Distillery Focus

Mexican Terroir

It’s easy to think only of agave when Mexico comes to mind, but this North American nation is also home to some of the planet’s most unique and flavourful corn
By Liza Weisstuch
The core Abasolo whisky expression. Photo Credit: Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky
The core Abasolo whisky expression. Photo Credit: Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky
The story about Mexican whisky that you’re about to read would have turned out very differently if Iván Saldaña wasn’t infatuated with agave. For Iván, distiller of Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky, making whisky in Mexico is just another chapter in his epic exploration of how to bring an agricultural soul to spirits. For him, distilling is not just about honing technical skills and making great-tasting spirits. It’s about taming wild natural elements and displaying their flavours and workaday glories on an alternative stage. Sound whimsical? Absolutely, but this is no overwrought sales pitch. It’s the work of a committed, if not obsessive, scientist whose laboratory is Mexico’s vast landscape.

“My love for agave is love for understanding how it works, the chemistry of how plants bring flavour to spirit. I love white spirits; they show how to trap the soul of raw material and let it speak in the spirit,” Iván said. “That approach, of course, is plant biology. I’m a big believer that producing alcohol is an agricultural endeavor. Projects and brands have to be developed and invented in partnership with farmers. Once you figure out how to put the right agronomical knowledge behind a product, then you’ll be able to bring an extraordinary and unique place-of-origin story to it.”

Iván, who’s from Jalisco, holds a PhD from University of Sussex in evolutionary biology – the evolutionary biology of agave, to be specific. He studied metabolism of agave leaves and investigated how they absorb carbon dioxide then convert it into particular sugars. He talks about esoteric aspects of plant physiology with the unfettered ease of a bartender cataloguing the beers he has on tap. He breaks down complex science to a highly unscientific person like myself with effortlessness, a surefire sign of not just his profound knowledge of the topic, but his passion for it. After an hour-plus-long phone conversation with him, songbirds chirping in his garden all the while, I found myself actually having a grip – albeit a very, very light one – on why agave plants absorb CO2 in the middle of the night. It has something to do with the plant losing water as it sucks in CO2, and needing that water more during sunlight. Or not. It’ll take many more conversations with Iván before I actually tighten my grip on my understanding. Meantime, I’m content to just trust his explanation of turpenes, the molecules plants create for self-defence that happen to affect how they taste and smell.
The Abasolo site.

After finishing his PhD in 2005, he had two choices: pursue a post-doc, or apply his agave knowledge to the most obvious real-world industry: Tequila. Though he admits that while embedded in the trenches of academia he considered the alcohol industry ‘lame and uninteresting’, he changed his mind after heeding the call of the agave fields back in Mexico. He took a job in research and development for Pernod Ricard near Mexico City, helming a high-tech lab with 87 employees – many of them engineers. He worked on Kahlúa and a few Pernod Tequilas, but he was always distracted by the idea of smaller, more hands-on production directly connected to farmers and their land.

Fully equipped with his knowledge of distilling, Iván and his business partners, partners, Moisés Guindi and Daniel Schneeweiss, founders of Tequila Milagro, created Casa Lumbre in 2010 and committed to making drinks celebrating the sensory and cultural heritage of Mexico. In 2011 they launched Montelobos mezcal and in 2013 they introduced Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, made from chillis from a particular region of Mexico. Then Iván became obsessed with corn, a plant so deeply woven into Mexico’s heritage that it plays a starring role in ancient Mayan creation stories. After six years of research, Abasolo launched in April 2020, mere weeks after the World Health Organization declared the then-novel coronavirus a global pandemic. But too much time, money and heart had been invested by that point to interrupt the plan. Thankfully, a savvy social media campaign, combined with bartenders stuck at home with time to scroll, helped get it off the ground.

Abasolo is not a whisky made in Mexico that distinguishes itself by distilling local corn. That’s been done before. It’s a Mexican whisky, and that intent is evidenced by the fact that his distillery is the first built for the express purpose of making whisky. Iván was not aiming to replicate familiar processes, like sour mash, or simulate studies of climate-related barrel ageing. He was, and is, committed to making something that captures the heritage and terroir of this ancient land. The former he does through studying agriculture, geography and anthropology, the latter through understanding chemistry and exploring ancient culinary traditions.
Abasolo’s striking architecture.

