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Now reading How to Make Mezcal With a Chicken Breast

How to Make Mezcal With a Chicken Breast

No iguanas were harmed in the making of these tasting notes.

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After first traveling to Oaxaca in 1970, artist Ron Cooper began bringing jugs of mezcal from his favorite producers north to share with friends. One of those friends was fellow artist Ken Price, who drew the bottle labels when Cooper launched the import firm Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal, in 1995.

Bottles of Del Maguey are liquid impressions of the people and places Ron represents in Oaxaca. Perhaps the most legendary is the rare pechuga—fewer than 2,400 bottles a year are imported into the United States—that he brings in from Florencio “Don Lencho” Laureano Carlos Sarmiento and his son Luis Carlos Vasquez, who distill their mezcal in a clay-and-bamboo still from roasted espadín agaves crushed in a millstone in the village of Santa Catarina Minas.

Between November and January, when wild mountain fruits are ripe, they fill the still with one hundred liters of their double-distilled mezcal and add about 220 pounds of apples, plums, red plantains, pineapples, almonds, and uncooked white rice, which is sewn into a cloth bag. A bone-in, skinless chicken breast is strung up above the boil (below the condenser), and the mezcal is distilled a third time. Upon completion, the breast—literally, pechuga (which looks like chicken jerky at this point)—is removed from the still and placed in the family altar room in front of the family saints.

The first bottles of pechuga trickled into the United States in 1999. When the Mexican denomination-of-origin rules for mezcal came into effect in 1994, the production process for pechuga wasn’t recognized. Cooper spent three years persuading the regulators to include it, preparing letters guaranteeing the safety of the process and flying Mexico’s head veterinarian to draw blood from the chickens. Two weeks and two bottles of pechuga after the vet visit, the bureaucrats signed off.

Pechuga, interestingly, is not always made with chicken. Ron has a Spanish book on pulque (a beverage made from fermenting the sap of the agave plant) from the 1950s that mentions a pechuga from the tequila region made with a baby goat breast tossed into the liquid during the second distillation. My personal favorite is a mezcal made in Don Lencho’s palenque (distillery) with a leg of jamón ibérico used in place of the chicken breast. The idea came from chef Ruben Garcia of the restaurant Minibar in Washington, D.C., who air-shipped Cooper a leg to persuade Don Lencho to try it. Steve Olson, a sommelier who’s preached the gospel of mezcal since the late nineties (and is now a partner in Del Maguey), told me, “I know of other versions made with rabbit, turkey, venison, and we even tasted one (from yet another state, Guerrero) made with venison… and iguana!” —Jim Meehan

Tasting Notes:

Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal, Pechuga

The nose starts warm, with the smoky aroma of a tire fire—a classic mezcal thing. But this is a truly captivating expression of it: this is a fire you want to warm yourself near, smoke you’ll let billow over you and soak into your clothes and think good things about in the morning when you smell it in your hair. The smoke lets up and reveals a lush, vegetal side, like stepping into a palm-crowded room at a conservatory. Faint notes of citrus and gasoline accompany the first sip, when you realize how well this mezcal drinks. It’s fleet-footed but powerful; it swings a sledgehammer of flavor with a surgeon’s precision. Hard to resist.

Don Amado Pechuga

The aromas of the Don Amado are there, and then they’re gone. It starts with something citrusy—but it’s smelling the wax from supermarket citrus on your hands after putting away the groceries. The petrol note is remembering what the pump smells like a few minutes after pulling out of the station. (I am a person, I should note, who likes the smell of gasoline.) There are flowers, and something like wet stone. Sipping it, I found it oily, grassy, smooth, and long, with a sweet finish that had the tiniest vanilla kiss-off. A pechuga that’d be fine to pass the hours with.

Mezcal Tosba Pechuga

Aromas of Band-Aids dominate the nose of this turkey mezcal, but they eventually give way to appealing notes of mesquite. It sips hot—even at a relatively low proof—with a tobacco-y, medicinal finish. A pechuga for those already initiated in the ways of mezcal.

Mezcal Real Minero Pechuga

The nose is conversational: open and generous, with echoes of stone fruit and reflections of dried fruit. It peaks with a hit of spring break: suntan lotion, pineapples, bright banana-peel notes. Maybe a little note of chocolate—more milk chocolate or cocoa mix than that spice-laden Mexican chocolate. On the palate it is spicy and peppery, with a short moment of dusty spice cabinet and a surprising but pleasant maple-caramel surge at the end. This is least smoky of any of the mezcals in the tasting; it drinks easy even at 51.7% alcohol by volume.

El Jolgorio Mezcal Pechuga

Like breathing in apricots and then, all of a sudden, burying your head in a plant after it rains. I thought I smelled bananas, but am I bananas? (My wife, Hannah, smells the pechuga, and she says I am right. I am not satisfied, worrying that the power of suggestion has corrupted her perception. Later I read that plantains went in the still.) Maybe a note of vanilla. Can I say apricot kernels without seeming weird? It’s bright and beguiling, but then you sip it and the sun sets on the tropical daydream, and it turns to smoke and Band-Aids in the mouth.