Mexican whiskey is on the rise, fueled by heirloom corn

Of Mexico’s 59 native corn varieties, nal t’eel is one of the oldest, having emerged on the Yucatán Peninsula about 4,000 years ago. It grows quickly, largely unaffected by heavy rain or drought, so hardy that the Maya called it “rooster corn.”

Like nearly all of Mexico’s native corn varieties, nal t’eel has faced a seemingly unbeatable threat in recent decades: high-yielding hybrids, developed primarily in the United States and prized for their efficiency, though rarely for their taste. Fields once dotted with a rainbow of heirloom ears are now awash in pale yellows and whites.

But in 2020 nal t’eel received a lifeline of sorts Grand Maizal, a distillery outside the city of Merida, Yucatán. Collaborating with local farmers, the company uses nal t’eel and two other native corn varieties to produce whiskey.

There are now more than a dozen distilleries across Mexico producing whiskey, most of which use corn native to their region. About half of them also export, or are preparing to export, to the United States Abasolo, Northern Sierra AND Maíz Nation. (Because the category is so new and still quite small, no sales figures are available.)

In September, Gran Maizal also began exporting its whiskey to the United States, home of the world’s best-known corn distillate, bourbon, a move its founders see as both a challenge and an opportunity.

“Bourbon has been the center of whiskey’s popularity and growth in the United States for the last 20 years,” said Gonzalo de la Pezuela, who founded Gran Maizal with Cesar Ayala. “So why not invite people to try a high-end whiskey from the birthplace of corn?”

Despite their common ingredient, Gran Maizal whiskey is a world apart from traditional bourbons, not to mention barley-based whiskeys like Irish and Scotch. In bourbon, the charred oak barrel in which it ages is responsible for most of the flavor; at Gran Maizal the highlight is corn.

“We were doing the distillation on a very small scale, a kitchen scale in a laboratory,” said Mr. de la Pezuela, who with Mr. Ayala spent years perfecting the flavor of Gran Maizal, emphasizing the rich, nutty sweetness of the corn and rejecting test batches that produced too many of the caramel and vanilla notes associated with bourbon. “And right away we were able to say, ‘Well, you know what? It tastes a lot like a bourbon. This is not for us.’ “

While most bourbons are made using a column still, which sacrifices character for efficiency, Gran Maizal is made with a pot still, which allows the grain flavor to come through. Mr. de la Pezuela and Mr. Ayala worked with a research laboratory to develop a proprietary yeast strain for use in wheat fermentation.

Corn is also nixtamalized, an ancient process in which the dried kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution to make them easier to process and taste better.

And instead of aging the whiskey in wooden barrels, Gran Maizal spends several months in terracotta amphorae, custom-made for the distillery by Andrea Beckham, an Oregon-based winemaker that has spent decades designing similar products for the wine industry. The only additional flavoring comes from a few handfuls of seasoned vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, a traditional way to add a little sweetness to foods and drinks.

“Everything we have done is based on what happened in Mexico thousands of years ago,” de la Pezuela said.

Each Mexican whiskey distillery has its own particular approach to craftsmanship: Sierra Norte mixes corn with a small amount of barley malt, while Maíz Nation ages its whiskey for about two and a half years in new charred oak barrels, like the bourbon. But in every distillery corn reigns supreme.

Maíz Nation, in the southern city of Oaxaca, buys corn from a small number of local farmers who grow their crops using traditional methods.

“Every family has been growing corn for hundreds of years,” said Jonathan Barbieri, who moved to Mexico from the United States in the early 1980s and began making whiskey with his wife, Yira Vallejo, in 2014.” Corn is the intellectual property of indigenous companies.”

Oaxaca, where Sierra Norte is also located, is the heart of Mexican corn: the distilleries are a short distance from Yagul and Mitla cavesa UNESCO World Heritage site where archaeologists found the first evidence of domesticated corn.

Maíz Nation combines four varieties of corn to make its whiskey – chalqueño, bolita, tepecintle and olotillo – each sourced from a different subregion around Oaxaca. The Chalqueño grows in the distant highlands, at about 9,400 feet, while the holotillo grows in the coastal lowlands along the Pacific Ocean.

This range of corn varieties allows for a colorful harvest and provides a nuanced blend of flavors. But Barbieri says the most important thing is the cultural heritage they represent.

“When we talk about the incredible diversity of corn and the ecosystems it comes from, we tend to think about terroir,” he said. “But for us, terroir is much more than altitude, climate, soil or intersecting biology. Terroir has its roots in the way things are done and, in the present case, in the history and culture of the people who, by cultivating it, are directly connected to their ancestors from 350 generations ago.”

The Maíz Nation, which Barbieri plans to start exporting to the United States in a few months, has already been sold in Mexico and France for about four years.

While critical reception for Maíz Nation, Gran Maizal and other Mexican whiskeys has been overwhelmingly positive, most distillers say their products have yet to find a solid foothold in a country where clear spirits such as rum and tequila, and where whiskey drinkers overwhelmingly prefer blended ones. Scotch tape.