When listing the world’s great whiskey regions, most think of Kentucky, the Scottish Highlands, Japan and now ... Oaxaca? Best known for its mezcal, this mountainous state in southern Mexico could become a destination on the whiskey circuit, if the distillers behind Sierra Norte and Pierde Almas have their way. As bottles make their way to bars and specialty shops in the U.S., we had to find out: Is it good?
Though some bargain brands started touting the creation of the first Mexican whiskey back in 2013, the men who’ve recently turned our attention southward are Jonathan Barbieri and Douglas French, who are both making whiskey out of heirloom Mexican corn.
A longtime mezcal distiller, French began producing small-batch whiskey out of heirloom strains of Mexican corn four years ago, after an agave shortage forced him to temporarily shut down production of mezcal.
“I thought, What else can I do? What other raw materials do we have here in Oaxaca?” says French. When he discovered that Oaxaca may be the place where all of the world’s corn originated around 9,000 years ago, he decided to give corn whiskey a shot.
Heirloom varieties are fading fast in Mexico, crowded out by cheaper commodity corn. Many Oaxacan villages still grow white, yellow and, to a lesser extent, black corn, preferring its flavor to that of the industrial brand Maseca, but the market is shrinking. In corn whiskey, French saw an opportunity to not only keep his distillery running but also to continue his family legacy of social entrepreneurship.
Before he started distilling mezcal in the mid-’90s, French and his mother had a textile business, working with local artisans. “All of our programs have been designed after a Peace Corps project, where you try and help people with poverty issues make something that will bring them a feasible income,” he says. “We focus on things that they already do and try to redesign them for the modern market so they can sell them at reasonable commercial prices.”
In his effort to support Oaxacan family farms, French developed a seed bank that supplies local growers with what they need to cultivate corn in a rainbow of colors: red, black, white, purple and even a nearly-extinct green variety. French buys the whole crop in cash, allowing farmers to invest the profits in other crops during the rest of the growing season.
“Our social goal is to have the farmers plant in the traditional ways, instead of quitting and going to work in construction or immigrating to the U.S.,” says French. Though he eventually plans to debut whiskey made from the rarer red, purple and green corn, so far only the white, yellow and black expressions have made it to the U.S. With a mash bill of 85 percent corn and 15 percent barley, French’s whiskeys are double-distilled in copper pot stills, then aged for six to eight months in French oak—mostly used Bordeaux and Burgundy barrels, which he says give the liquid a “sexy” reddish color.
Oaxaca’s dry, temperate climate results in a high evaporation rate—an angel’s share of about 6 to 10 percent. He’s making about 3,000 cases per year, with retail bottles priced around $50 each.
Whiskey connoisseurs north of the border have so far been impressed with the result. Tasters report oakey, charred flavors in the Sierra Norte single-barrel white corn whiskey and sweet banana notes in the smoother, gentler black corn version.
But the standout seems to be the yellow, at least for the palates at Whiskey Advocate, which gave it a 90-point rating, naming it one of its top 20 whiskeys of the year, with “swirling notes of blue iris, dried chilies and fresh linen around a core of plump corn, with tangy marmalade, maple syrup, pepper and a spiced-honey finish.”
Barbieri, who started making whiskey from native corn in 2014, takes a different approach to sourcing his corn. “My first guiding rule is: Never contract to cultivate or buy corn as a commodity. Only buy the excess that a farmer produces after meeting the yearly needs of his family. Corn is that farmer’s safety net,” he says.
Barbieri experiments with blending whiskey made from yellow corn from the mountainous jungles of Chinantla, black corn from the pine forests of Sierra Norte and white bola and red Sangre de Cristo from Oaxaca’s central valleys. He mixes in 6 percent malted barley and distills twice in copper alembics. After first making only white whiskey, Barbieri began playing with aging in medium-charred new American oak 20 months ago.
With wood smoke and freshly ground roasted corn on the nose, the whiskey tastes of tortillas and wildflowers, according to Barbieri’s notes. Though he sold the brand to Diageo Mexico May 2018, Barbieri still oversees production, which currently stands at approximately 40 cases per month. The white whiskey is now available in bars in New York, San Francisco and Florida, and he expects the aged single-barrel releases to start showing up in late spring.