Duke’s Liquor Box is located on Franklin St. in Greenpoint, a neighborhood in North Brooklyn which can be described as Williamsburg’s slightly more eclectic cousin. It sits up against the East River and like Williamsburg is going through a building boom on its waterfront. Duke’s has been in its current location since its founding in 2013. Over the past 5 years, Duke’s has had a front-row seat, watching the shifts in construction and demographics as the neighborhood changes. Factories have mostly either closed or relocated, making room for the raising or renewing of the buildings they left behind. Manufacturing has been exchanged for film and production studios, tech businesses (Kickstarter’s headquarters are in GP), restaurants, bars and boutique retail stores. So far, unlike Williamsburg, you can still find a thriving community of artists and makers, which enables Greenpoint to retain a characteristic of originality and creativity. Duke’s contributes to this vibrant environment and is simply not your traditional liquor store. The space feels intimate like you’ve entered into a connoisseurs’ private collection. The exposed brick alcove with its hand-printed mural, wood floor and agave plants contributes to the rustic warmth. The main room is modest in size but once you realize most of what they carry are unfamiliar brands, you immediately know you’ve discovered an unknown universe. Here you will find an exquisite and intentionally curated offering of some of the lesser know spirits available on the East Coast. The selections are mostly from small producers located all over the world. Walking into such a place can be intimidating but thanks to Patrick’s friendly and approachable personality you immediately sense the joy he has for teaching people about the different selections he carries
Gabriel and I stopped by on a sunny Saturday to discuss all things agave and have a tasting with 4 different expressions of agave distillates. We set up the tasting at a small bar in front of the alcove where, on any given day, you can find Patrick holding court and serving his customers tasting samples. Duke’s is wonderful in this way; if you are curious about a spirit they will oftentimes offer you some to taste on the spot. Tasting is great, but equally as exciting is learning about the particular producer and process behind each spirit.
To start things off I began by asking Patrick how he came up with the idea to start Duke’s. He explained that it occurred to him while standing inside a local liquor store one day. Looking around at the standard big label offerings he thought:
“why can’t anyone sell good spirits around here?”
An idea was born. Patrick and his partner Mary Brockman developed a plan to start a retail space that focused on small (mostly farm to bottle) producers.
I asked him about why he decided to carry brands most people never heard of:
“I think what is equally as important [are] the brands we choose not to carry. It was a very easy way to differentiate ourselves.”
If not giving into big brand marketing hype sounds idealistic, it’s enhanced even further when Patrick talks about how they approach the spirits they choose to carry.
“We look at these products as food products. I want to know where it’s coming from, how it’s being made, what the ingredients are, who made it - where the money stays and goes.”
When choosing which producers to carry, Patrick doesn’t exclusively favor farm distilled spirits. He believes there is a place for those spirits that are easily sourced, blended and bottled as long as the producer is being upfront and honest about how it’s being made. Transparency from producers is the key for Duke’s to carry a particular brand.
If you, like me, are a person who cares about where, how and by whom the products you purchase are made, then Patrick and his team are an invaluable resource. This perspective is a crucial element in understanding the road an agave distillate travels to get from the bottle into your copita, allowing you to make an informed and ethical purchasing decision.
As an American, you are usually introduced to the most familiar agave distillate, tequila, pretty early on. Unfortunately, our culture has the regrettable tradition of “taking shots”. Not only does this technique guarantee imminent inebriation, but it absolutely prevents you from truly tasting the liquor. Mercifully, Patrick never had a bad experience with tequila, although he did mention he started enjoying alcoholic beverages “from a very young age”. He was introduced to a nicer brand of tequila by a cousin who worked in the industry and taught him a bit about how long it takes an agave to mature in order to be cooked, fermented and distilled. That experience left him with an impression of how different agave distillates are from any other spirit. When he started Duke’s he found a distributor that carried agave distillates, mostly mezcal at the time. Through this distributor, he had his first taste of an artisanal mezcal.
“ ...it was a little over 50% ABV, so the alcohol content was way up there, and it was a very aggressive, smokey, spicy - and I’m an adventurous eater, I love spicy foods and I’ll try anything once, and when I tasted (this mezcal) I was blown away by it. At that point, I was hooked.”
From there Patrick decided to try to find every type of mezcal available in New York and sell it. This was years ago, and according to Patrick, there were only around 12 brands on the market. Unsatisfied and determined to find more options, he began a search for a distributor. He discovered a warehouse that had a modest program for bringing small label mezcals to NYC. It enabled him to receive 10 different expressions from 10 different producers twice a year. A far cry from what is currently available today. This led us to a discussion about the difference between tequila and mezcal and why some producers use the term agave distillate.
