EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Tag: Agave Spirits

State 38 Distilling: The House Built on Agave

Designed by Gail Sands

From the early 2000s, “Tequila” and “mezcal”—Mexico’s most famous agave spirits—have experienced significant growth in popularity and consumption in the United States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), imports of Tequila into the US have grown by 92% since 2002. In 2014, Tequila sold 13.8 million cases in the US, 6 million cases less than all Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Given this growth, it is no surprise that US craft distillers have tried their hand at agave spirits. However, there are a couple of significant differences from Mexican and US agave spirits. First, while a few US distillers have tried to mirror the Mexican process of making agave spirits from whole piñas, the vast majority simply uses agave syrup. Second, US distillers cannot call their spirits Tequila or mezcal because
those are protected terms that refer to specific appellations of origin.

Despite difference in production and naming from their Mexican counterparts, a number of US craft distillers have brought agave spirits to market. For most US distillers of agave, their agave spirits often sit on the fringe of their portfolio, often playing 2nd or 3rd fiddle to some other brown spirit made from grain or sugar. State 38 Distilling however, is quite different. State 38’s entire portfolio of spirits, including their vodka and gin, are fermented and distilled from agave.

Sean Smiley, owner and head distiller of State 38, is not the most obvious candidate for creating the US’s only all-agave distillery. Smiley is a petroleum and process engineer who started by home brewing before he decided to open a distillery. But, unlike many former home brewers turned distillers, he did not make the obvious transition into whiskey. His choice to focus on agave seems even more strange in Colorado, the 38th state to join the union, and bursting with craft whiskey; and in Golden, of all places, with its long  association with the Coors Brewing Company.

Smiley explained that even though he tried making whiskey and rum, he did not think either were as intellectually challenging or interesting in their flavor profile as agave. Part of the challenge he faced during product development was to find a yeast strain that could fully attenuate agave syrup and give him a flavor profile he liked. He pitched his yeasts at a specific gravity of 1.070 and noticed that most quickly drop to 1.040 SG, but stalled out and would not attenuate much beyond that. Incidentally, Vapor Distillery (formerly Roundhouse Spirits), ran into a similar problem, which is partly why they suspended production of their Tatanka American Agave Spirit. However, Smiley persisted. After experimenting with 45 different strains, Smiley found his ideal yeast.

The Young Ace, reposado agave spirit, The Clever Jack blanco agave spirit and The Pious Queen vodka are part of the agave-centric spirits line distilled at State 38. The distillery also makes an agave-based gin. Photo courtesy of State 38 Distilling

All of State 38’s spirits start off as Fair Trade 100% Organic Raw Blue Agave syrup, which Smiley buys from Mexico. The syrup is separated into a half dozen or so 55-gallon stainless steel drums and diluted to 1.070 SG before he pitches his yeast. Smiley explained that because the agave was naturally
rich in minerals, he did not need to add nutrients to the fermentation. Once the yeast is pitched, the drums are wrapped with an insulating blanket to help maintain their temperature.

When fermentation has finished, the contents of a drum are transferred to the first of Smiley’s 250-gallon still that Smiley built from a used milk pasteurizer.

Both State 38’s Vodka and Gin are triple distilled. State 38’s vodka is stripped and then gets two passes through Smiley’s finishing still with its 6-plate column. After the third distillation, the vodka is proofed down, filtered and bottled. The gin, however, takes a slightly different path. For the third distillation, Smiley fills a vapor basket with Colorado juniper and a number of other gin botanicals. Once the gin has been vapor infused, it rests in a new charred oak barrel for one month before it is proofed down and bottled. Until recently, Smiley’s vodka was the only agave-based vodka sold in the US but, so far, no one else is distilling an agave-based barrel rested gin.

All of State 38’s agave spirits are twice distilled and matured in full-sized, new American white oak barrels with a #3 char from Independent Stave. After the finishing run, Smiley fills one of his barrels and lets it sit. His blanco agave spirit typically rests for five days before the barrel is emptied, proofed, filtered
and bottled. Meanwhile, Smiley’s reposado and anejo agave spirits mature for two months and 12 months, respectively, before they are bottled. Given all the media attention about the existence or non-existence of a barrel shortage, Smiley’s maturation schedule for his four aged spirits seemed like it
would burn through new barrels pretty quickly. However, he explained that, given the current after market for barrels, it is actually more cost effective for him to buy new barrels, use them once and then sell them to local breweries who use them two or three more times.

