Corn has deep importance to Mexico’s culinary culture—think corn tortillas, pozole, elote and more—yet the country is best known for agave-based spirits, not a corn distillate.
Mezcal maker Jonathan Barbieri is working to change that, having just launched Pierde Almas Ancestral Corn whiskey in the U.S.
No, this isn’t about trying to create a Mexican moonshine. Rather, the project has a bigger purpose: to support small farmers and create an economic incentive for them to continue to grow one of the 60 varieties of heritage corn, including 35 that are native to Oaxaca, in a bid to help keep GMO corn out of Mexico.
“When people stop producing these ancestral, many-colored corns, it will weaken the defense and the GMO corn will be waiting in the wings, ready to pounce,” explains Barbieri, founding director of Oaxaca-based Pierde Almas.
To create the whiskey, Barbieri traveled to Mexico’s seed exchanges—“like silent markets, where people look at each other’s seeds and corn cobs and no money is exchanged, it’s like barter”—eventually selecting a blend of corn to grind and distill the same day in a copper pot alembic still. The final mash bill is 94 percent corn and 6 percent malted barley.
According to most early accounts, the Ancestral Corn Whiskey has a remarkably savory cornbread-like aroma and flavor, plus a subtle smokiness reminiscent of mezcal. In other words, it’s unlike most American-made corn whiskies on the market right now. (Note: I haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample first-hand. But at least one Liquor.com editor has, and it’s gooood.)
Although availability in the U.S. will be limited to about 4,500 bottles, Barbieri is also hoping to set aside 20 percent of production for aging in oak barrels, potentially creating an aged corn whiskey that might appeal to those who love corn-rich bourbon—that is, if they can wait until 2020, when the first bottles are expected to be ready.
Pierde Almas Ancestral Corn Whiskey ($50 for 375 ml) launched March 1 in Chicago, with Rick Bayless at the Frontera Grill Test Kitchen, and is expected to be available mid-March in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.