Tequila and mezcal are protected by a Denomination of Origin (NOM for short), which is meant to protect the producers from having other states or countries make and bottle a similar spirit under the same name. It is also intended to retain the authenticity of the product by designating the regions in which the product can be made as well as monitoring the production methods and the ingredients used to make it.
Tequila uses 1 type of agave, Blue Weber, which can only be produced in a few specified regions in Mexico, the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco being its namesake, and has its own production method requirements.
According to Wikipedia, mezcal is defined a: "A distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave."
Patricks explains it like this:
“Technically, tequila is a mezcal. And mezcal would be the larger umbrella over these different categories.”
Here is where things get complicated.
Mezcal also has a NOM, limiting its production to specific regions in Mexico but generally not limiting the types of agave used to make it. Both tequila and mezcal must be tested to qualify for its NOM. As we discuss this, Patrick makes it clear that NOMs are complicated but generally speaking he says:
“...[NOMs help] to keep the riff-raff out in a way - because if you want to be labeled as mezcal, you’ve got to prove that you’re producing mezcal.”
The NOM is meant to protect a producer and their product by classifying it according to method, region and ingredients. A well-known example of this is Champagne, which is made in the region of Champagne in France, using grapes exclusively grown in the Champagne region along with specific production mandates. All other similar types of carbonated wine must either have their own NOM or use the general term Sparkling Wine.
Similarly, the term agave distillate can be used to describe any distillate that is made from 100% agave. I asked Patrick to help describe why some producers decide to label their product agave distillate:
“...[making] mezcal goes back 500 years or deeper than that, so they were just making stuff that they didn’t have a name for it necessarily. These people have been making what we now call mezcal for centuries. So you know, they feel like, why do they need to send their product that they’ve been making for three generations to some government to say ‘oh yes, what you’re making is mezcal’. There are people who choose not to do that and in that case [it’s] considered an agave distillate.”
He goes on further to explain that the requirement to label a product has a great deal to do with exportation:
“The US wants to put a name on every single thing, every alcohol product has to have a name and its got to be taxed.”
In order for a product to reach other countries it must be labeled and categorized. Part of the NOM process requires each producer to send in a sample of their product to a regulatory division who test the product for authenticity. There are a myriad of other bureaucratic steps that must be taken most of which include a fee.
“You have to spend money if you are a producer in Mexico to get the term mezcal [or tequila] labeled on your product... Some of them don’t make enough product.”
Financial insecurity, limited production yields or falling outside of the designated regions, would all prevent a producer from pursuing a NOM.
Patrick explained that if you’re a producer in Mexico you have to send a full liter of product to get tested in order to be labeled a mezcal. Some of these producers only make 50 liters, so it’s not necessarily worth it for them to pay the money and go through the process.
“...and those [bottles labeled agave distillate] we’re starting to see in smaller quantities come across and because it needs to have some sort of a name and it’s made from 100% agave, it becomes an agave distillate.”
It would seem that mezcal and agave distillate are interchangeable. Well, not exactly.
“There are some producers in Jalisco, the state that the town Tequila is in that are making tequila [but] don’t get it labeled as tequila, and that’s coming [to us] as an agave distillate. These producers are taking a more artisanal approach to tequila and also recognizing that it doesn’t need to grow only in this one area, [they] can produce it outside of the town of Tequila, in another region of Jalisco, it’s the same plant, species, the same variety, and [they] make it in an artisanal manner - and that would become an agave distillate. So there are instances where we will see a label that says 100% Blue Weber Agave Distillate.”
If a bottle is labeled “Agave Distillate” it is important to see if it includes information about the type of agave used - in order to get an idea of its flavor profile.
(If you are interested in reading about the current issues involving the Denomination of Origin in Mexico, I recommend the recent article published on mezcalistas.com. They are an incredible resource for learning about mezcal.)
Agave varieties vary dramatically from one another. They can take anywhere from 8-35 years to mature, depending on the species. The region where they grow, each with its own specific climate, contributes to the diverse flavors found within the different expressions of mezcals.
Production methods are another way tequila and mezcal differ.
“In Tequila production they are roasting the large hearts of these plants in big ovens using steam as a heat source.”
This method cooks the agave without imparting any particular flavor. The most common such oven is called an autoclave and can cook thousands of pounds of agave “pinas” (the center or heart of the plant) at one time using fans to disperse forced steam heat.
“In mezcal production, the tradition is basically an earth oven. A hole is dug in the ground, it is lined with rocks and then that’s filled up with oak... and they create a massive fire inside [the pit] that burns down into coal... they cover that with leftover agave leaves or banana plant leaves or something that separates the agave from the direct heat and they fill up the hole in the ground with all the [chopped] agave [hearts] and cover that with more dirt [and] maybe, leaves.”
This method captures the smoke flavor within the roasted plant. It is also important to note that this roasting method can take several days to complete, adding a significant amount of time to the process. Whereas, tequila cooked with steam heat in large industrial autoclaves can take under a day to cook.