Sean Smiley and his wife Jessie show off a 250-gallon still that he constructed from a milk pasteurizer. Jessie went into labor a few hours after this picture was taken and their son Jordan was born in the wee hours of the next day. Photo © Bill Owens

Like many small distilleries around the county, State 38 is growing their business because people in their local market like what they taste. Their tasting room, modeled after an 1870s mining town saloon, does a good job of introducing drinkers to the idea of US agave spirits. Their Agave Reposado
has the distinct vegetal notes that one associates with a young, or lightly aged, Tequila. Its flavor profile, balanced finish and bottling strength of 90 proof, make the reposado an excellent candidate for margaritas. The Agave Anejo is likely to appeal to whiskey fans, or those drawn to extra-anejo Tequilas. Sitting in a new charred barrel for 12 months, the agave picks up a
ton of barrel notes. The palate is full of vanilla, caramel and sweetness, with an underlying note of green agave. Bottled at 80 proof, State 38’s Agave Anejo is a very smooth and tasty spirit worth sipping slowly throughout an evening.

Unbound by Tequila or mezcal’s legal definitions, Smiley plans to add complexity to his agave spirits by blending different varieties of agave syrups. While Smiley currently uses syrup from blue agaves, this past summer he purchased the remaining maugey organic agave syrup from Vapor Distillery. Maugey is a variety of agave, which traditionally has been used to make a low alcohol “beer-like” beverage in Mexico. Smiley stated that, when distilled, maugey has a fuller and earthier character compared to blue agave. He believes that a blend of maguey and blue agave will layer new flavors and add nuance, similar to the way that whiskey or brandy distillers use multiple varieties of grains or grapes to create flavor profiles.

State 38 has helped break new ground in the US with their range of agave spirits. Smiley and a handful of other craft distillers around the country have successfully demonstrated that agave spirits can be much more than just Tequila. US Agave spirits produced from syrup, like Smiley’s, are helping
to define the character of a new category of spirits. It will be interesting to see how the category grows as a whole, but if the history of the craft distilling industry is any indication, innovation will be the norm.

Origionally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Winter 2015): 106-111.

Review: El Ladrón Reposado Blue Agave Spirit

Photo by Chen Design Associates

El Ladrón Reposado Blue Agave Spirit, distilled by Venus Spirits and bottled at 47% ABV. 

Price Range: $40-$60

Founded by Sean Venus, Venus Spirits is a new craft distillery located in Santa Cruz, California. Sean has an extensive background in brewing and fermentation. He worked for a number of microbreweries while attending the University of Oregon and spent six years with Gordon Biersh. Sean was kind enough to share a small sample of his reposado while we were attending the American Distilling Institute's 2015 Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Like the Blanco, El Ladrón Reposado Blue Agave Spirit is made from organic blue agave syrup imported from Mexico, fermented and double distilled in a 600-liter copper alembic still. However, after distillation the agave spirit is matured for three to six months in new and used whiskey barrels.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The reposado has a pungent green agave aroma that is intermingled with caramel and baking spice. The reposado also has a bright and light fruity aroma similar to a white wine like chardonnay. 

Palate: The palate is smooth, medium bodied with a little heat. The reposado taste lightly sweet with notes of caramel, oak and roasted vegetables. Initially the sensation on the tongue is warm and smooth which, transitions to semi-dry with a hint of astringency from the wood.

Finish: The finish is long and flavors of lemon, caramel, oak and roasted asparagus. The lingering sensation of agave is a pleasant reminder to return to the glass for another drink. 

Conclusion: My initial reaction was that this is a much more woody reposado than others I have had. Once I looked past the comparison to reposado tequilas, Venus Spirits's blue agave reposado is a lovely spirit. With a little water, the heat mellows and the pleasant flavors are preserved. This reposado has a lot to think about and it is likely to appeal to whiskey drinkers and those who love anejo tequila. Besides drinking it neat or with water, Venus Spirits' reposado would also work well in a margarita and make an interesting replacement in an Old Fashioned.

Review: El Ladrón Blanco Blue Agave Spirit

Photo by Chen Design Associates

El Ladron Blanco Blue Agave Spirit, distilled by Venus Spirits and bottled at 47% ABV. 

Price Range: $40-$50

Founded by Sean Venus, Venus Spirits is a new craft distillery located in Santa Cruz, California. I met Sean at a K&L tasting event in San Francisco where he was pouring El Ladron (The Thief) blue agave spiritand his gin . Sean has an extensive background in brewing and fermentation. He worked for a number of microbreweries while attending the University of Oregon and spent six years with Gordon Biersh. 

El Ladron Blanco Blue Agave Spirit is made from organic blue agave syrup imported from Mexico, fermented and double distilled in a 600-liter copper alembic still. 

