Thanks to its unmistakable smoky notes and multilayered flavor profile, mezcal often garners comparisons to Scotch whisky, and this agave spirit now finds itself prominently featured on cocktail menus throughout the U.S. and all over the world. Serious mezcal enthusiasts seek out different varietals and distilling methods with the same vigor regularly displayed by whisky collectors, and certain “special” mezcals receive a place of honor in the agave spirits category. One prime example comes in the form of mezcal de pechuga, a comparatively rare mezcal style made using a somewhat unconventional distilling method.
What is mezcal de pechuga?
“Mezcal de pechuga is an expression of mezcal where the finished espadin mezcal is then redistilled with a basket of local fruits, nuts, and herbs, and typically, a chicken or turkey breast is hung over the still chamber. As the mezcal cooks, the vapors go through the basket and the flavor of the basket ingredients is instilled into the finished spirit,” explains Los Angeles, California-based bartender Cari Hah, who regularly works with mezcal and has studied this spirit’s different varieties at length.
Unlike most mezcals, which undergo two rounds of distillation, mezcal de pechuga is triple-distilled, and the third distillation cycle is when the raw chicken, turkey, or other meat is hung above the still. The poultry then “cooks” in the distilling vapors, releasing aromas, proteins, and other substances that inform the final product.
What role does raw meat play in the distilling process?
You may be wondering how the use of raw meat in the distilling process affects the flavor and consistency of the mezcal. According to national brand manager Francisco Terrazas of Mezcal Vago in Oaxaca, Mexico, the meat doesn’t dramatically affect the flavor of the mezcal. “Rarely will the actual ‘flavor’ of meat come through. Most mezcal on the market is distilled twice; however, the process of adding animal protein is typically done in a third distillation. Each time you distill a spirit, you are taking it farther away from the raw material (hence more distillation being associated with a “smoother” spirit). This means that you are losing the flavor and essence of the roasted agave and producing a lighter spirit. This allows the aromatics of the recipe to move to the forefront of the profile.”
That said, he does acknowledge the influence of the meat on the mezcal’s drinking texture. “Much as [you’ll see when making] a soup, the animal protein is broken down through the combination of heat and time. As such, all of the sinew and the fat that was holding the protein together melts away and gets added to the spirit. The resulting mezcal typically has a richer, silky, almost oily texture. Just like how a soup will have oil floating on the top of the pot, those same molecules are suspended in the mezcal, adding richness,” he explains.
According to fifth-generation Oaxacan mezcal maker Jessica Hernández, the use of poultry in the making of mezcal de pechuga reflects ancient traditions. “There are people who say that the mezcal takes [on] the spirit of the animal [through this process]; my grandpa told me one day that there are communities who look for the ‘horniest chickens’ in town to give [the mezcal] a powerful flavor. Every community has their own way of producing pechuga, [and it mostly happens before a big celebration, [like a] newborn baby, a quinceñera, a wedding, or a funeral. [Those are] the right times to drink mezcal de pechuga” Hernández tells The Manual.
Can mezcal de pechuga be made vegetarian?
While the distillation of mezcal de pechuga historically requires meat, plenty of mezcal makers and imbibers believe that a flavorful, rich version can be made according to vegetarian standards. In fact, beverage director and mezcal expert James Simpson of Espita in Washington, D.C. claims that “the biggest trend in pechugas right now is making them vegetarian by removing the animal protein but keeping all the other fruits, nuts, and spices that typically enter the final distillation of a pechuga.”
Where can you find mezcal de pechuga?
The painstaking and lengthy methods involved with the production of mezcal de pechuga render it a relatively rare mezcal style…and, therefore, a relatively expensive bottle purchase. In the United States, mezcal de pechuga can be found ranging from around $55/bottle on the lowest end to up to $500/bottle on the highest end. Elite liquor stores often carry this product, as do online retailers like Wine.com and Drizly.
Is mezcal de pechuga best enjoyed on its own, or can it be used for cocktails?
In a unanimous sweep, our experts agreed that mezcal de pechuga should be drunk on its own, without any cocktail ingredients or other additions to compromise its flavor. “These mezcals are usually at the top end of the pricing structure for most brands, often pricing out at over $100. As such, they’re usually pretty cost-prohibitive for cocktail use. [Also,] these mezcals have historically been consumed neat, and in small portions with friends and family at times of celebration or mourning. They [require] a lot of work just to produce the mezcal, let alone to harvest and clean all of the ingredients for the pechuga recipe. Also, if you are trying to make a cocktail, you have to remember that the flavors in this style of mezcal are typically a bit lighter, since they have been distilled an additional time. As a result, the flavors will be easily lost when you add a bunch of modifiers,” insists Francisco Terrazas.
Nevertheless, if you’re determined to attempt a mezcal de pechuga cocktail, then Cari Hah advises you to keep things very simple: “Pechuga is not for cocktails, but if you are going to splurge and put it in a cocktail, make sure it’s really something light where the flavor of the pechuga can still shine through. [For example,] pechuga and very bubbly soda water with a lime.”
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