Photo by Chris Ford
Harvest season is celebrated in many ways throughout the world. In Mexico, the production of one of the most culturally cherished agave spirits, pechuga, coincides with this time of year. Until recently, pechuga was only available in Mexico in very limited quantities from small family producers. However, with more understanding, appreciation, and demand for agave spirits worldwide, it was inevitable pechuga would find its way outside the country.
WHAT IS PECHUGA?
The history of pechuga, Spanish for “breast”, goes back at least a century with family recipes that are closely guarded secrets. Much like mole, the classic flavorful Mexican sauce, no two are made the same. This type of mezcal starts off in its production as per usual. Using traditional methods, agave is selected, harvested, roasted, crushed, fermented, and distilled. The difference comes in these next two steps.
photo by Amanda Schuster
Upon the second or third distillation (though sometimes this step is skipped), a mixture of fruit (quince, plantain, plum, guava, apple, etc.), herbs, spices, nuts and/or grain are added to the pot-still to infuse with the distillate. Next, a raw breast of chicken, turkey or other meat (rabbit, venison, pig etc.) is suspended using a string over the still. This allows vapor to pass through it during distillation.
Although this type of mezcal is commonly made with meat, there are vegan versions which eschew its use. Instead, the producer highlights other harvest ingredients. Wahaka Mezcal has put out a couple of these including their Espadín Botankio (highlighting locally-sourced herbs) and an Espadín Manzanita (featuring heirloom apples).
nuts, fruits and other ingredients for pechuga, photo by tRm via flickr
Pechuga is a special occasion spirit in Mexico, traditionally prepared for fiestas such as weddings, baptisms, and quinceaneras. Modern mezcal producers typically bottle it only once a year to coincide with the fall harvest of orchard fruits. Many also use wild or heirloom agave species in its production. In some families, it’s a ritual to hang the remnants of the breast bone in the family altar room during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This annual holiday honors the spirit and memory of the dearly departed. On this day pechuga is sipped as a special treat.
In the US and other parts of the world, pechuga is rapidly gaining popularity among aficionados and collectors. As a mezcal brand, it’s almost an obligation these days to produce some version of it.
SOME TO START YOUR JOURNEY
This was one of the first on the market and is considered by many to be the gold standard with its intense umami flavors and spices. It’s also one of the most costly, but well worth seeking out.
Instead of the more commonly used fowl in the preparation, this one is made with wild rabbit (conejo). The fruits, botanicals, and spices are soft and elegant with an added flavor of gaminess–in a good way!
This vegetarian version uses the heart of the agave as the main attraction in its infusion. This extra layer imparts an intensely concentrated flavor of the maguey (agave) to this spirit.
The fruits and botanicals take the spotlight in this interpretation. Though turkey breast is used, the meatiness mostly comes through in its richness rather than the flavor of the meat itself.
El Jolgorio Pechuga Mezcal, photo by Scott Beale
Made to coincide with the quince harvest, the flavors of the spirit (here made with the traditional chicken) are intended to evoke the true essence of the harvest season.
One taste and it’s evident that this spirit, made by the Ángeles family from Santa Catarina Minas, is a true labor of love. This one is made with the traditional chicken breast, but also exhibits an intense fruitiness with layers of flavor that go as deep as the oceans.
Editor’s Note: a version of this article originally appeared on Distiller.