Tasting Notes

Nose: The aroma is has interesting notes of cranberry and raspberry with a hint of sweetness. There is also an underlying green vegetal aroma commonly found in blanco tequilas. Let the spirit sit for a little bit and the aromas open up revealing dried tarragon and more earthy agave notes.

Palate: In the mouth El Ladron blanco is smooth; it is big and round on the tongue and tastes sweet with a light caramel flavor. As it sits the flavor reveals a dry mineral character that thins out. There are notes of black pepper, and cayenne combined with a smokey vegetal note like barbecued asparagus. 

Finish: The finish has a slight sting that mellows out into a pleasant warmth. Sweetness lingers on the tongue almost like caramelized onions. 

Conclusion: El Ladron blanco is an excellent agave spirit. It shows very well neat and it also makes a really tasty margarita. At 47% the agave spirit shines through and adds an solid earthy character that balances against the citrus and sweetness of the other ingredients. This is by far one of the best US agave spirits I have had the pleasure to taste.

Review: Tequila - A Natural and Cultural History

Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan, Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History, (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2003), 113 pages, $14.95.

Ana Valenzuela is the world's leading authority on agave plants, their cultivation and their use in making distilled Spirits. Valenzuela grew up in the heart of tequila country and she received her doctorate in biology from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon Mexico. She has written extensively on the biology of agave as well as its traditional and contemporary cultivation. Her newest book A Indicación Geográfica Tequila: Lecciones de la Primera denominación de Origen Mexicana (2014) focuses on the use of sustainable agricultural practices in agave cultivation. Her co-author Gary Paul Nabhan is an ethnobotanist who has been studying the use of agave in the Americas for over four decades. Both Valenzuela and Nabhan were students of the late Dr. Howard Scott Gentry, a pioneer in agave botany and taxonomy.

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History is not your typical book on tequila. Like the title suggests, the book focuses on the large number of agave varieties, some of the defining traits of the most commonly cultivated varieties and the process of cultivation for distilling tequila. Valenzuela and Nabhan also go into depth about the traditional knowledge and practices that sprung up around tequila production. One of the most interesting claims they make is that tequila is an inherently Mexican product not because of where it is made or because it uses agave, but because it is a mestizo spirit. The majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mix of indio (indigenous) and criollo (American born Spaniards) ancestry and culture. Similarly, tequila was born from the combination of pulque (a pre-columbian fermented agave beverage) and European distillation technology. Traditional tequila production incorporated indigenous cultivation and fermentation practices learned centuries before the arrival of Europeans, with Old World technology.

The emphasis on agave taxonomy can at times seem overwhelming for those coming to the book primarily out of interest for tequila. However, this sets the stage for Valenzuela and Nebhan's discussion how the growing popularity and global demand for tequila have slowly created new methods of production agave cultivation. Large tequila distilleries buy their blue agave from campesinos (farmers) who plant and grow clones of clones of the blue agave in tight mono-cropped fields. While this is more efficient and cost effective, this practice has created a plant that lacks the genetic diversity to resists new threats from pests and disease. In 1998, forty million agave plants, or about one fifth of all agave in Jalisco were struck by a disease that rotted the agaves from the inside out. While Valenzuela and Nebhan found that blue agave fields that were inter-cropped with other varieties of agave or legumes lost fewer plants during this plague, large tequila producers still favor agave farms that are at the greatest risk for future plagues. Valenzuela and Nebhan close their book commenting on the remarkable growth of tequila in general and premium tequila in particular and they express a hope for continuation of the tequila industry because of its significant economic benefit to people in the industry. However, their primary concern is that the reliance on mono-cropping and the cloning of blue agave puts the whole industry at risk for future distribution if a new pathogen wreaks havoc in the genetically uniform fields of Jalisco.

Valenzuela and Nebhan's book is a unique and important book for any tequila aficionado. Now that the book is over ten years old, its information is by no means revolutionary or completely novel, but that does not mean it is outdated. Valenzuela and Nebhan bring a scientific perspective to agave and tequila that is uncommon in most of the literature. Most other books on tequila are written by bartenders, drink writers and others in the alcohol or service industry. While other books contain information on the scientific aspects of agave cultivation and the potential dangers of mono-cropping and cloning, Valenzuela and Nebhan offer credible a solution to this problem. Their suggestion to reincorporate traditional cultivation practices are not born out of a Luddites nostalgia for the past but a scientific understanding of best practices that will promote the continued health of blue agave and its genetic resistance to new pathogens. This in the end will ensure that tequila will be able to be enjoyed for generations to come.