After the agave is cooked it must to be macerated to prepare it for distillation. In tequila production, this is typically done with large machinery that is best described as a giant shredder that macerates the agave pinas or hearts
Mezcal production uses a few different techniques to make the mash. A tahona is a method where a mule pulls a giant stone wheel in a circular trough, crushing the agave. Another method is to smash the cooked pinas by hand with a giant wood mallet. In larger mezcal productions a machine similar to that used in tequila production can be used.
For tequila, mezcal and agave distillates, the mash is allowed to ferment.
“...in tequila production they’re almost always managing that yeast that goes in there because that determines [the] consistency of what your final product is going to taste like.”
Most likely the tequila producers are using commercial yeast that is not native to the area, but does allow for consistency as Patrick stated.
In mezcal production the mash is placed into large wooden barrels, clay pots, stainless steel or sometimes even concrete tubs that are uncovered and left to ferment spontaneously with the yeast that is naturally occuring in the environment, imparting unique and distinctive flavor profiles to the fermented liquid. (A particularly ancestral technique is to put the mash into animal skin with the fur on the inside!)
“ this mixture sits there for many days…[the length of the fermentation process] depends on the weather, temperature, how active the yeast [is], how much sugars are in it, and the variety [of agave being used].”
The specific expressions each producer achieves is based on the type of agave or agaves used. Some agave distillates use multiple varieties, cooked, mashed and fermented together.
“ After fermentation takes place, you drain that liquid out, and now you have what is the equivalent to wine.”
The liquid at this point is around 15-16% ABV. This liquid then goes into a still.
In tequila production, large alembic stills are used for the first distillation. Often times a column or Coffey still is used for the second distillation as a way to distill quickly and achieve consistency. Another strategy employed to help reach a desired and consistent flavor is blending certain distillations together or adding neutral grain alcohols or agave sugars to the blend.
In artisanal or ancestral mezcal (agave distillate) distillation blending with other neutral grain alcohol is never employed. Hence the statement 100% agave you will find on the label. The stills are “alembic” (two vessels connected by a tube) and mostly made from clay or copper. This process requires 24/7 surveillance by the distillers and is extremely time consuming.
Patrick describes the distilling process for mezcal as follows:
“A still is a large pot that you fill with this agave wine and start boiling it at a low temperature. The vapors that come off your boiling liquid is the spirit, and you have a lid on top that captures that spirit and sends it through a coil and that cools it off which then condenses [the vapor] back into liquid, and then that drips out the other side and that is the spirit.”
“Each time you distill [the liquid] you increase its alcohol content. You take that [first] liquid which is around 25% ABV and put it back into the still and you cook it again and that becomes 50-60% or higher ABV.”
(There are certain techniques that exist which only distill one time, achieving a high ABV from the first pass.)
From the second run or distillation, the first liquid that comes out is called the heads, the second part is called the hearts and the last part is called the tails. In Spanish they call the heads and tails “puntas” which means “tips”. All three parts have different ABV and flavor profiles. It’s the job of the mescalero to know when each part is coming out and when to set it aside. The mescalero checks for the alcohol content by taste and by blowing bubbles in the liquid through a long bamboo straw or with a fife, and, by sight, can analyse the bubbles or “perlas” in order to determine the ABV. They are often accurate to the decimal.
“Sometimes you’ll see on a label ‘proofed down or diluted by the puntas’. There’s a whole lot of flavor in the heads, the hearts is the sweet-spot, it’s just what everyone wants to drink, but in order for your product to go further they will put some heads back in and some tails back in to balance it out.”
The master mescalero is responsible for blending what comes out of the still in order to achieve a balance in flavor and alcohol content.
It’s their deep understanding of the process and of each particular batch that allows them to produce a balanced result. This process is inherently artistic and one might even say magical. Patrick mentions that some mescaleros know at exactly what point in the distilling process they are by simply looking at the liquid coming from the still!
Any type of distillation requires great skill and practice. If you are distilling on a massive industrial scale you have very specific parameters you need to control throughout the process and you must be an expert with the tools used to help you achieve those goals. Artisanal or ancestral methods of producing mezcal or agave distillates have many factors over which you have very little control, such as the environment in which the wild agaves grow, the native yeast and the general climate of the area. What can be controlled is done so according to tradition. Techniques may differ by region or from palenque to palenque within the same region.
In preparation for a tasting, Patrick recommends trying agave distillates that are close in ABV, with an average of three to four different expressions or bottles per tasting. He cautions that any more than that and you are no longer able to decipher the flavor characteristics. So, head over to Duke’s or your local liquor store and explore what they have to offer! We hope we were able to shed some light on these fascinating, complicated and mysterious spirits.
Sabrina + Gabriel
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