El Destilado is shining a spotlight on fiercely independent producers by bottling some of their extraordinary expressions. We thought we’d do something similar for the spirits brand and cast an eye on its intriguing story.
Agave spirits are making quite the climb up the premiumisation ladder of late, with bars like Hacha opening especially to cater for the increasing demand for Tequila and mezcal, and a variety of brands making waves.
Enter: El Destilado. Launched at the end of 2018, it was born out of the time Michael Sager, Marcis Dzelzainis (founders of Sager & Wilde bars), Alex Wolpert (CEO of the East London Liquor Company) and Charlie McKay (creative director, all the fantastic images in this blog are credited to McKay) spent in Mexico together and their shared love of the culture, the food, the people and, most importantly the drink.
Dzelzainis, who is also the director of Fare Bar & Canteen, sat down with us to explain how a group trip led to the creation of a brand, why you can’t call these spirits mezcal and what he believes the potential of agave spirits to be.
The core idea behind El Destilado was to champion the terroir of the places the founders visited in Mexico and bottle the authentic spirits from the producers they met. “We started toying with the idea of importing very small batch mezcal back into the UK to really highlight its diversity, how interesting it is and how there’s a lot of similarities between mezcal and wine,” Dzelzainis explains. “They’re very terroir-driven products, not just in the sense of the soil but also the culture of the people behind it as well. It’s been produced for hundreds of years and they are very, very unique and interesting drinks”.
What they discovered was a world away from the mezcals that typically reach the UK’s bars and restaurants. In fact, due to the rigours of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), most of the products they tasted can’t even be classified as mezcal. This is why the team decided that certified mezcals weren’t the way to go. “We were more interested in bringing back non-certified mezcals. There’s a lot of regulations around mezcal production put in place by the CRM. However, they can sometimes clash with how smaller producers tend to produce distillate,” Dzelzainis explains. “For example, there’s a regulated amount for methanolic content, so parts per million. The CRM would say that you can only have 300 parts per million of methanol. Whereas a lot of non-certified mezcals actually have a higher percentage of methanol in them because they tend to put the heads and the tails back into the distillate to give them a certain kind of flavour profile and characteristics.”
The team quickly became interested in working with single producers and showcasing their production methods. “It was all about highlighting the producer, highlighting the varietal, highlighting the production methods. Whether something is hand-mashed or it’s mashed in the tahona or it’s mashed mechanically,” says Dzelzainis. “How it is fermented, what is it fermented in? Is it in cowhide? Or pinetinas? Or plastic? How is it distilled? Is it in copper or clay? Is it distilled at high altitude? How long do they roast the agaves for? All these things impart a flavour and a characteristic and these are the kinds of questions and parameters that we became obsessed with”.
The team wasn’t just drawn to the multitude of agave-based spirits they encountered, but also drinks they found along the journey, like Oaxacan rum and aguardiente. “The wild fermented Oaxacan rum is really interesting because it comes from Veracruz, up in the mountains. I’m a big fan of those punchy Guadeloupe, Martinique-style, French-style agricole rums. The big flavour profile is influenced by the humidity and temperature of where they are distilled. You cut sugar cane and it starts fermenting within two to three hours. Whereas being up in the mountains in this quite cold weather you’re slowing that fermentation process down and you’ve got much more control and altitude obviously affects the boiling point of various compounds and alcohols,” Dzelzainis explains. “So you get a much cleaner, fresh-cut-grass characteristic that’s not quite as in-your-face as a Caribbean-style agricole rum. It’s got a very unique flavour profile, it’s fascinating, it mixes well and it’s from a very stunning part of Mexico”.
It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of the subject, but the process of organising this company, getting in contact with all the distillers, setting up the supply line and getting the drinks across to the UK is not one to be underestimated. Dzelzainis confirms it was a challenge. It’s where he and Wolpert were able to utilise their expertise and knowledge. “Alex came on board because he’s got an amazing knowledge of how bonder’s spaces work and import licenses and all this kind of stuff. He did a lot of heavy lifting and it was not straightforward because no one’s really done this,” says Dzelzainis. “Our first shipment got turned around twice. The first time it came in they thought we were trying to smuggle drugs into the country because they had no idea what it was. It took us a while and it’s been a difficult process”.
Despite the difficulties, it’s clear from talking with Dzelzainis that El Destilado is a source of immense pride. This is truly a passion project. The brand caters to a creative desire each founder has. For Dzelzainis, he explains that his love of wine doesn’t necessarily stem from the production method. It’s the story behind the people who produce it. He points to the experience of getting to know Armando, a producer that the group met on their travels. “He’s a wonderful guy who has a deep respect for tradition. He hand mashes everything because he thinks even mashing in a tahona changes the flavour profile of the distillate. He’s also very much invested in minimising the ecological impact of distillation and harvesting, so there’s no plastic used at all. All the water comes from a stream from a viaduct so it’s all self-contained, there’s no impact, there’s not much of a footprint from the production process,” Dzelzainis explains. “He’s also reaching out to other mezcaleros, which is quite interesting because they tend to be quite insular, but he’s got a very forward-thinking way. I love his distillates, they’re very fruity and have lots of pine esters and volatiles, but they don’t have that smokiness you traditionally associate with mezcal. That’s a feature you find with the whole range really, we’re not smoke-driven.”
