Doug French is no stranger to taking wild turns. A zigzagging road of career recalibrations — caused by everything from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to agave shortages — lead him to his latest venture, Sierra Norte Whiskey, and heirloom Mexican corn.
French, a distiller in Oaxaca, Mexico, primarily makes Scorpion Mezcal — the result of a job change in the mid-1990s, when his gig at a fabric-weaving factory was eliminated. “I had moved to Mexico from the San Francisco Bay area and everything was going well,” says French, before talking about the implementation of NAFTA. “Free trade kicked in and 75 percent of all the factories, including mine, went out of business.”
Without a job in Mexico, French needed to find a way to pay his way through life. He owned a building and thought about making a product immune to diplomatic changes: Mezcal is something that can only be made in Mexico and sold elsewhere.
Years later as agave shortages hit the country, French lacked the raw material to keep the distillery firing on all cylinders and the building eventually closed. With a crew of 15, all women and most mothers, French needed to find a way to keep them fed. An attempt at rum was made. Since the crew’s production was relatively small, French says it was impossible to compete with the large rum producers. The solution? Switch to whiskey.
During this process, he discovered that Oaxaca claims to be the origin of corn, particularly a slowly disappearing heritage breed that comes in every color of the rainbow.
“There are farmers here growing the white, yellow, and black heirloom corn, so I decided to start buying the corn and make the whiskey out of this ancestral corn,” he said. “In doing my recipes, we found that if I keep the colors separated, they have different flavors, just because the colors are different. Instead of one product, I end up with three.”
The yellow corn whiskey is buttery on the nose, like popcorn, with a roasted fruit character on the tongue and a honey-like finish. Black corn contributes cherry to the nose, with plantain on the palate and an almond and vanilla finish. The white corn whiskey is vanilla and almond up front, with green apple in the mouth and a cinnamon finish.
These three initial single-barrel expressions of Mexican whiskey from Sierra Norte have not been aged long — six to eight months in French oak. All have received positive reviews from publications, and French is happy with that.
“The fact I’ve made mezcal for 23 years and now a whiskey with high ratings. That’s pretty amazing,” he says. “I guess 23 years as a master distiller helps.”
French is now playing with red, purple, and green corns and hopes to have two or three new Mexican whiskey varietals ready by next year.