Iván estimates that he experimented with more than a dozen strains of corn before deciding on cacahuazintle, a variety that grows exclusively in the foothills of the Nevado de Toluca volcano, near Mexico City, about 2,000 metres above sea level. It’s commonly used in pozole, the traditional full-bodied Mexican soup. Like many American distillers who have turned their attention to heritage corn, Iván is emphatic about opting for flavour over yield, which is often the priority when distilling with cheap commodity corn. Since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, Mexico has imported increasing amounts of American corn for less than the cost of local corn. This threatens Mexican corn’s genetic diversity and the livelihood of small farmers. In supporting what Iván describes as “fair, authentic, exciting farming” and keeping cacahuazintle in use, he can help perpetuate ancient corn varieties and keep the risk of monocrops at bay.

“There’s a wonderful variety of corn that’s losing market and with this whisky it can continue being grown. We can expand its geography. It’s keeping tradition alive,” he said, launching into an explanation about the cultural importance of corn and how it was born from a different plant and bred over through thousands of years. Over that time, different varieties adapted in different geographical regions. “We wanted to honour a corn that’s such an important element in the economic and historic life of Mesoamerica.”

What makes Abasolo stand out among the growing realm of world whisky happens before fermentation when the corn is nixtamalized, an ancestral technique borrowed from generations of Mexican cooks – high-end chefs and roadside taco slingers alike. The corn is soaked in an alkaline solution, which causes the husk to disintegrate and unlocks a distinguishing floral sweetness in the corn. Then the grains are dehydrated in a mechanism that looks like a huge coffee roaster and ground into a fine powder for fermentation. It’s the same process for making masa, the corn flour used to make tortillas and tamales. Abasolo’s spirit is aged in used barrels, not charred, allowing the corn sweetness to shimmer.
“You have to honour the corn; you have to build it a temple. We wanted the corn – the raw material – to be the centrepiece of this whisky, not the barrel. In traditional whisky, wood is the main story, but we’re changing certain concepts,” said Iván. “People have to drink it with an open mind and try it without prejudice of what they think something has to be.” He’s also producing Nixta Licor de Elote, a liqueur made from a mash of tender corn macerated in alcohol. (Whisky, which has a more defined backbone, is made from harder corn.)
Casks maturing at Abasolo.

Abasolo’s flavour is very much its own. It is a new-world whisky in the most straightforward sense. It doesn’t look nostalgically and longingly to ancestral whiskies that dominated history. Its purpose is planting its own roots, weaving them into a landscape where agricultural roots have been tended for millennia. If you’ve ever been in Mexico City on a warm, hazy night and walked past street-food vendors, steam rising from their minimalist grills, the nose will take you to that moment immediately. It’s all roasty, bright and buttery corn notes, ears of elote glistening with butter and crema fresca, handed to you by a woman who’s been perfecting the char on those individual kernels for decades. The maize asserts its strong hold on the palate, delivering earthy vanilla, milky cocoa, sweet-green vegetal notes and just the slightest trace of wood. Though by no means smoky, there’s a subtle smoulder sprinkled lightly with white pepper, but not enough to sabotage the juicy summer sweet-corn soul.
Bartenders have taken that and run with it. Miami-based bartender Josué Gonzalez, who works for Unfiltered Hospitality, an experience-focused consulting company for brands and bars, and holds the cheeky title ‘director of culture’ at the trendy, fresh ingredient–focused Sylvester Bar, applauds Abasolo’s versatility.

“It’s a good spirit for split-base cocktails. If you use it with another whisky in a cocktail, it’ll give the drink complexity and roundness. It really plays to the corn, so it can complement some notes of Tequila. The whisky flavour dissipates and it can take over as a seasoning,” he said. And he went on: mix it with gin and it acts like a corn botanical. It could even be a tiki component in a rum drink, or be used to split the base of a rum drink.

As Covid-related restrictions hopefully lift in the coming months and bar-going resumes, chances are people will welcome the opportunity to try new flavours – making Abasolo primed for takeoff. Iván says that line extensions are in the works, though, not surprisingly, he’s vague on details. “In the future, we want to widen how corn tastes in other contexts,” Iván said. “We have a serious ageing program and also a distilling program. Our distillery is about exploring corn completely.”