In the south of Mexico, people have been making mezcal — the smoky, agave-based forebear of tequila — for generations. But only on special occasions, like weddings or quinceañeras, would a mezcalero break out one of his rare pechuga mezcals. These, unlike traditionally twice-distilled mezcals, are distilled a third time, with a protein, typically a chicken or turkey breast, suspended within the heated still. ("Pechuga" means breast in Spanish.)
As the mix cooks, the meat drippings impart more of a savory quality to the finished product than actual meat flavor. "People get this idea that you're going to taste the meat, and you really don't," says Shad Kvetko, co-owner of Dallas mezcaleria Las Almas Rotas. "It's more of an umami mouthfeel. The flavors that come through are more the fruits and spices you put into it. I've had some made with green mole, and that you can really taste."
'Make it kind of a statement'
With mezcal's popularity booming, more pechugas are on the market than ever before. Late last spring, as Kvetko and his bar staff chatted with mezcal producer Xaime Niembro about the idea of visiting Oaxaca to see the production process firsthand, Niembro suggested making a pechuga while the group was there. Naturally, the conversation turned to what meat to use.
"We said, let's do a smoked brisket," Kvetko said. "You know, make it kind of a statement."
Has a more Texas-style pechuga ever hit the market before? Doubtful. On Saturday, Las Almas Rotas celebrated its one-of-a-kind creation, made in collaboration with label Gracias a Dios, at a launch party featuring Niembro.
Throughout the night, many came to taste — some of them mezcal aficionados eager to test a fresh spin on the spirit, others unfamiliar with mezcal's smoky quality but drawn by the novelty of the Texas brisket nuance.
"It's very violent, isn't it?" said Duncan Edwards, who was visiting from Norway, taking a sip. "It's like Laphroaig [a single malt Scotch whisky]."
Melissa Ogden of Dallas agreed. "It's like somebody digging peat out of a bog to light their fire," she said.
Smoky and sweet
Mezcal is characteristically smoky, a distinction earned during the production process when the agave plant hearts are cooked in a covered pit. But in addition to a smoky aroma, the brisket pechuga in particular offers a sweetness on the nose that some compared to saltwater taffy.
On the palate, it's sweet and citrus-y, complex and robust, and best taken in small sips delivering sweet, smoky spice with a warm, savory undercurrent. "To me, it's earthy and fruity, and thick in texture," said Las Almas Rotas bartender Jessi Pereira, while bar co-owner Leigh Kvetko described it as "figgy."
Saturday's event also featured brisket tacos from Oak Cliff's Mohon Barbecue. It was operator Brandon Mohon who smoked the brisket used to flavor the small, 80-liter batch of mezcal. But before the spirit could be made, the brisket first had to be smuggled into Mexico.
Mohon used a smaller-than-normal cut rubbed simply with salt and pepper, making it slightly underdone knowing it would be further cooked in the still. "I wanted to give it some nice color so it would look like Texas brisket when it arrived," he said.
Mohon vacuum-sealed the brisket, froze it and delivered it to Kvetko, who packed it in ice and squirreled it away in his Mexico-bound luggage. Luckily, he said, no one made a fuss about it.
Once in Oaxaca, Kvetko hit a local mercado and loaded up on other ingredients, including prickly pear, corn, squash blossoms, Mexican stone fruit and a bunch of chilies. In they went, along with the brisket, into a cognac-style Charentais still — it looks a bit like a giant onion — that Gracias a Dios was using for the first time.
The initial release of barely 75 or so bottles — a little more than two-thirds of the batch — was snatched up by spirits purveyor Bar & Garden on Ross Avenue, which sold out of nearly all of its supply through pre-orders within 24 hours. (The store raffled off chances to buy the remaining few $80 bottles at the launch event Saturday.)
The rest of the batch will be stored in glass vessels for a while, to be released later this year or early next. And while Kvetko is excited to showcase the one-of-a-kind product, it's the larger context represented in the bottle that warms his heart.
"It's a symbol of cooperation and friendship between two nations," he says. "And any show of friendship right now is great. We love these people. We love Mexico."