share the stage, and in the pit, the orchestra is well, Espadín in all its earthy flesh." How could you not be compelled by Jonathan's poetic words?

After I poured myself a glass, I found that the primary aroma was the piney nose of juniper, and I was sure that I was smelling a gin. No one would be confused in that regard. Beneath that piney nose were more subtle herbal notes. Once I tasted it, the Mezcal elements made themselves known, and I found it to be an intriguing and complex spirit. There were plenty of citrus notes up front, with an interesting melange of spices and herbs, as well as a smoky edge, especially on the finish. The piney notes of the juniper became much more integrated into the whole, and the other botanicals joined the complex mix. The juniper might have been primary on the nose, but the taste became the great equalizer.

This is definitely a sipping spirit, which is quite enjoyable neat, and each sip seems to bring new flavors to your palate. However, the +9 Botanicals would also bring more unique flavors to traditional Gin cocktails, or intriguing botanicals to a Mezcal cocktail. I will be experimenting with some Gin cocktails in the near future. A Mezcal-Gin Martini? A Mezcal-Gin Margarita?

If you already love Gin, then you should check out the Pierde Almas 9+ Botanicals for its unique flavor combinations. If you aren't a huge fan of Gin, then you should still check it out as it is likely to appeal to you anyway. And if you love Mezcal, then this is definitely something you need to experience. Kudos to Pierde Almas for another winner of a Mezcal.

"Forget the cheap white wine: go to beef and gin!"
--Julia Child

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