One of the most significant characters the group encountered was Bertha Vázquez from Chichicapa, who challenges any notion that El Destilado solely revers quaint, traditional and rural folk. Dzelzainis describes her as progressive and fiercely intelligent. “She distils so many different varieties, she’s got so much knowledge and she’s also very much investing in the future. Predominantly and historically mezcal and uncertified mezcal have been made with ‘silvestre’, which means ‘wild agave’. Increased demand for the product means that there’s less and less wild agave and the switched-on producers have realised that they have a responsibility to start cultivating, to a certain degree and setting up nurseries,” says Dzelzainis. “This is something Bertha has very much heavily invested in; making sure that there will be mezcal production further down the line for her sons and others. These are the kind of stories we want to tell, we want to focus on ensuring we shine a spotlight on the people behind the drinks. What I love about the whole range is when I first tried it is that I can remember how each one is linked to the person who makes it”.
The core appeal of El Destilado is that it provides many of us a chance to enjoy and engage with spirits that we’d ordinarily have to travel halfway around the world to get our hands on. But why is it so difficult for this fantastic spirit to make it out of Mexico? “Certification and cost is the issue. The CRM wants to develop mezcal so they are strict with their regulations, which I understand. But they can be slightly arbitrary. These people have been doing this for a long, long time and then all of sudden somebody comes along and says ‘well that doesn’t qualify as mezcal’,” Dzelzainis explains. “It’s also $16,000 to certify your palenques. The majority of the time people can only afford this because an investor, usually a foreign investor, has said they’ll certify the palenque if they can guarantee production for me for x amount of years”.
The approach of El Destilado is different. There’s an effort to pay these producers over the odds and put no pressure on them to produce more than they can so that the liquid doesn’t suffer. “Sometimes these distillates might not be available in six months time. It’s not about creating a consistent line of products. If you try our spirits now, it might not be the same in two years time. That’s really important to me and it makes it a very interesting journey,” says Dzelzainis. “Paying a bit more for the distillates is also really important for us. You have to think about the rising cost of agave and start asking yourself some questions. If I see an espadín priced at £34 having only been distilled six months ago, I question the maths because I know the costs of the raw materials don’t allow for that. It comes back to changing people’s perceptions about agave and agave spirits. In terms of raw materials, grapes are probably the most expensive type used in drink, but agave is pushing towards that top end. Especially with wild agaves that involve trekking out into the mountains for days at a time, harvesting by hand and like hulking it back onto a donkey. There’s a lot of work that goes into it and it is worth that money. That’s why we pay our producers more”.
At this point, if you’re anything like me, you’re dying to dig into the many El Destilado expressions. We currently have 16 bottlings at MoM Towers, including the two sugar cane distillates from Mexico. But with so many options, it does pose the question: where to start? Dzelzainis has some recommendations. “I think a good place to start is Pichomel. It’s such an interesting product with such a unique flavour that really challenges what people’s notion of what an agave distillate can taste like. It’s got this watermelon, cucumber flavour that is just so surprising. The Pichomel is definitely a highlight,” says Dzelzainis. “I’ve got a real soft spot for Armando’s one, the Papalome as I like very fruit-driven distillate. Pedro’s Tobaziche is really interesting, it’s made from karwinski (a long, thin strain of agave that look like palm trees) which don’t have a lot of sugar content or a large yield but they tend to have this quite piney, resinous, groundnut kind of flavour profile that I like. Also the Sierra Negra. The agave for that takes the best part of 12-15 years, sometimes even up to 25 years, to mature so it’s quite scarce but they’re amazing. Again, the producer took a very interesting approach. They’re very, very careful about how they cook the piñas so there’s not too much smoke interaction and you end up with a sheep’s wool, lanolin flavour coming through”.
So, you’ve picked out your first El Destilado expression, now you need to know how you’re going to drink it. Neat is always preferable at first so you can get a true sense of the spirit’s profile, but Dzelzainis also has some interesting suggestions for how you can have some fun and play with these drinks. “My favourite way to mix these spirits is with a really good sparkling water in Mexico called Topo Chico, but any sparkling water that has a slightly mineral, quite saline character should work (you can even add a pinch of salt to regular sparkling water for a similar effect). In Mexico, they have a can of that and the mezcal on the side, so you have a sip of your mezcal and then you have some sparkling water I find that’s a really enjoyable way of drinking it,” he explains. “For a lot of our drinks, like the Tobalo, a stirred-down serve like a Martini really works. Personally I would say with a lot of our drinks you’ll want to be quite respectful of the spirits so you want to keep it clean and classic to really highlight the spirit instead of adding loads of syrups and fruit juices. But I hate dictating to somebody how they should drink something. If you enjoy it that way, that’s how you enjoy it. I like sparkling water and just sipping on the side!”
Dzelzainis believes that agave spirits have a really bright future, although he concedes there are still challenges to overcome. “There’s still quite a big educational process that’s interesting to be part of. We’re getting there. People are surprised that our drinks, like the Pichomel or the Papalome, are essentially mezcal because it can be hard to get away from this idea that any mezcal is the smoky version of Tequila. Because they don’t taste like people’s preconceptions of mezcal at all. It wasn’t long ago that the perception of Tequila was that it was an unhealthy hangover-causing spirit. But that’s changing.” he says. “But they are increasing in popularity. In our establishments that Tequila and mezcal drinks tend to sell really well. I see more articles about agave spirits and meet more and more people that have an understanding of them. There’s an openness to exploring these flavour profiles. They’re interesting, they’ve got character, they’re fun to mix. There are all kinds of iterations to enjoy and we’ll see more emerging into the market”.
So, what does the future hold for El Destilado? Exploration is the key. “We want to try and see what else is out there. Whether that’s in France or Germany or that’s in Columbia or wherever really. It’s about finding these unique spirits that highlight a culture, highlight a way of doing stuff that doesn’t necessarily always get the chance to be represented on a wider stage,” says Dzelzainis. “We want to look at other distillates from around the world, whether that’s unaged Armagnac, unaged Calvados, all those kinds of things. It’s about highlighting small distillates that don’t fit into very homogenised norms”.